School holidays ahoy!
Got six weeks (plus) of childcare and family-friendly entertainment sorted out for the school summer holidays then? *Hollow laugh* yup, me neither. But I have ferreted out 10 great days out in Bucks and Oxon for your delectation and diary-planning pleasure. Well, it’s a start, isn’t it? And even your resident Kevin the Teenager will surely like something here. Wallet? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Valium and hip-flask? Check. Let’s go.
The Henley hang
You can definitely make a day of it in the chichi south Oxon town. Start off at the River & Rowing Museum. There’s free parking for museum visitors and if you’ve got a Tracey Beaker bookworm in your household, you should make a beeline for their summer exhibition of TB illustrator Nick Sharratt’s colourful drawings. There’s a decent park and children’s playground nearby to let off steam after all that culture-based concentration. Salty sailor types can hire a boat at Hobbs Of Henley and once you’ve finished messing around on the river, seek sustenance from Muddy fave The Bull on Bell St or Coppa Club for stylish all-day dining.
All the (outside) world’s a stage
If you like to accessorize your culture fix with a picnic, check out one of the many child-friendly outdoor theatrical experiences around this summer, including Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Swallows & Amazons, The Midnight Gang and The Railway Children. Get the lowdown in our guide to outdoor theatre here. For younger kids, and if it – whisper it – rains, head indoors for Tiddler & Other Terrific Tales with characters from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Tiddler, Monkey Puzzle, The Smartest Giant in Town and A Squash and a Squeeze at at the Oxford Playhouse 22 – 25 Aug.
Extreme sports in Milton Keynes
Hyper teens driving you mad? Bundle them off Xscape in MK for the day. There’s loads of activities to keep ’em out of trouble – they can hone their snowboarding and skiing skills at Snozone, channel The Big Lebowski at Hollywood Bowl, play virtual reality games at Rush VR or try indoor ski-diving at iFly (see my review here). Eat at Pizza Express, Wagamama or chirpy, good value Mexican Cocina (review here). Craving sunlight? Milton Keynes’ not-so-secret weapon is the 100 acre Willen Lake – an excellent outdoor foil to the indoor delights of Xscape, with its massive watersports offering and miles of walks and tracks.
Got kids who love all things furry, creepy and crawly? Cotswold Wildlife Park near Burford is a great way to get close to both the big guns (lions, giraffes, rhinos) and the little fellas (penguins, lemurs and reptiles). There’s also a cute railway, adventure playground and children’s farmyard. Alternatively, Whipsnade Zoo with its hilltop location near Dunstable, is Britain’s largest zoo. It has serious conservation credentials but is geared towards children with summer activities including a Superhero Academy, zoo keeper experiences and camping in the grounds. Prefer them when they don’t move? (Animals not children, I mean. Although…) Head to the Natural History Museum’s Tring outpost – far quieter than its London counterpart – to wander galleries of stuffed animals, birds and insects. The private collection of Lionel Walter Rothschild was gifted to the nation on his death and it’s an impressive if somewhat macabre display. It’s in the centre of Tring, so there’s plenty of lunch options nearby.
Bomb around Black Park
I’m always surprised how few people know about this South Bucks park between Slough and Iver Heath. Although being slightly under the radar during the busy school holidays can obviously be a good thing. There’s certainly plenty of space – 500 acres of woodland and heathland zigzagged with tracks and trails. There’s a lake (with café), an adventure playground for little ‘uns, a treetop play area for older ones and a Go Ape for zipwire japes (for those aged 10+). Want more woodland? The gorgeous Burnham Beeches is close by.
Go wild for Waddesdon Manor
The Bucks National Trust property and grounds near Aylesbury may look grandiose but it’s a good bet for children, and you can easily make a day of it. Alongside the various outdoor wooded playground areas, extensive lawns to loll around on and the aviary, there’s a summer holiday activity programme involving interactive trails – details were tba at time of writing but keep an eye on the website. Feeling civilized? Afternoon tea at the Five Arrows hotel by the main gate is rather splendid and an oasis of calm away from the crowds.
Culture vulture stuff in Oxford
If your kids still get motivated enough by stickers and small prizes (such as temporary tattoos or seed bombs), then this family campaign to encourage kids into Oxford’s cultural hotspots could be just the ticket. Grab a passport from the information desk at The Ashmolean, Museum of Natural History, Pitt Rivers, Museum of the History of Science, Harcourt Arboretum, Bodleian Library or Botanic Garden and each time you visit get a sticker. Three stickers equals prizes – either a temporary tattoo or a ‘seed’ pencil to plant in the ground and turn into flowers of herbs (there are 7 varieties: basil, coriander, thyme, daisy, sunflower, forget-me-not, cherry tomato). How cute is that? Plus potentially useful if your current herb garden, like mine, has shrivelled in the heat.
Lesser-spotted heritage hotspots
There are castles and stately homes aplenty in our neck of the woods but we often make a beeline for the usual suspects. Time to try something different? The privately owned 14th century Broughton Castle, above, is a few miles outside Banbury and though not grand like Warwick or a romantic ruin like Corfe it’s right up there with my favourite heritage hot spots. It feels un-touristy and doable – because some days you’re just not in the mood to slog around a castle for six hours, right? Then there’s Upton House which Lord and Lady Bearsted made their country home in 1927, Chastleton House, near Moreton-in-Marsh, which, with its links to the Gunpowder Plot, the Jacobite rebellion and Bonnie Prince Charlie, is a history lesson in the offing. But if you’d rather just have fun, it’s also home to the game of croquet. Grey’s Court near Henley is another beautiful manor house with the feel of a family home, plus a great kids’ play area with den-building and story-telling throughout the holidays. Also near Henley is Stonor House with its stunning deer park, Wonder Woods adventure play area and, on Friday afternoons during the summer holidays, pony rides.
Algae in the paddling pool and bored of the sprinkler? It’s time to seek out some further afield water-based fun. We’ve rounded up the best lidos, waterparks and spots for messing around on the river here. Or if you’re into open-water swimming en famille, here are our favourite local spots. Alternatively, gotta love a beach jaunt – here are some that are doable from Bucks and Oxon on a day trip.
Battling it out
Battlefield LIVE in Culham Adventure Park, near Abingdon is a great choice for luring teenagers out into the daylight and away from computer games (it’s also one to bookmark for birthday parties). Set in 50 acres of woodland on a disused army base, it has seven different gaming areas, peppered with ammo buildings, aircraft shelters and even a downed helicopter. If they spend most of the summer hols fighting with their siblings, then why not channel it into something more constructive, I say. You can always hide in the car park and read your Kindle. Good lunch spots nearby would include The Crown & Thistle in Abingdon, or The Mole Inn in nearby Toot Baldon.