Fancy learning some bushcraft? Want to have a go at wild swimming? Enjoy the great outdoors in your own way.
If you’re bored of wandering through the countryside without knowing what you’re looking at, or want to find out how to get active in new and exciting ways, then look no further. For something a little different to do in the Chilterns AONB, take a browse around our interactive map. We’ve got all sorts listed on it, from farm shops to vineyards, boat hire to horse riding. Or you can visit our Experience the Chilterns page, full of interesting itineraries for perfect days out.
For those things that you might need a little more help navigating – like where the best places are to fly a kite, or how to go wild swimming safely – we’ve come up with some useful highlights below. So, let’s get out for some fun in the countryside!
On the water
On a hot summer’s day, there’s nothing like a picnic in a shady riverside spot or dipping your toes into cool waters. Yet, there’s plenty of watery things to do in the Chilterns throughout the year. England’s most famous river, the Thames, runs straight through the region, alongside many other waterways and lakes. Take a trip on a boat, get sporty in a kayak or try wild swimming – there’s fun for everyone on the water!
Take a boat out
Take a leisurely cruise on the River Thames. Hobbs of Henley operate regular river trips and boat hire from Henley-on-Thames along a beautiful stretch of the river. Travel the 1 mile 550 yards of the Regatta Course, continuing downstream to the pretty Hambleden Lock. They also offer a series of themed cruises, such as a Traditional Jazz Cruise or Gin Tasting Cruise.
Salter’s Steamers run scheduled passenger services on the Chilterns section of the Thames, stopping at Wallingford, Goring, Reading, Henley and Marlow. They also offer round trips and themed cruises, as well as boat hire in Oxford. AV Boats in Benson, Wallingford, hire out day boats, rowing boats, kayaks, canoes and more, so you can navigate the river at your own speed.
Get sporty on the water
Longridge-on-the-Thames is an activity centre in a stunning location on the banks of the Thames at Marlow. It offers an introduction to all sorts of water sports, such as kayaking, canoeing, dragon boat racing, rafting and paddleboarding. If you don’t fancy getting wet, they have ‘dry’ activities like climbing, laser tag, trebuchet and crate stacking on offer.
Follow the story of the River Thames
Rowing is woven into the very fabric of Henley-on-Thames, with the Henley Royal Regatta offering five days of top-notch rowing and hospitality in late June and early July. Bed and breakfast at the prestigious, members-only Leander Rowing Club, the training ground of Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Matthew Pinsent and other Olympic heroes. Or sample Lovibonds craft beers at the famous Henley Rowing Club, with the bar open to both the general public and members from May 2022. Learn more about rowing and the River Thames itself at the River & Rowing Museum, where special exhibitions include a focus on Kenneth Grahame’s book, The Wind in the Willows – a firm family favourite.
Just a short walk from Henley town centre, Mill Meadows is a large open space by the River Thames. This spot is perfect for watching the world go by and enjoying local wildlife, hiring a rowing boat or paddle board from Henley Canoe Hire, or having a picnic. The adjacent Marsh Meadows is a flower-rich conservation area well worth exploring.
Visit nearby Marlow in June to enjoy the Marlow Town Regatta and Festival with two days of rowing, music, food and dragon boating. In July, witness the ancient ceremony of Royal Swan Upping. Traditionally, the reigning King or Queen may claim ownership of any unmarked mute swans in open water, a custom first noted as early as the 1100s. Today, the Queen’s Swan Marker and Swan Uppers travel by rowing skiff to complete the annual census of the swan population on the River Thames. By tradition, the colourful crew break for refreshment at Marlow’s The Two Brewers in St Peter Street.
Go wild swimming
There are plenty of spots along the River Thames that are safe for you to try out wild swimming. But, as tempting as it is to just jump in when the weather’s hot, rivers can be incredibly unpredictable, with all sorts of hidden dangers. Places that are unsafe may have signs up, but always research your swimming spot before you leap in. There are lots of websites with information about wild swimming, including Anywhere We Roam and Timeout.
