50 free things to do this summer
Money too tight to mention right now? Here's a ton of ideas for a day out with mates, family or solo - from art and artefacts to adrenaline rush bike rides and a funky festival.
According to Instagram, the world and its dog is whooping it up in Polzeath or Greece. But if you’re mindful that your holiday budget has been prematurely consumed by the summer sales and 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.
NOSEY AT SOMEONE ELSE’S BEDS
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 you can pick up clever border design ideas while sending a few quid (normally around £5) to highly worthy charities such as MacMillan. We’re keen to pop along to Wembury in Maidenhead (2 Aug, 6 Sep), St Timothee in Pinkneys Green (4 Aug, pictured), King’s Copse House in Bradfield Gate (7 Aug), The Old Rectory in Burghfield (17 Aug) in Berks, Danesfield House in Marlow (3 Aug) in Oxon, Wheatley House in Hants (20-21 Aug) and The Duck Pond Barn in Wilts (7 Aug).
FREE HISTORY LESSONS
Turns out you’re never too old to draw some wonder from drawers of preserved beetles and butterflies and the occasional stuffed deer. Reading Museum, with its full size Victorian copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, has more than its fair share of stuffed animals, art and biscuits. Eton College’s Natural History Museum (17,000+ exhibits) and the West Berkshire Museum with its Greenham Common Peace Camp collection and Woolly Mammoth tusks are a fascinating and free way to spend an hour (donations are welcome). They also run lots of kids activities over the summer (not free but many are a super reasonable £2.)
Art, History and Politics lesson rolled into one. Runnymede is home to the Magna Carta, the cornerstone of liberty, democracy and freedom. Speaking for all us right now. Head to the ancient Ankerwycke Yew (rumoured to be the spot where Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn), Hew Locke’s art installation of 12 engraved bronze chairs, The Jurors and the JFK Memorial – set in a acre of land that is officially US soil. School’s out, without doubt it’s an interesting stroll.
The Romans are coming! Well actually they have been and gone. But head over to the village of Silchester and you’ll find one of Berkshire’s hidden gems – the Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre. After the Roman conquest of AD 43 it became the large and important town of Calleva Atrebatum. Unlike most Roman towns, it was never re-occupied or built over after it was abandoned in the 6th or 7th century. The complete circuit of the Roman walls and remains of the amphitheatre still stand.
Greenham Control Tower is under the radar (pardon the pun) attraction well worth a visit. After sitting unused for almost three decades, the 1950s Military Control Tower has been restored as a visitor centre and community café. See the history of the tower, visit our observation deck and a cuppa and cake. Open Wed-Fri, 10.30am-3pm and Sat-Sun 10am-4.30pm,
A little further afield, The National History Museum‘s outpost in Tring is a fascinating and free way to spend an hour (donations are welcome). Head to Oxford for the The Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museum, both packed full of ancient treasures and fine art. 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 and Science Museum offer floors of entertainment for zero pence.
FESTIVAL OF FREE FUN
The tree giants are returning to Bracknell (24 Aug-4 Sep) – and they’re bring a couple of pals too. Two new giants join the Forest Guardians team this year at The Lexicon. It’s a largely free event, to get us outdoors and closer to nature. While you’re mooching around the shops meet the five giants, follow the Seedling Sprite Trail, there’s immersive theatrical journey into The Night Forest (£5pp), entertainers and a special The Lexicon Fifth Birthday Proms on Sat 3 Sep.
Ever wondered what’s takes to produce a play from script to stage? The brilliant Progress Theatre will fling open its doors on 13 Aug (12pm-5pm) for a free open event for anyone interested in learning about putting on a show. From lighting and set design to costuming and production, this is a free event to learn more about how you can get involved in Progress Theatre productions. You’ll find them at The Mount in Reading, just off Christchurch Road. Annnnnnd… ACTION.
