With the next round of relaxed covid restrictions on 29th March comes the onset of picnic season! Groups of up to six people are allowed to meet outside, so, while hospitality venues remain closed until 12th April, a portable al fresco meal is very much the way forward. Here are our suggestions for some of the loveliest spots in Oxfordshire to unpack your hamper.
You don't have to go very far from the centre of Oxford to eat whilst ensconced in nature. Central parks can be just as tranquil as their more rural counterparts, with the added bonus of being able to nip into a nearby shop when you realise you've forgotten the all-important humous (or bottle opener!)
Barracks Lane Community Garden (OX4 2AP) is a lovely nature-friendly space, maintained by volunteers, and with a number of facilities like a wood-fried oven and a barbecue area allowing you to get a bit more creative with your picnic cuisine of choice if you so desire! Thanks to National Lottery funding, they are currently offering free private bookings to anyone who would like to access some outdoor space with their household/support bubble but who doesn't have a garden of their own. Email [email protected] to find out more.
Headington Hill Park (OX3 0ED - best accessed on foot or by bike or bus) is a favourite with the Daily Info team. The lesser-known neighbour of South Park, it is surprisingly quiet given its proximity to the road, with lots of flat space to lay down your rug, and some excellent climbable trees for the kids to explore.
While some of its attractions like the mini golf and aviary remain closed, there's still lots to enjoy at the sprawling Cutteslowe Park (OX2 8ES), whether you plan to work up an appetite with a rambling walk through the wooded area or just enjoy a contemplative sandwich by the pond. About a 5-min walk from the nearest bus stop on Banbury Road, and a fairly large car park, or you can cycle, taking the bike-friendly flyover bridge to cross the ring road. There is a handful of picnic tables but they are popular, so we recommend bringing a rug or folding chairs just in case!
Hidden in plain sight just off (usually) busy Little Clarendon Street is the tiny but perfectly formed Wellington Square Gardens (use OX1 2HY - very little car parking but loads of bike racks). Take advantage of the lack of both tourists and students this unique Easter holiday to enjoy its delights. As there's not much space to stretch your legs, we recommend it as a destination for a relaxed picnic for grown-ups - though if you have kids who need to let off steam, you could eat your lunch here then take a 5-minute stroll to the larger but still charming University Parks.
For a modest fee, picnickers in all four corners of the county can enjoy their leisurely luncheons in the landscaped surroundings of a grand estate - Blenheim Palace to the north, Waterperry to the East, Stonor to the South and Cogges Manor Farm out west. Pre-booking is currently required at all four sites to limit visitor numbers, and Cogges is currently only open to season ticket holders until 12th April. All boast added delights for the kids such as the opportunity to meet deer and farm animals, or follow specially-designed outdoor trails, and at Waterperry, Cogges and Blenheim, you can supplement your picnic supplies with takeaway treats from cafés to really make a day of it.
Garsington (OX44 9DH) boasts a beautiful manor house on land once owned by Chaucer, with literary claim to fame as the place many of the Bloomsbury Group saw out the war, as Conchies working on the farm. You can't visit the manor, but the Church next door boasts beautiful views all the way to Wittenham Clumps - it is built on a former Anglo-Saxon lookout post. Footpaths wend their way around the Manor estate, and benches around the Church make an excellent spot to stop and enjoy the view. Don't forget your binoculars.
Walk on the Wild Side
At the other end of the spectrum from maintained gardens, you can embrace the freedom of being outdoors by immersing yourself and fellow picnickers in nature, by opting for a meadow or nature reserve as your chosen site - and Oxfordshire has a stunning wealth of these wild places.
Christ Church Meadow and Port Meadow are well-celebrated, and rightly so, for accompanying your lunch with great views and fascinating biodiversity. But wander a little further from the beaten track and you'll find similar levels of wilderness, with the added bonus of being less congested, at Warneford Meadow or Oxey Mead.
Heyford Meadow is another good choice for wildlife: with the River Thames running by, this rescued former scrapyard now boasts a beautiful raised walkway. Visit now while the vegetation is low, then again in summer when the meadow has grown up higher than the boardwalk. Visit with quiet grownups and you might see a kingfisher, but all ages will enjoy it (and the playground at its entrance).
Further afield, the RSPB-maintained Otmoor will reward birdspotters handsomely, being home to a number of species including lapwing, redshank and marsh harrier. The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) and the Earth Trust each look after some beautiful sites around the county such as Wittenham Clumps, Thrupp Lake and Ardley Wood Quarry.