The North Oxfordshire market town of Banbury is a prosperous manufacturing centre and the UK base of brands like Douwe Egberts.
Banbury has always been a place where things get made, from plush fabrics hundreds of years ago to narrow boats on the Oxford Canal, which came to the town in the 1770s.
Before that came the destructive Civil War, taking out the town’s parish church.
Important Parliamentarians met at nearby Broughton Castle, and Oliver Cromwell based himself here in the first months of the war.
Banbury became a London overspill community in the 20th century and developed quickly, but in among the newer buildings are plenty of fine old houses made from North Oxfordshire’s orange limestone.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Banbury:
1. Broughton Castle
A beguiling fortified manor house, Broughton Castle is Tudor from the 1550s but has a core that goes back to the start of the 14th century.
The historian Simon Jenkins has rated this sensational house among the 20 best in the country.
If you’re in Banbury you can’t pass up the chance to see inside this wonderful building, which has been occupied by the Fiennes family since 1377. Some of the best bits are the early-15th-century gatehouse, the vaulted dining room with double linenfold panelling from the 16th century, the 18th-century Gothick gallery and the chambers where James I, Edward VII and Queen Anne of Denmark (mother of Charles I) all stayed.
The 14th-century Great Hall hosted meetings by some prominent Parliamentarians like John Pym and John Hampden, while the panelled Oak Room has been used as a location for movies like Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Jane Eyre (2011).
2. Banbury Cross
You may or may not know the nursery rhyme that goes, “Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross, To see a fine lady upon a white horse; Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, And she shall have music wherever she goes.”.
First published in 1784, this song is much older and may refer to the destruction of Banbury’s crosses (there was more than one) by the Puritans in the 1600s.
A new Gothic Revival Banbury Cross was erected in 1859 to celebrate the marriage of Victoria, Princess Royal to Prince Frederick of Prussia.
This sits in the middle of a rather busy roundabout, but forms a neat pair with a horseback statue nearby, which we’ll talk about next.
3. Fine Lady Statue
By the roundabout there’s a head-turning bronze statue celebrating the nursery rhyme.
This was produced by the Artcycle studio, and was officially dedicated by Anne, Princess Royal in 2005. This very symbolic work is grounded in pagan Bronze Age tradition, depicting the Fine Lady on horseback in Celtic garb, and sits on a marlstone plinth inscribed with the rhyme.
The lady has 13 flowers in her crown, each for an ancient month of the year, while her raised left arm sprinkling flower petals symbolises the creative side of the brain and her right hand on the horse’s reins represents motor control.
Behind the horse’s left hoof is a frog, representing the cycle of nature, metamorphosis and community.
4. Sights in Banbury
Banbury’s town centre is much changed since the Second World War, but there are lots of intriguing pockets.
Take the pedestrianised Parson’s Street, where you’ll find Ye Old Reindeer Inn, the town’s oldest pub, incorporating Medieval architecture.
It is believed that Oliver Cromwell planned the Battle of Edge Hill (1642) in the oak-panelled Globe Room.
Something to see from the outside is the splendid Whately Hall Hotel on Horse Fair.
Most of this palatial marlstone building is from the mid-17th century, and previous guests include the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, most famous for writing Gulliver’s Travels.
5. Banbury Museum
Right on the Oxford Canal, the Banbury Museum moved into a purpose-built home opposite the Castle Quay Shopping Centre in 2002. You can delve into many aspects of Banbury’s past here, like the catastrophic Civil War, when the town itself was Parliamentarian but the castle was occupied by a Royalist garrison.
You can learn about life in Banbury in Victorian times, get the background on the Oxford Canal and admire a superb costume collection dating back to the 1600s.
There’s interesting display recalling the town’s historic plush fabric industry, while recent temporary shows have dealt with topics as diverse as the First World War, LEGO and automata.
6. Upton House and Gardens
In the 1920s this late-17th-century Carolean country house was acquired by the Shell Oil heir and art collector Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted.
He set about turning his new home into a fashionable showcase for his stellar art collection.
So while the exterior is original the interiors have Art Deco flourishes, most memorably in one of the bathrooms.
You’ll be treated to paintings by English and European Old Masters like Bosch, El Greco, Brueghel, Gainsborough, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Reynolds, Gabriël Metsu and Jan Steen.
Complementing these are exquisite decorative arts including porcelain by all of England’s top Georgian manufacturers and Sèvres near Paris.
The gardens have been cultivated since the 1100s, but were also reworked for in the 20s and 30s.
Below the main lawn dominated by a giant cedars is a terrace with the National Collection of aster, while there’s a lake, kitchen garden and herbaceous borders.
7. People’s Park
Until it was gifted to the town for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, this space around the corner from the Banbury Cross was private land.
The seasonal bedding displays and shrub and herbaceous borders are very refined, and there are spacious lawns to relax on during the summer.
The rose garden has displays planted each year by local school children, and there’s also a sensory garden for the visually impaired.
The Community Garden meanwhile grows fruit, vegetables, flowers and shrubs, and is run by volunteers, some of whom have physical or mental impairments.
