10 free things to do
It may be looking distinctly changeable outside and the summer funds might be running low but there is still plenty to squeeze out of summer in Berkshire and further afield.
According to Instagram, the world and its dog is whooping it up in Mykonos. 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.
1 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 you can pick up clever border design ideas while sending a few quid (normally around £4) to highly worthy charities such as MacMillan. We’re keen to pop into Rookwood Farm House in Newbury (26 Aug), Aston Pottery near Bampton, Oxon, on 25 and 26 Aug and Dipley Mill in Hook (pictured above) on 1 and 29 Sept. See you there.
2 Run amok in natural history and culture
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 ROBOTS exhibit (again, not free, but at £2.50 for kids, £3.50 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.
3 Go for a ramble
Make the most of the last days 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.
4 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 with its new exhibit Counterpoint – a celebration of modern art including works by Spencer and a cast of 20th century British artists (under 16s go free with an adult). A new twist on the traditional corn doll, artist Maria Mckinney’s Sire exhibition at MERL in Reading, uses colourful semen straws in her latest work. Cue a barrage of awkward questions. Looking for something more bijou? The Base in Greenham Common won our Best Art Gallery in Berkshire award this year and operates as a creative hub for local artists with a fantastic cafe. The Brick City exhibition runs until Sun 8 Sep, with opportunities to build your own Lego masterpiece in the Brick Den.
5 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 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!
6 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.
7 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.
8 Walk among the dreaming spires
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.
9 Take the kids to 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 is a programme that lasts for the whole of August, which allows one child under the age of 16 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 Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain Part 4, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Gloria Estefan’s On Your Feet! and the highly acclaimed Barber Shop Chronicles.
10 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.