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Meeting outdoors? Try these local activities

There's been so much walking. There's been so much mud. But now, finally, it's time to embrace other outdoor activities that don't involve dragging children around a boggy field. Rejoice!

Walking is sooo Lockdown #3. Come 29 March, we’re ready for some new outdoors activities with friends or family in tow. Here are some fresh ideas for outdoor meet-ups that suit all ages and groups.

SWING THROUGH THE TREES

High rope courses are open again from 29 March and are a fab option for a reunion to remember whether you’re aged 6 or 66. The are Go Ape courses at Wendover Woods and Black Park are open from 29 March and the Treetop Extreme course at Willen Lake near Milton Keynes is taking bookings from 31 March. The Wendover option is great for groups of mixed ages because it has woodland bike, walking and running trails and the new Wendover Woods Café with a warming takeaway menu. Those who’d rather keep their feet on the floor could try a Nordic Walking session with Ridgeway Nordic Walking – definitely the easier option for a good old chinwag. The Gruffalo Activity Trail will also keep the minis amused.

WATERSPORTS

Hardy souls might consider the spring sunshine an invitation to don a wetsuit (or not, if you’re totally bonkers) and hit the water… it’s all yours, ladies. Open water swimming, the runaway sporty success story of the pandemic, is on at Berinsfield’s Queenford Lake from 29 March. Swim times include early morning, evening and weekend slots. Timings and procedures to be announced but keep an eye on the Facebook page for the latest. The lakeside café, The Wandering Kitchen is on hand with hot drinks and butties for the support crew on the bank. Willen Lake at Milton Keynes is another open water swimming not-so-hot-spot with sessions running on Saturday and Sunday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Or there’s swimming at four of the lakes at the Cotswold Water Park and at Marlow Open Water (pictured) from 3 April.

If the sub 20 degree water has you reaching for the Dry Robe perhaps an adventure atop the water is more your style. There’s kayaking and canoeing galore in Oxon and Bucks thanks to the many lakes and rivers. One is Thrupp Canoe and Kayak, just outside Kidlington, from where you can explore the Oxford canal and River Cherwell. It is accepting bookings in advance (no walk-ins) and Annie’s tea room is open for a warming cuppa afterwards (currently Fri-Sun only) while The Boat Inn is expected to open from 17 April if you’re in more of a G&T kinda mood. Watersports are very much a go at Willen Lake (pictured) with windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, pedalos and wakeboarding all possible from 29 March – so that’s every activity level catered for. You’re running out of excuses…

MESSING ABOUT IN BOATS

If travelling under your own steam sounds like too much distraction from the important business of catching up, you could hire an electric boat. Wallingford’s Pure Boating is taking bookings from 3 April with boats for up to 11 people that you can drive down to Benson Lock or towards Moulsford. What better way to arrive at the Beetle and Wedge, two hours downstream, than on the water (though you’ll have to wait until they reopen their pods and terrace from 12 April if you’re hoping for riverside dining and a drink).  Boats cost from £55 for an hour. From 1 April, Hobbs of Henley (pictured) is also opening up its self-drive fleet, or if you’re really looking for the easy option, take a cruise and let someone else take the strain. Another boat hire option is Benson’s AV Boats which is starting up its kayak, paddleboard and electric boat hire from 12 April (with a new second site opening in Abingdon). Boats cost from £85 for two hours and take four or 10 people. If you’re ready for liveaboard life, Cotswold Boat Hire will offer shortbreaks on self-hire boats from 12 April or for baby steps try the day hire boats from 2 April costing upwards of £60 for two hours.

PARK LIFE

Oxford Botanic Garden

Are you overly familiar with every blade of grass in your local park? Of course you are. So here’s where to head for a change of scene. Oxford Botanic Gardens (pictured) has been open to locals all lockdown and provides a very verdant afternoon out for those utterly bored of their own backyard. Nearby, Cutteslowe and Sunnymede Park on Oxford’s northern stretches, boasts a miniature park railway (run by The City of Oxford Society of Model Engineers Ltd.), three play parks, a geocache trail and table tennis tables, among various other delights. There’s also the Oxford’s Public Art trail to consider, should you find yourself in the city with a mind to do something vaguely cultural.

