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13 free things to do this summer

On a budget? A bit of insider knowledge (open gardens, cultural gems, a free festival...) is all you need. Here's 13 free things to do this summer in Berks and beyond.

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.

Check out someone else’s dahlias

OLD CAMPS HEADLEY WISTERIA

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 Old Camps (7-8 Aug), pictured, Rookwood Farm House (30 Aug) and Stockcross House (30 Aug & 5 Sep) in Berks, Aston Pottery (21-22 Aug) in Oxon, Blounce House in Hants (28 Jul & 1 Aug) and The Old Mill in Wilts (22 Aug).

Run amok in natural history and culture

Reading Museum Silchester Gallery glass displays deer head stair case
Reading Museum Silchester Annexe

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; while 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. I’m a fan of West Berkshire Museum in Newbury, which is running lots of kids activities over the summer (not free but many are a super reasonable £2.) The Aylesbury-based Bucks County Museum currently has a free exhibition The Beautiful Stitch, as well as it’s fantastic new Dinosaurs Uncovered exhibit (again, not free, but at £3.30 for kids, £3.75 for adults, it’s great value). 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

Angie-Mack-street-minis 1000x666

It’s back for the 32nd year and just in time to save the sanity of frazzled parents. Reading Children’s Festival will be cranking up the fun at Forbury Gardens from Sat 31 Jul to Sun 22 Aug – and it’s totally FREE. There’s kids entertainment, circus workshops, theatre workshops, creative challenges, sports, music and more Click here for the full programme.

Atteeeeeeenshun! March to the guards

CHANGING OF THE GUARDS WINDSOR

The Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle was put on hold during lockdown, but it’s back and you can see this very British tradition 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.

Go for a ramble

Windsor Castle Long Walk

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. Many more stunning walks with pubs nearby in our guide here.

Carve out some art time

We all know that many art galleries are free and yet… can you remember when you last went? Us neither. But there is no time like the present. Top of our list for a mosey around is the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham. Its current exhibition, Love, Art, Loss: The Wives of Stanley Spencer, looks the impact his two wives had on his work (under 16s go free with an adult). Many of us live in the countryside but don’t have a scooby about rural life. This summer head to the MERL in Reading. Loads of kids of activities including the Woodland Brass Rubbings Trail and new Edible England collection. The Base in Greenham Common won our Best Art Gallery in Berkshire award in 2019 and operates as a creative hub for local artists with a fantastic café. It’s currently running a brilliant interactive exhibition – Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered – on loan from London’s V&A. Under 5s go free, adults £7.50 and under 18s £6.

Tap up some regional heritage

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, just voted the second most Instagrammed NT property in the UK, 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 and the Anthony Caro sculptures to explore, it’ll wear out any irritable, screen-saturated children. Basildon Park (an  architectural TV and film star) has 400 acres for free range  kids with a Wild Play Trail and a new En Vogue exhibition for fashion conscious kids. 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 TheWillows 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 10 perfect picnic spots.

Pick your own fruit and veggies

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.

 Walk among the dreaming spires

Image: Exeter College

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.

Take the kids to catch a show 

Come From Away
Olivier award-winning Come From Away at the Pheonix Theatre in London

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 Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Billionaire Boy, Dinosaur Live, Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain and the highly acclaimed Come From Away.

FURTHER AFIELD

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 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 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.

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