The county town of Buckinghamshire is on the edge of the Chiltern Hills in the Aylesbury Vale’s verdant farmland.
Aylesbury has some strong regional attractions like the County Museum, along with a state-of-the-art theatre that opened in 2010. The children’s author Roald Dahl was a Buckinghamshire resident and is remembered with a wonderful hands-on children’s gallery, attached to the County Museum.
Aylesbury has a place in pop history, as the Friars Club here welcomed some of the biggest music acts of the 70s, and was where David Bowie performed as Ziggy Stardust for the first time.
There’s a lovingly rendered statue for Bowie under the Corn Exchange on the Market Square.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Aylesbury:
1. Buckinghamshire County Museum
This museum explores many strands of Buckinghamshire’s human and natural history, and is housed in a row of beautiful flat-fronted buildings on Church Street.
The oldest portion of the complex is a timber-framed guildhall from the 16th-century, with rare murals intact.
The museum has exhibitions for archaeology, industrial history, textiles, agriculture and geology.
One of the key pieces is a Cubitt car, manufactured in Aylesbury in the 1920s and one of only six surviving models in the world.
There’s also a small but valuable collection of Egyptology, as well as Prehistoric stone tools, Roman coins and Medieval pottery.
The costume collection is vast, spanning 500 years, and there’s an ever-changing exhibition of British painting and sculpture in the Buckinghamshire Art Gallery.
In the coach house behind the museum is the Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery, which we’ll cover later.
2. Market Square
This long, rectangular square in the heart of Aylesbury has fine buildings and interesting pockets of history all around.
On the southeast end, beside the striking Corn Exchange is the Aylesbury Crown Court, which shut its doors for the last time in 2018. This Palladian building was completed in 1740, and in 1963 was where the culprits of the Great Train Robbery were sentenced.
In front of the court is a statue for the soldier and politician Charles Cavendish, 3rd Baron Chesham, who served in the Second Boer War.
The bronze lions beside his statue come from the Rothschild estate at Waddesdon Manor and have been here since 1888. At the opposite end of the square there’s a narrow passageway through to the King’s Head Inn, one of the oldest pubs in the South of England.
Aylesbury’s market trades on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and there’s a Vintage & Craft Bazaar on Tuesdays.
A miniature Château de Chambord in the Aylesbury Vale, Waddesdon Manor is a neo-Renaissance mansion built for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild between 1874 and 1889. In 1957 the estate was bequeathed to the National Trust by his great-nephew James de Rothschild and was named Large Visitor Attraction of the Year by “Visit England” in 2017. Baron Ferdinand used the house to show off his invaluable collections of 18th-century French furniture, Beauvais and Gobelins tapestries, Sèvres ceramics, exquisite panelling, Savonnerie carpets and paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough and 17th-century Dutch masters.
That collection has grown with family donations, including sublime Renaissance maiolica, Limoges enamel and ceremonial weapons and armour.
Visit the gardens, designed by French landscape architect Elie Lainé and intended to make an impact on soiree guests, with an extravagant parterre, statuary and fountains.
4. Buckinghamshire Railway Centre
A few miles into the rolling countryside at Quanton Road Railway Station, the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre is a steam locomotive museum that opens for Steaming and Static Days.
Steaming Days are Sundays and also Wednesdays during school holidays, when you can take a ride on full-sized steam train along 500 metres of track.
There are also miniature trains operating on these days.
On Static Days (Mondays and Tuesdays, as well as Wednesdays outside school holidays) you can still enter the museum’s railway shed to see an impressive variety of steam locomotives, like a LSWR 0298 Class from 1874 and an operational Metropolitan Railway E Class built in 1898. Take a look at the calendar, as there are regular special events, displaying vintage diesel engines, mail vehicles, tractors and fire engines.
5. The Chilterns
East and south of Aylesbury is the chalk escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, cutting diagonally across the countryside for almost 50 miles.
The range is conserved as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and offers scenic and occasionally stiff bike trails and walking paths.
You could head up to hike a section of the Ridgeway, a National Trail following the course of a path along the hilltops that has been walked since Prehistory.
A lot of the land has been made public, after estates were donated to the National Trust.
The majestic lookout at Coombe Hill is one, while further south the Bradenham Estate has ancient beech woodland bedded with bluebells in spring, around a quaint village of brick and flint cottages.
6. Coombe Hill
The highest and maybe the best viewpoint in the Chilterns is a few short miles south at Coombe Hill.
This patch of “Chilterns Countryside” was once on land owned by Chequers, the country residence for the Prime Minister.
You can see the triangular gables of this magnificent Tudor mansion to the southwest of the summit.
A popular local walk, Coombe Hill crests at 260 metres and is topped with a monument from 1904 to the Second Boer War.
The hill is covered with acid moorland and deciduous woods, and is a habitat for wild orchids and birds like firecrests, yellowhammers and red kites.
Take a look at the triangulation point, labelling visible landmarks like Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury Church and even the Cotswolds, 53 miles away to the west.
7. Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery
In a handsome former coach house, the Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery harnesses the much-loved author’s books and characters for educational exhibits about literature, history and science.
The museum is especially immersive for kids, as the exhibits feature art by Quentin Blake, who produced the illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books.