Parents in Banbury with smaller children can visit the playground, and there’s also an aviary maintained by a local pet shop.
8. Sulgrave Manor
This modest Tudor manor house in the village of the same name was built by Lawrence Washington, a rich wool merchant in the 16th century.
And if you’re wondering, that’s the same Washington family that produced the first President of the United States.
Sulgrave Manor has an exhibition explaining how the English Civil War, a shipwreck and financial difficulties persuaded George Washington’s great grandfather John to leave England for colonial Virginia in the mid-17th century.
There are costumed actors, interactive games for kids and the largest collection of artefacts in the UK relating to George Washington.
In the great hall, look for Lawrence Washington’s carved initials on the fireplace’s salt cupboard.
9. Oxford Canal
At the start of the 19th century the Oxford Canal was the main route for freight between the Midlands and London.
This 78-mile waterway arrived in Banbury 1778, and is an abiding feature of the town, traced by the Banbury Museum, Castle Quay Shopping Centre, lots of mooring spots for narrow boats and a well-paved towpath for walks next to the water.
Tooley’s Boatyard, a scheduled ancient monument, is on the wharf just across the water from Banbury Museum and is as old as the canal.
Here you can see the oldest working dry dock on England’s inland waterways, and a 200-year-old blacksmith’s forge.
You can become a blacksmith for a day or board the Dancing Duck, built at the boatyard in 2007, for a cruise along the canal on Saturdays.
10. St Mary’s Church
A few steps from the Banbury Cross is the town’s Neoclassical parish church, built from marlstone in the 1790s.
The previous Medieval church had been unsound for decades after taking damage in the English Civil War.
The building was designed by Samuel Pepys Cockerell, best known for the Sezincote House, which inspired Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.
The majestic western Doric portico and tower came in the 1820s and were conceived by Charles Robert Cockerell, who designed Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
Since the 1860s and 70s the interior has had Byzantine-style decoration, overseen by yet another prestigious architect, Arthur Blomfield.
There are 12 Ionic columns with capitals painted gold, and a gallery traces the nave.
Look up at the exuberant imitation mosaic from 1876 of Christ in Majesty in the apse ceiling.
11. Farnborough Hall
If you have a Saturday free you could spend some of it at this National Trust country house, built from bright honey-coloured limestone between 1684 and 1750. The property was owned by the Holbech family for its entire history until it was donated to the National Trust, although descendants of the Holbechs still live here.
The Palladian facade and the splendid Rococo plasterwork inside were ordered in the mid-18th century by William Holbech, and not much has been altered since that time.
There are paintings by Canaletto, and an array of precious ceramics and sculpture that William brought back from his Grand Tour.
A 5.5-mile circular trail winds through Farnborough Hall’s parkland, where you can admire 18th-century monuments like an Ionic temple, oval pavilion and hexagonal game larder for hunts.
12. Spiceball Country Park
Thirty years ago this spread of countryside near the centre of Banbury was the town’s refuse tip.
The park was landscaped in the 1990s to give the town’s residents access to greenery, and is framed by the Oxford Canal to the west and the River Cherwell to the east.
You can jog or stroll next to the water, while the open fields stage big annual events like the Banbury and District Show in June, which has a small fair, demonstrations by local clubs and activities like climbing walls and zorb balls.
In the park’s boundaries is the well-regarded Spiceball Leisure Centre, with a 150-station gym and a 25-metre pool.
13. Steane Park Garden
If you don’t mind going a little further there’s a charming formal garden a few miles east at the boundaries of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.
Visited by appointment Steane Park Garden is the site of the lost village of Steane, which was mentioned in the Domesday Book in the 11th century.
The garden is nothing short of idyllic, presided over by a venerable copper beech and cedar of Lebanon.
Leading away from the regimented lawns, flowerbeds and borders there’s a historic waterway and fishponds.
Next to the water is the Church of St Peter.
This is special, as one of the latest examples of original Gothic architecture, dating to 1620, and with a transitional Baroque south doorway from 1630 that has Ionic columns and a pediment.
Get a photo of the Monet-style bridge, hand-built in the 1990s craftsmen from Suffolk.
14. Deddington Farmers’ Market
One to keep in the dairy, the farmers’ market five miles away at the village of Deddington is third best in the country according to National Geographic in 2017. The market trades on the fourth Saturday of every month and has more than 40 stalls for local meat, vegetables, fruit, preserves, cheese, dairy, beer, honey, crafts and bread baked on site.
There’s no lack of readymade food to whet your appetite, like samosas, homemade soups, hand-raised pies and healthy options like couscous salads.
15. Banbury Cakes
At local cafes, tearooms and restaurants you may see something on the menu called a Banbury Cake.
Recipes for this oval-shaped pastry have been kicking around since the 16th century.
A traditional accompaniment to afternoon tea, a Banbury Cake is coated with sugar and filled with currants, mixed peel, rosewater, rum, sweetened with sugar and seasoned with a little nutmeg.
They were a favourite treat of Queen Victoria who was always presented with a batch on her annual summer trip from Osborne on the Isle of With to the royal estate at Balmoral.