In Buckinghamshire, popular swimming places include a beachy area halfway between Marlow station and Cock Marsh, or nearby Medmenham for an energetic swim. In Berkshire, Pangbourne Meadows is a great spot for stronger swimmers, while Hurley Lock, with its shallow, shelving beach, is ideal for children and families. In Oxfordshire, try paddling in the Thames at Wallingford – there’s a family friendly, sandy beach that gradually slopes into the water.
Take a comfort swim outdoors
If you don’t fancy diving into the River Thames, Riverside Parks and Pools in Wallingford provides watery fun for all during the summer season. There’s an outdoor heated swimming pool and a splash park for children, as well as a café, indoor changing area and even a campsite.
Active in nature
The beautiful Chilterns countryside is out there waiting to be discovered. From weird fungi to rare orchids, majestic birds of prey to delicate butterflies, there’s so much to see, learn about and immerse yourself in. If you’re looking to get out and about, try our Great Walks, Great Rides and Explore Nature pages for highlights in the region. But, if you want to get a little more actively involved in the world beneath your feet, read on for inspiration.
Go on a fungi foray
During autumn, the weird and wonderful world of fungi comes into its own. Dead Man’s fingers pop up in the leaf litter and puffballs burst in clouds of spores. Take yourself on a self-guided walk to see what you can find in fungi hotspots like Warburg Nature Reserve in Oxfordshire or Naphill Common in Buckinghamshire. Or join an organised event – like those run by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) – where an expert can guide you through the hundreds of varieties of fungi in the UK. Remember that many fungi are poisonous, and some are very rare, so don’t pick or eat anything unless you have been advised that it is safe to do so by someone in the know.
Enjoy the bliss of a bluebell wood
During spring, the beech woods of the Chilterns become a sea of blue as the nodding heads of thousands of bluebells gently quiver in the dappled sun. Take a walk to see them at their best in Wendover Woods and Bradenham Woods in Buckinghamshire, and Cowleaze Wood in Oxfordshire. Or try your hand at photographing you or your family frolicking among them. Just don’t be tempted to pick them!
Spot butterflies and blooms
Just 10 minutes from Marlow lies the peaceful and secluded Homefield Wood Nature Reserve. Silver-washed fritillary and marbled white butterflies flit about the reserve in summer, visiting wildflowers and rare orchids, such as the military orchid – so-called because the flowers look a soldier with a helmet and buttoned jacket. About 2 miles from Pangbourne, Hartslock Nature Reserve has a wealth of different orchids and clouds of butterflies in summer. Look out for the rare monkey orchid – the flowers have a head, legs and a tail!
A visit to Warburg Nature Reserve in summer provides any budding naturalist with a wealth of wildlife to spot. There are lots of different types of orchids to find, including fly, greater butterfly, pyramidal and bee orchids, along with the pretty Chiltern gentian. Red kites wheel over the beech forest and wide, grassy rides, where slow worms, adders and grass snakes hide. Marbled white and common blue butterflies visit the grasslands, while purple emperors flutter around the tree canopy.
Remember that many orchids are rare or threatened species, and often grow in sensitive habitats, so take care as you walk not to trample the very thing you’re looking for!
Watch majestic red kites
Red kites are a conservation success story. Persecuted to near extinction, reintroductions in the Chilterns around 30 years ago have led to populations booming and this wonderful bird of prey being a common sight in our skies once again.
To get great views of them, head over to Watlington Hill – a magnificent area of chalk downland, well-known for its triangular-shaped White Mark carved into the chalk. Atop the hill, take in amazing views across the Oxfordshire Plain and watch the kites soar across the skies.
Crowning the Chilterns escarpment, Chinnor Hill Nature Reserve is another great spot to watch red kites as they soar over the Vale of Aylesbury. The Ridgeway National Trail runs along the foot of the reserve. In Buckinghamshire, West Wycombe Hill offers stunning views of red kites flying over an historic 18th century landscape.
After a rousing walk around the hill, pop to West Wycombe for refreshments in the traditional coaching inns of this historic, cobbled village. For more places to spot red kites, take a look at our leaflet.