Milton Keynes can also claim to be home to some excellent municipal green areas. Campbell Park – laid out as a cultural centre point for the city – has water features, public art, cycling trails and the Grand Union Canal running through it – plus the famous Light Pyramid (pictured). Stanton Low Park has ruins of the old Stantonbury Manor and church and nearby Great Linford Manor Park is still home to the manor’s water garden.

If you prefer to get out of the city, Wellington Country Park is due to open from 12 April – along with it’s animal farm, jumping pillow and miniature train – while Shotover Country Park, northeast of Oxford’s outer reaches, has a geocache trail and sandpit, should the holidays bless us with warm weather.

GAMBOL AROUND THE GREAT PILES

Waddesdon Manor

Some of the region’s big houses have been welcoming visitors on their garden and grounds over lockdown (Cliveden, Stowe, Hughenden, Waddesdon, Greys Court, Blenheim) and will continue to do so but others will be using the Easter weekend to open officially for the year. If you’re missing some Palladian splendour, West Wycombe Park is opening its grounds on 1 April (tickets go live 26 March) and likewise, Buscot Park, is welcoming visitors to the gardens and grounds from the same date, 2pm to 6pm only. Stonor Park is opening its grounds for the first time in 2021 on 2 April and if you fancy taking the kiddies to the estate’s new adventure playground Tumblestone Hollow, you’ll definitely need to book tickets before rocking up.

The National Trust is expecting a visitor surge for the Easter weekend so is asking people to book early via the website from 26 March – and in fact, you apply that principle to nearly every private venue too. And if you want to swerve the Easter hols entirely, Chenies Manor is opening on 19 April (Mon and Tues only).

ADVENTURE PLAYGROUNDS

Exhausted and happy kids, you say? I spy an easy bedtime coming right up. Stonor is a fine choice to run your offspring into the ground as it is opening its magical new Tumblestone Hollow (above) adventure playground on 2 April – tickets, however, are essential. Waddesdon, too, has an amazing outdoor playpark, open 10am to 5pm (entry is included with tickets) while Black Park in South Bucks (free to enter) has an extensive and enclosed park right next to the cafe (takeaway, naturally) so you can sit and watch the kids bomb around while taking 30 minutes to nurse a latte. The Leys Recreation Ground in Witney is fab for primary age kids while the South Oxfordshire Adventure Playground is for children aged 7 and over. Up in the Cotswolds, Kilkenny Lane Country Park has an adventure trail that will keep them in high spirits and shedding excess energy for hours.

RUN THE RUINS

Hide and seek was made for dilapidated churches and hours of play can be squeezed out of a sunny day and some tumbled-down walls, I kid you not. In Oxfordshire, Wallingford Castle (above) is opening on 1 April while the Abbey Buildings (and next door gardens) at Abingdon are open all year round. Godstow Abbey is worth a trip too, especially as the nearby gastropub The Trout Inn is opening for al fresco drinks and dining on 12 April.

Want to involve some woodland with your prodding of old dwellings? Well, the earthwork remains of Boddington Hill Fort are nestled deep in Wendover Woods and there’s plenty of opportunity to incorporate some Iron Age role-play as your children hide behind fallen trees and leap down steep banks. Loads of fun, even with stick swords.

CLIMB THE (CLIMBING) WALLS

Sick of the kids clambering across the sofa and over the banister? Well, pack up the car and get them shimmying up a bona fide climbing wall instead. The outdoor climbing tower and bouldering area at Far Peak, just off the A40 on the way to Cheltenham, is due to reopen on 29 March, followed by the indoor areas of the climbing centre a couple of weeks later. So good news for anyone who has been longing to scale the walls. (And that’s all of us then, right??)

MUSEUMS (SORT OF)

Museums and galleries have their hands tied at the moment but by virtue of being outside, the fabulous Chiltern Open Air Museum is opening its grounds and gardens on 26 March (although the shop will not be trading until 12 April). And while the Roald Dahl Museum cannot yet usher visitors in its doors, the Roald Dahl village trail and countryside trail are available to follow, just download the trail instructions here. Bekonscot, Beaconsfield’s charming model village – again, outside – is opening again on 12 April but tickets go on sale from 26 March – booking is a must. Likewise, the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre is flinging its doors wide on 14 April but tickets are available now as they’re expected to be snapped up. Over in Oxford, Waterperry Gardens (above) is now open along with the shop and tearooms for takeaway but the gallery, museum and shop remain closed for the foreseeable.

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