Children can discover Willy Wonka’s inventions, learn about sound with the BFG, crawl through Mr Fox’s tunnel and learn about “minibeasts” inside the Giant Peach.
There’s lots of interactivity, allowing kids to appear on TV, freeze their own shadow and magnify fleas.
The attraction is run by the Buckinghamshire County Museum, and has a shop, peaceful garden and cafe.
8. Waterside Theatre
The marvellous 1,200-seater Waterside Theatre opened in 2010, with a design evoking the rolling Chiltern Hills.
Set on the Grand Union Canal, the venue had been in the pipeline for nearly a decade and came at a cost of £47 million.
This comes with state-of-the-art acoustics that can be adjusted according to the event.
Every taste is catered for at the Waterside, so there are touring West End musicals, established musicians (pop, jazz and classical), tribute acts, stand-up comedians, opera, ballet and contemporary dance.
You can also watch regular live screenings from the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Royal Opera House.
Outside there’s a seated statue of Ronnie Barker, the beloved 20th-century comedian who got his start at Aylesbury’s repertory theatre.
9. Grand Union Canal
When the Aylesbury arm of the Grand Union Canal opened in 1814 it brought heavy industry to the town for the first time.
There had been a plan to extend the Grand Union Canal through to the Kennet & Avon Canal to the south.
This would have created an enormous network across the West to Bristol, but this was never realised because of a lack of water.
The Grand Union Canal is now the preserve of pleasure boaters and walkers.
You can hire a narrowboat for the day in Aylesbury, or use the town as an embarkation point for a self-navigated three or four day cruise.
Walkers can take the gentle towpath to Marsworth, passing 16 historic locks on the route.
In September 2018 Aylesbury put on its inaugural Waterside Festival, with boat trips, live music and a continental market with more than 30 stalls.
10. St Mary the Virgin’s Church
On the west shoulder of the town centre in an atmospheric graveyard ringed with historic houses, the parish church is a Grade I-listed building.
The site is believed to go back to Anglo-Saxon times, although the present church is rooted in the early 13th century.
St Mary’s is a prominent landmark in Aylesbury, with a fine clock tower that you can see from almost anywhere in the town.
That spire is thought to be 17th-century and dates from the reign of Charles II. Head in to see the 14th-century Lady Chapel, which is on the north transept and has a remarkable sedilla (stone seat) with a pointed arch.
Also in the north transept you’ll find a lovely 17th-century alabaster monument to a Sir Henry Lee, Master of the Armouries under Elizabeth I.
11. King’s Head Inn
One of the must-see buildings on the Market Square is this National Trust pub that has elements dating back 800 years.
The King’s Head is among the oldest pubs with a coaching yard in the South of England, and was founded as an inn around the middle of the 15th century.
It is thought that King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou stayed here around that time, and there’s a stained glass panel brought here from the dissolved Greyfriars monastery, showing the king and queen’s personal coats of arms.
The 15th-century Great Hall still has its wattle and daub walls, while the 13th-century cellars may have belonged to a friary on this site.
Check out the Medieval hearth in the Gatehouse Chamber, etched with graffiti that may have been left by Parliamentarian troops in the English Civil War.
12. Vale Park
The main green space in the centre of Aylesbury, Vale Park is north of Hilda Wharf on the Grand Union Canal.
There’s a contemporary design to Vale Park, with colourful flowerbeds, hard paved paths, a playground for children and a skatepark for bigger kids.
On the north side is the Aqua Vale Swimming and Fitness Centre, which has a cafe while the tarmac-surfaced tennis courts can be used by anyone for free.
Vale Park has plenty going on in the summer, like Play in the Park, a day out for children at the start of August with activities and games to mark National Play Day.
At the end of the same month there’s a funfair, children’s entertainment and live music at the Parklife Weekend, Aylesbury’s biggest party of the year.
13. Bedgrove Park
On the southeast side of Aylesbury proper there’s a Green Flag park made up of woodland, wildflower meadows and sports pitches.
Families can bring younger children to the massive fenced playground, which is landscaped like idyllic countryside with small rolling hills.
On a sunny day you could visit for a picnic as there’s a lovely prospect of the Chilterns to the south, while the strange-looking round hall is a community centre hired out to residents on weekends, and used for children’s workshops, a dance school and exercise classes.
14. David Bowie Statue
In March 2018 a monument to David Bowie was unveiled under the arches in the Market Square.
The town had a close connection to the star who passed away in 2016, as in the early 70s Bowie debuted his Ziggy Stardust character at Aylesbury’s Friars Club.
The bronze sculpture shows an array of Bowie’s personas, with life-sized renditions of the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust.
The work is titled “Earthly Messenger” and has speakers that play a different Bowie song on the hour.
15. Wendover Woods
The Forestry Commission owns a beautiful parcel of the Chilterns close to Aylesbury.
This 800-acre space includes the highest point in the range, at the 267-metre Haddington Hill.
Wendover Woods are made up of a mix of broadleaf and softwood trees, and every now and again on the signposted trails you’ll be wowed by unending views over the Aylesbury Vale to the north.
Wendover Woods also has a Go Ape high ropes park, with a challenging 685-metre Treetop Adventure course for people over ten, and Treetop Junior for youngsters, with a zip-line 85 metres long.