"Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse..." It's not often you get to visit the setting of a nursery rhyme, but if you go to Banbury, you can see the Cross, the lady and the horse, along with a host of other attractions. Banbury has been around since the Saxon era - the town's name is a combination of the words 'Banna', the name of a Saxon chieftain, and 'burgh', which means 'settlement'.
Banbury Cross and St Mary's Church
At the heart of the town is Banbury Cross, where you can find a statue of the lady (complete with bells on her toes) and her horse. The statue was unveiled in 2005, but the rhyme, of course, has been around for much longer. No-one knows who the original 'lady' was supposed to be, although contenders include Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Godiva, and fearless eighteenth-century traveller Celia Fiennes. The current Cross dates from 1859, and was created to commemorate the marriage of Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter.
Banbury hasn't only featured in nursery rhymes - it has some classic literary connections as well. St Mary's Church, situated just along the road from Banbury Cross, was mentioned in Jonathan Swift's 1726 preface to Gulliver's Travels. Swift revealed that he'd taken his hero's name from tombstones in the church's graveyard.
The Canal and Tooley's Boatyard
Canals are an important part of Oxfordshire's social history, and Banbury is an excellent place to explore these waterways. Banbury is home to Britain's oldest working dry dock, Tooley's Boatyard, which has been in operation since 1788. Around the boatyard, you can see plenty of narrowboats, often painted with traditional designs such as roses and castles.
There are several events on and around the canal throughout the year, including markets and town fairs. Recently, the Canal and River Trust let visitors explore a drained lock, giving a unique and slightly spooky perspective on the canal.
Walking along the towpath is a pleasant way to spend a day - if you're feeling energetic, you can make it all the way to Oxford, although at 28 miles, no-one would blame you if you decided to get the train part of the way instead. If you don't feel like venturing that far, there are plenty of picturesque villages with great pubs along the way.
Next to the canal and Tooley's Boatyard, Banbury Museum has exhibitions on the Civil War, the Victorian Market Town, costumes and clothing through the centuries, and the Oxford Canal. The museum runs regular events on everything from fossils to virtual reality, and has plenty of family-friendly activities.
Banbury Museum is open every day except Sunday, and general admission is free, although there is a small charge for entry to some of the special exhibitions. The building is fully accessible for people in wheelchairs.
The People's Park and Spiceball Park
Tucked away near Banbury College, the People's Park is a place where you can relax, unwind, or blow off some steam. It has basketball and football courts, an outdoor gym, and a playground - but there's also a sensory garden, beds of roses, and several carved wooden sculptures making silly faces at you as you pass. The highlight of the park is the aviary, full of budgies and cockatiels, who will flit over and see if you have any food before going back to talk amongst themselves.
On the other side of the city centre, you can find Spiceball Park. Much larger than the People's Park, Spiceball has facilities for skateboarders, and is the site of Banbury's weekly Parkrun meetings. Children can play in the well-equipped playground, which includes some challenging climbing frames. There are some very pleasant walks around the park, along the side of the canal or the river - and if the nearby bread factory is baking, the place smells gorgeous.
Arts, Cinema and Theatre
Banbury's small Odeon cinema is close to Banbury Cross, and generally carries all the latest major films, as well as running some regular child-friendly options.
The Mill Arts Centre, near the Castle Quay shopping centre, has regular visits from bands and comedians, as well as hosting theatre performances. You can also see art exhibitions at The Mill, and there are regular children's art workshops and adult art courses that anyone can attend. The Mill is the home of the town's local theatre group, The Banbury Cross Players, which has been running for over 70 years and puts on four plays each year.
Although Banbury is a small town, it has a decent range of shops. The Castle Quay shopping centre has all the usual chains, from Debenhams to HMV, as well as some good cafes like BB or Muffin Break. Outside the Castle Quay, there are plenty of smaller, more individual shops. Crafters can find knitting and sewing supplies in Banbury Sewing Centre, while comic book fans can visit Comic Connections. For cooks, there are a large number of Asian and Polish supermarkets, along with several markets selling vegetables and fresh produce (see Markets and Fairs).
Sport and Fitness
For a small town, Banbury has plenty of sporting options. There are three leisure centres, two of which have swimming pools - the Spiceball Leisure Centre, with a 25m indoor pool, and the Woodgreen Leisure Centre, which has a 50m heated outdoor pool. There is also a PureGym on the industrial estate.