Fancy an arty day out among flowers? From 30 July – 25 Sep, The Altered States Sculpture exhibition is displaying at Shaw House in a celebration of local art and artists – and it’s totes FREE toe ter. The artworks on show cover a range of scales and materials including stone, metal and ceramics, and will also be available to purchase if any catch your fancy.
Chalkfest is back in 2022 – an opportunity to get creative and pretty the pavements of Newbury (and save your own floors). This free event (8 Aug, 10am-4pm) is lead by City Arts. You’ll be allocated a space on Market Place for you to go wild with your chalks. All ages welcome and there’s the opportunity to enter to get competitive for £1.
Dream of being the next Harry Styles or fancy rocking out on the guitar, drums of bassoon? Berkshire Maestros offers all ages little and large free taster sessions for anyone keen to learn an instrument or sing. Book online and use the code FREETASTER in the note box to claim the offer.
DOING IT FOR THE KIDS
Whether you’re there for the meatballs, or just trying to pick up frames, candles or flatpack, Ikea and kids don’t often mix… until now. The Swedish furniture giant is putting on loads of creative free activities at its Reading store this summer. Enter the Young Designer competition, every Saturday there’s Face Painting and Balloon Modelling, Make Your Own Kite (28 July, 4 and 11 Aug), Decorate Your Dream House (now – 14 Aug), Messy Modelling (27 July – 10 Aug) a Jungle Quest and more.
Kill a bit of time at Norden Farm’s Summer Treasure Hunt (until 25 Aug). Follow the clues around the building to complete Michael Rosen’s sea-inspired poem Over My Toes and then get creative composing your own poems and pictures. The treasure hunt is tactile and you can scan a QR code at the end to listen to Michael Rosen reading his poem.
This way to the beach… feel the sand between your toes at Cobbs Farm Hungerford. The beach (aka giant sandpit) is open for summer and free to use for Cobbs Farm customers. Access is via the Farm Shop or Play Barn and do not miss the opportunity to grab a milkshake or ice cream from the Bus Café which is open Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
The Changing of the Guard is a very British tradition that takes place every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 11am. The new guard set off from Victoria Barracks on Sheet Street and march through the Town Centre to the Queen’s des res. The Changing the Guard ceremony takes place at 11am inside the castle and the old guard head back to barracks at 11.25am. Always a fabulous site that brings this royal town to a standstill.
ON YER BIKE
Dust the cobwebs off that old mountain bike you’ve been hiding in the shed and get out in the woods. Swinley Forest in Bracknell has a number of free trails to suit beginners and more advanced riders. Although you have to pay for parking, use of the trails will not cost you a penny. There’s also a free children’s woodland play area and several walks marked out – the Forest Walk, the Heritage Trail, The Nature Trail and Ramblers Route
GO FOR A RAMBLE
Make the most of summer by stomping through the Queen’s backyard. Start at the castle gates at the end of Park Street and walk to the Copper Horse – an imperiously camp statue of (mad) King George III on horseback. It’s a 2.64 mile-long stretch down the chestnut tree-lined Long Walk, flanked by grazing deer. Your reward? Panoramic views back to Heathrow, Wembley, west London and the Windsor Castle money shot. The round trip takes 2-3 hours, so make the most of the nearby watering holes including Bel and the Dragon.
At the opposite end of the county, you’ll find the striking twin-towered gatehouse of Donnington Castle Perched on a hill overlooking the Lambourn Valley, it’s a landmark that’ll entice the most reluctant walkers to put one foot in front of the other. Pack a picnic and enjoy the circular stomp takes in Snelsmore Common, woodland and the castle ruins (a bigger player in the Civil War) and rumour has it Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both stayed here. Free entry, parking £2. There are more stunning walks with pubs nearby in our guide here.
GET ARTY FARTY
now that many art galleries are free and yet… can you remember when you last went? There is no time like the present. Top of our list for a mosey around is the MERL in Reading. Loads of kids of activities including Biscuit 200 exhibition and a focus on Care – including the climate crisis, guarding green space, the future of farming and food security.
