We live in West Berkshire on the borders of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. It’s a beautiful part of the country and we are fortunate to have the North Wessex Downs AONB on our doorstep. The Downs provide a perfect playground for families to explore with a wealth of walks, stunning views and great pubs. But it’s not all rural idyll – Wessex (a convenient term to talk about this confusing junction of counties) has a great variety of places to explore, from historical sites, to children’s outdoor activities, to museums and culture.
Some of the places listed here may not officially sit in Wessex, but they are all within about an hour’s drive or so from Hungerford, the market town at the crossroads of three counties (Berkshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire).
Spoilt for choice
I’ve pulled together a list of great days out with kids in the Wessex area. As a guide, they are all within about one hour’s drive from Hungerford and most are relatively easy to reach by car. I’ve divided them into topics, but many of them should by rights feature within more than one list.
Within the North Wessex Downs AONB it’s not surprising that there are a wealth of options to choose from when planning a day in the great outdoors. The places listed within this list are free to explore, though you may have to pay for parking.
Combe Gibbet, Gallows Hill – high above Inkpen Village is Walbury Hill, the highest point in south-east England. Nearby is a replica of the double gibbet erected in 1676 to hang the murderers, George Broomham and Dorothy Newman. Great story and amazing views – but wrap up against the wind! Free parking. Combine with a stop in the Crown and Garter, Inkpen or the Jack Russell Inn, Faccombe. Get a sense of the hill in winter in my blog for Little Trekkers.
Greenham Common, Greenham, near Newbury – on the site of an old RAF base, and famously used by the US Air Force as a base for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Now it’s a nature reserve with grazing cattle. It’s possible to view the old hangars and the Control Tower has recently been reopened as a museum and café – a great spot to warm up after a chilly walk or bike ride. It’s possible to explore the whole area on the hardcore paths which make it an attractive proposition for families with buggies or young kids on scooter. You can read about one of our recent visits to this unusual local spot on the Little Trekkers Go Large blog.
Nature Discovery Centre, Thatcham – this is a pretty special place centred round a lake. The Centre itself contains interactive displays and activities as well as a lakeside café. There are a variety of paths to explore around the lake and two adventurous playgrounds. They also run seasonal special events for adults and children.
Other places to head to for a good tromp in the countryside include The Chase, a National Trust woodland near Woolton Hill, Snelsmore Common near Donnington, West Woods and Savernake Forest, both near Marlborough and Crookham Common near Greenham.
When planning a day out it’s hard to beat a classic National Trust experience. With younger kids we tend to avoid going inside their grand houses (notable exceptions being Montacute House and Barrington Court, both in Somerset) and instead focus on stretching our legs on their vast estates. Here’s a list of our local options:
- The Vyne, near Basingstoke
- Basildon Park, near Reading
- Avebury, near Marlborough. As well as providing plenty to do for a good day out, Avebury also provided the starting point for a truly epic walk we did in 2018. You can read more about our route here.
- Dyrham Park, near Bath – read more about a day out at Dyrham here
- Cliveden, near Maidenhead (definitely not in Wessex, but handy to meet people coming from the London area)
- Hatchlands, near Guildford (again, not Wessex, but a good spot to meet people travelling from the south London area). We had a great time building a den there in January 2019.
Other destination days out
- Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, nr Tetbury – a wonderful destination for a great day out with different habitats to enjoy, a treetop walk, den-building and plenty of space to explore at leisure
- Bowood House and Garden, nr Chippenham – ‘Capability’ Brown parkland, gorgeous gardens, one of the best adventure playgrounds and a small animal barn
- Stonehenge, nr Salisbury – this World Heritage Site needs little introduction! We drive past regularly but we’ve not visited with the kids yet.
- Cotswold Water Park, nr Swindon – this group of 150 lakes set over 40 square miles is the perfect place to get out onto the water. We had a go at kayaking last year, but you can also try your hand at stand-up paddleboards and water-skiing. Within the lakes you’ll find Cotswold Country Park and Beach – but do book on weekends when the weather forecast is good!
With children of a certain age a farm park is the destination of choice for a day out providing space for them to run around, meet some animals and play on tractors. We have a good choice in our local area.
- Finkley Down Farm, Andover – good for meeting animals (including birds of prey), indoor soft play and a good choice of outdoor play equipment
- Bucklebury Farm Park, Reading – good for a deer safari, meeting animals and outdoor adventures including den building (Top Tip: combine with a trip to local pub The Pot Kiln)
- Roves Farm, Swindon – good for themed tractor rides (Easter and Halloween are our favourites), indoor play barn, meeting animals, den building and outdoor play
- 4 Kingdoms Adventure Park, Newbury – good for a large variety of indoor and outdoor play and theme weekends
- Cholderton Charlie’s Rare Breeds Farm, Salisbury – good for meeting animals, indoor soft play and outdoor play including a massive sand pit
- Millets Farm Centre – a smaller farm park with other paid-for visitor attractions on site including a play barn and birds of prey centre. Well-loved for its summer Maize Maze.
If farm animals are a little tame for you head to a local zoo or wildlife park for animals with a little more bite!
- Cotswold Wildlife Park, Burford – good for coming eye-to-eye with giraffes, getting up close to the penguins, adventure playground and miniature train safari
- Marwell Zoo, Southampton – good for tigers, train safari and a choice of playgrounds
- Longleat, Warminster – a very special day out, best known for the self-drive safari but also good for the boat trip and train ride, adventure playground and getting hands on with creepy-crawlies
- Living Rainforest, Chieveley – something a bit different and an excellent rainy day option, hunt the sloth, see dwarf crocodiles, butterflies and learn about unusual rainforest plants
- Hawk Conservancy Trust – the falconry centre to beat with outstanding themed flying displays. We were in awe of more than 20 birds flying at the same time. A great place to see a large variety of raptors, good café and themed playground
- Millets Falconry – a small, friendly falconry centre on the same site as Millets Farm Park. Very informative flying displays – we learnt a lot about vultures!
You may have noticed a strong trend for outdoor options in this list. Many of our days out are planned with giving the kids as much fresh air as possible and space to run. We also often like to take the dog with us when we go out for a day. However, sometimes if it’s pelting with rain, we’re tying in a trip with a school topic or we simply fancy something a little different, we head to one of our local museums.
- Oxford Museum of Natural History – dinosaurs, dodos plus the wonderfully eclectic Pitt Rivers Museum, this is our top local museum choice
- The Story Museum, Oxford – if you’re looking for a creative, magical experience look no further than the Story Museum with its giant bed for bedtime stories, a dressing up wonderland, daily story-times and special illustrator and author events
- Winchester Science Centre, Winchester – full of interactive, hands-on displays, science shows and even a planetarium
- West Berkshire Museum, Newbury – learn about history through West Berkshire including the development of canals and railways. Engaging for kids with dressing up opportunities and hands-on activities.
- Museum of Army Flying, nr Stockbridge – helicopters you can actually sit in, dressing up, hands-on activities and an army-flying themed playground next to an actual working RAF site, this is one of our favourite days out
- Vale and Downland Museum, Wantage – an engaging museum in the market town of Wantage exploring the history of the Vale of the White Horse
- STEAM: Museum of the Great Western Railway, Swindon – for kids and grown ups who love trains this is a great place to visit. You can walk under a train and, unlike many train and transport museums, there are a number of footplates you can get onto and have a go pulling levers, pushing buttons and generally playing at being a train driver.
- Didcot Railway Centre, Didcot – get up close to some really big engines! Booking in advance recommended if you tie-in your visit with one of their special steam days.