The People's Park has courts which are available for hire for tennis, football, basketball or badminton. There is also an outdoor fitness station, which features step machines and bodyweight-based 'weights' machines.
The Spiceball Country Park, near the leisure centre, is home to Banbury's Parkrun group, who meet every Saturday morning to run a 5k around the park's paths and trails. Spiceball Park also has its own skatepark, with a huge number of ramps and jumps for budding skaters to attempt.
While it doesn't have the nightlife of London, or even Oxford, Banbury does have its own club scene. There's MooMoo, located on the High Street (and conveniently near a Wetherspoons for pre-drinks). Open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, MooMoo has three themed rooms, including a circus room and a tiki room. It runs regular special events, from Pizza and Prosecco Parties to seasonal Christmas and New Year nights. For something more chilled out, try Atic on Butcher's Row; while there are regular DJs, bands and stand-up, this club also has chess nights and 'brush parties' (an evening of painting, with music and drinks).
Banbury has several pubs which stay open until the small hours, including The Horse and Jockey, The Wheatsheaf, and The Church House.
Pubs and Restaurants
Banbury has more than its share of cafes, pubs and restaurants, with varieties to suit all tastes and budgets. Cafe Veneto offers a wide range of morning coffees and lunch options. The Granary serves teas, coffees, lunches, and cakes, including Banbury cakes. If you're looking for a good Sunday lunch, try Ye Olde Reindeer Inn, a pub with an interior that looks like something out of a fantasy novel - or, for something a little posher, there's The Three Pigeons. There's also a range of restaurants serving world foods, like Zushi (Japanese), Jool (Indian), or Little Amsterdam, a cafe and restaurant that does Dutch and Indonesian food. Their tiny pancakes are definitely worth a try!
Markets and Fairs
Banbury has regular markets, all of which are well worth a visit. The town's Charter Market runs every Thursday and Saturday, selling fruits and vegetables, clothes, plants, and occasionally antiques. There is also a farmers' market, which takes place on the first Friday of every month.
Like Eccles, Bath and Bakewell, Banbury has made its own contribution to the world of baking. Banbury cakes are made of pastry, filled with currants and spices, and look a little bit like a flat croissant. Originating in the 16th century, they aren't so widely made or consumed as they once were, but authentic Banbury cakes are still available in tea shops like The Granary on Butcher's Row.
Canals have been a central point of Banbury's history, and so it's no surprise that the Banbury Canal Day is one of the most important events in the town's year. Townspeople and visitors celebrate the history of the canal, with stalls, music and entertainment lining either side of the waterway. The festivities usually spill out into The Mill Arts Centre and Spiceball Park, with workshops, go-karting, and falconry displays.
Summer brings the Banbury and District Show, a fun-filled day in Spiceball Park where visitors can see live music, watch the dog show, try out the rides at the funfair, and have a refreshing drink in the beer tent.
Another summer highlight is the Flower and Produce Show, a large local show where exhibitors display their work in a number of different categories. As well as the more traditional prizes for fruits, vegetables and flower arrangements, there are sections for crafts, photography, and the 'Children's Variety' category, which often has some surprising contributions.
For those who've worked up an appetite at the Flower and Produce Show, the Banbury Food Fair runs on the same day, and holds a huge number of stalls with a range of goods that you wouldn't expect from a small town. Foodies can find everything from bespoke pies to smoked garlic, by way of wines, chutneys, and, of course, fudge. There are also stalls selling hot food, including Mexican dishes, curries, bratwurst, and vegetarian and vegan meals.
The Old Town Summer Party and Street Organ Festival brings the summer to an end, with street organists playing at several locations all around town. Later in autumn, there is the Banbury Michaelmas Fair, one of the town's busiest events of the year. This charter fair runs for three days, with rides and stalls open till late into the night.
The Christmas Lights Festival takes place on the last Sunday in November, and rounds off the year in spectacular style. There's music, rides, and a visit from Santa, all building up to the main event - the switching on of the town's Christmas lights.
By car: From Oxford, heading along the A34 towards the M40. Get on the M40, and continue until you reach exit 11. This will bring you onto the A422, which will take you straight to Banbury.
By bus: The S4 bus, leaving from Magdalen Street, will take you into Banbury Town Centre.
By train: There are regular trains between Oxford and Banbury, running twice every hour. Some are direct, while others take a more leisurely route, stopping at villages like Tackley and King's Sutton.