For something a bit more sophisticated, check out the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham. Its current exhibition, Delight in Natures, looks at the nature and the Cookham landscape influenced Spencer’s work (under 16s go free with an adult).
Hop to The Base Greenham for The World of Peter Rabbit Storytime Trail from 30 July-25 Sep. This is a magical walk-through experience aimed at under 7s who will be immersed into Peter’s world as they crawl under the garden gate, hide in a watering can and see their reflection in a mirror pool. Photo opps and crafting aplenty. OK, Under 1s go free. Under 16s £5. Adults £6.50. Alternatively you can check out the work of The Base’s resident artists without needing to splash the cash.
FIND PERIOD DRAMA
Ah, the National Trust where children under 5 go free and frazzled parents weep quietly in gratitude. Sanctuary of the bored, saviour of many a wet weekend. And this August will be no different. Cliveden was home to a Prince of Wales, two Dukes, an Earl, the party loving Astors, and the setting for the Profumo Affair. With 375 acres of gardens, woodland, a maze many garden sculptures to explore, it’ll wear out any irritable, screen-saturated children. Basildon Park (an architectural star of the big and small screens) has 400 acres for free range kids with den building, ball runs and hill rolling to enjoy. Just over the Bucks border The Gardens at Stowe has 250 acres to explore and simultaneously tire out little legs. Other NT favourites of mine include Greys Court in Henley, The Vyne near Basingstoke. Go visit them all!
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 Dinton Pastures in Hurst and enjoy the green space, lake with play park and water activity centre. Do as little or as much as you like. Pangbourne Meadows allows you to stare dreamily across the water (a spot loved by Wind In The Willows author Kenneth Grahame), while ignoring the wasps attacking your ice lolly. Prefer to picnic in a park? The recently refurbished Forbury Gardens and Abbey Ruins in Reading are lovely town centre spots. Be there, done those? Here’s Muddy’s 15 perfect picnic spots.
PICK YOUR OWN
Gray’s Farm in Wokingham is the biggie in our ‘hood for hand picked punnets (eyes peeled for the giant strawberry). 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. In season at the moment are strawberries, raspberries, potatoes, broad beans, blackberries, plus it’s a great way to coax the kids into eating something healthy (mwa-ha-ha!). Other PYO hotspots include Cobbs Farm Shop in Hungerford and Copas Farm in Cookham. If you prefer flowers to fruit, click here for more PYO perfection.
Want to give the kids something to aim for? Head to Oxford and spend the afternoon strolling around the University Colleges that are open to the public to subliminally implant your expectations for their academic achievements! Or, if you’re happy with them just being happy, you could just wonder at the architecture and immaculate lawns while hearing about the illustrious alumni such as Sir Christopher Wren, J. R. R. Tolkein and… Dr Seuss.
CATCH A SHOW
Sometimes, when it’s bucketing down and the children are wrecking the house, all you need to do is put them in the car and take them to another building so they can wreck that instead. So why not choose one of London’s eminent theatres, which have the added benefit of not only being robust but home to some high quality entertainment. Kids Week lasts for the whole of August, which allows one child under the age of 17 to watch a production for free as long as they’re accompanied by a full-paying adult. And up to two other children can benefit from a half-price ticket. Participating shows include Grease The Musical, Frozen, The Great Gatsby, Horrible Histories’ Terrible Tudors and the highly acclaimed Sister Act.
SKY’S THE LIMIT
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 one hour session strolling around 20 Fenchurch Street’s Sky Garden – a lush green space atop of The City’s ‘Walkie Talkie’ skyscraper . The next of limited tickets are available on Monday 19 August and we strongly recommend booking a weekend ticket as the extended opening times mean you may just catch the sunset. Weather permitting.
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 £4.50 but children under 16 go free), and you will be rewarded with glorious acres of heavily 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.