Take perfect photographs
Most of us love to take a snap or two while out and about, whether on our camera phones or on a dedicated digital camera. But knowing how to get a great shot – how to compose the image, stop or enhance movement, capture a moment, or add flair – is another matter! Find out more about photographing the great outdoors on a guided course or workshop: visit our Experience the Chilterns page for more details.
Go fly a kite
With its accessible, windswept, downland ridge, Dunstable Downs is the ideal kite-flying spot in the Chilterns AONB. There are facilities at the Chilterns Gateway Centre, and lots of local walks, providing a great day out for all. If you don’t already have one, you can buy a kite from the National Trust shop.
Build a den
It’s fun to create a den and you can build one anywhere – in your back garden or out in the wilds; all you need is a sturdy tree for support and a whole load of sticks! Cowleaze Wood is a great place to have a go at den building. Start by leaning larger sticks up against your chosen tree in a wig-wam shape. Then look for some thinner ones to fit into the gaps. Make sure everything is wedged in well so the whole structure doesn’t collapse. Use the nooks, crannies and branches of your tree to help secure the sticks. When you’re done, crawl in and explore. You could even have your picnic in there!
Go flower- or fruit-picking
It’s best to leave wildflowers, fruit and fungi just where they are so that they can thrive and so others can enjoy them too – Plantlife has information on how to treat wild plants.
If you do want to pick your own flowers and fruit, however, you could join an expert on an organised foraging event: visit our Experience the Chilterns page for more. Alternatively, visit a place that’s already set up for you to pick, pick, pick to your heart’s content! During summer, try Hitchin Lavender in Hertfordshire where you can wander through aromatic rows of lavender planted on 12 acres of sweeping farmland. The fields are a great spot for photographers and artists, and children love to pick bunches of lavender to take home.
If you’re looking for fruit, Sotwell Manor Fruit Farm near Wallingford has strawberries and raspberries from late spring through to early autumn. In Buckinghamshire, Peterley Manor Farm has a farm shop, nursery and café that are open all year-round, and offers a variety of pick your own, including redcurrants, pumpkins and plums.
Test your skills
Finding your way with a map, looking for treasure, building a fire and cooking wild food, or climbing through a tree-top trail are just some of the exciting activities on offer in the Chilterns AONB. They will test your physical and mental skills, as well as giving you the chance to get active outdoors. So why not pick something new to have a go at? Here’s some highlights.
Geocaching is essentially a treasure hunt for the digital generation. Using a GPS-enabled device, such as smartphone, installed with an app or downloads from the Geocache website, you can find a ‘cache’ – a small, waterproof box hidden somewhere in the great outdoors. There’s lots to find across the Chilterns AONB. Once you’ve found the box, you might open it to discover a hidden treasure that you can swap out, or a logbook to leave a message. Often, just finding the geocache itself is satisfying enough!
Orienteering is an exciting outdoor sport where you navigate between checkpoints or controls marked on a special orienteering map. There is no set route for an orienteering course, so the fun comes from trying to find the best way to go. Some events are also timed, so you’re looking to be the quickest to complete the course. There’s lots of places to get involved in the Chilterns, including at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and at Wendover Woods.
To find out more about learning navigation skills or even night navigation, visit our Experience the Chilterns page or watch out for events as part of our Walking Festivals.
Learn to survive in the wild
Whether you’re a budding Bear Grylls or you just want to know a little more about how to connect with nature, there are courses for you. David Willis provides wilderness living skills, nature connection and woodland craft events throughout the year. Join him in the woods for a day course, or even for a whole weekend of wild camping! Find out how to make bread on a campfire, build a shelter or carve a wooden spoon, getting you prepared for a more wild life!
Alex UK Bushcraft also offers a wild experience in the Chilterns. Learn everything from how to make shelters to how to create natural string, or take the whole family or work team along for a day of bushcraft fun.
Enjoy a tree-top trail
Want to swing through the trees like Tarzan? Then visit Go Ape! at Wendover Woods or Black Park Country Park. These fantastic Treetop Challenges offer plenty of adventure with rope climbs, wind-in-your-face zip wires and nets to keep you on your toes! Enjoy spectacular views of the Chilterns from high up in the trees.