If the purse strings are tighter this year and you’re wondering how on earth you might elicit some joy from the next few weeks, you’re in the same boat as us. Precisely why we’ve been rummaging through the internet for free things to do. Light of pocket but still pumped for summer fun? Look no further.
Check out someone else’s dahlias
The National Garden Scheme sees over 3,500 private gardens in England and Wales open for charity – adults pay but children go free. This is brilliant for two reasons: firstly, you can indulge in a bit of real-life garden porn (begone Right Move), and secondly you can pick up clever border design ideas whilst sending a few quid (normally around £4) to highly worthy charities such as MacMillan. In Oxon we’re keen to pop to Aston Pottery (above) in Bampton (21 & 22 Aug), Chivel Farm near Chipping Norton (15 Aug) and Christ Church Masters’, Pocock & Cathedral Gardens in Oxford (4 Sept). Whilst in Bucks there’s Danesfield House in Marlow (4 August) and Ascott in Leighton Buzzard (30 Aug). Check to see if booking is essential.
Get your arty fix
Big up our lovely local museums and galleries! Oxford’s excellent Ashmolean has free general admission to their displays of European art and pottery throughout history, and is always worth a visit. (Particular shoutout to the current display of Greek pottery honouring different dog breeds). On over at the Modern Art Oxford is New Liberia, an exhibition by artist Samson Kambalu sparked by the global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. This exhibit playfully imagines a utopian world of international racial justice, and is free to enter (although requires pre-booking).
South-east of Oxford is Albion Fields, a new 50 acre sculpture park offering an acclaimed line-up of outdoor art pieces. The sculptures are for sale but visiting is free, and since much of the park has been rewilded, it’s also just an insanely beautiful place — mega bucolic vibes. Want more of this sort of thing? Check out the best of outdoor art in Bucks and Oxon.
Run amok in natural history and culture
Turns out you’re never too old to be dazzled by drawers of preserved beetles and butterflies and the occasional stuffed polar bear. The National History Museum’s outpost in Tring is a fascinating and free way to spend an hour (donations are welcome), while in our neck of the woods The Oxford Museum of Natural History is also free to enter (with pre-booking). You can currently catch their Meat The Future exhibit, which presents cutting-edge research on the environmental and health impacts of eating meat in a genuinely engaging, non-stuffy way.
Small museums can pack a real punch too – we’re a big fan of the Banbury Museum, which currently has on a nostalgia-fest exhibition called I Grew Up in the 80s, and the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock is lovely too, boasting an interactive dinosaur gallery and a current exhibit on Skeleton Science. The Aylesbury-based Bucks County Museum currently has a fantastic exhibition on Dinosaurs Uncovered, as well as the permanent Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery. Talking of RD, Great Missenden’s Roald Dahl Museum is free for children under five and, if you can stomach a train journey into London, the Wellcome Collection Science Museum offer floors of entertainment for zero pence.
Play al fresco tennis
Game, set and match! There are plenty of tennis clubs and leisure centres in our ends where you can pay to book a court for an hour but we’ve scoped out some free options: all you need to bring is a bat and ball. (Or balls, plural, if your serves are as wayward as ours). Oxon haunts include Hinksey Park, which has four courts available to play on, and Botley Park which has two (booking essential). Whilst over in High Wycombe, there are three courts at Desborough Recreation Ground which are first come, first served – head over for an early morning match to nab a court with no queues.
(See more sporting spots at our roundup of where to play tennis and golf in Bucks and Oxon)
Pack a picnic
Nothing says summer quite as much as a wicker basket packed full of strawberries, champagne and salmon sandwiches (or perhaps more likely, a bag-for-life with a box of sausage rolls, a can of coke and a couple of Kit Kats). And if you come prepared with umbrella, waterproofs and rainproof rug, you’ll have a good time whatever the weather throws at you. Head up to the top of Wendover Woods to make the most of the incredible views across to Buckinghamshire, while Abingdon Lock in Oxfordshire allows you to stare dreamily across the water, ignoring the wasps attacking your ice lolly. Read our guide to the loveliest picnic spots for ultimate al fresco inspo, then check out the best local delis ft. even more picnic spot inspo.
Tap up some regional heritage
Ah, the National Trust, where children under 5 go free and frazzled parents weep quietly in gratitude. Many of the gorgeous sites have opened their grounds for walks including Rothschild playground Waddesdon Manor, nr Aylesbury, which is basically a holiday to France, and the pretty Georgian landscaped gardens at Stowe, Bucks, (there’s 250 acres to explore and simultaneously tire out little legs). Muddy’s other NT favourites include Greys Court in Henley, Upton House & Gardens on the Oxon/Warks border, which has opened its Pavillion and café, plus there’s Stonor Park, nr Henley (not NT, but just as historic and pretty) where kids under 1 go free. The latter also has the benefit of offering the adventure playground to end all adventure playgrounds, where kids will happily while away hours. Check whether pre-booking is essential before visiting all venues.
Go for a ramble
Make the most of sunny days by stomping through our lush woodlands and undulating countryside. Head to Coombe Hill for extraordinary views of Buckinghamshire across the Aylesbury Vale and Chiltern Hills or see Oxfordshire’s answer to Stonehenge, The Rollright Stones, a collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in the Cotswolds. Check out more headline-worthy walks here.
Pick your own fruit and veggies
Rectory Farm, Stanton St John, is the main player in our ‘hood for piling hand-picked strawbs into punnets. It’s free to go and you only pay for what you pick which will, no doubt, be less than what you eat as you do the rounds. Or, over near Abingdon there’s Millets Farm Centre (not free but the £1.50 entry is redeemable against any fruit purchased). See our full list of where to PYO in Bucks and Oxon if you really want to go ham on the fruit.
See London from the Sky
There’s something utterly enthralling about scrutinising London from top down (“Look how close The Shard is to the London Eye!” “I never realised the river was so bendy!”) so you could do a lot worse than book yourself a free weekday session strolling around 20 Fenchurch Street’s Sky Garden – a lush green space atop of The City’s ‘Walkie Talkie’ skyscraper. Tickets are limited and competitive, but if you can we strongly recommend booking a weekend ticket, since the extended opening times mean you may just catch the sunset.
Run in fields of purple
It’s officially lavender season, and the seas of proud purple should stay in bloom until the end of August. Head to Mayfield Lavender Farm in Banstead, Surrey before then (adults cost £4 but children under 16 go free), and you will be rewarded with glorious acres of headily scented flowers – plus there’s a gift shop selling the farm’s organic lavender wares. A wonderful assault on the senses, and absolute gold (well, purple) for Instagram.