A few short miles north of Oxford, Bicester is a market town with a pretty centre.
People have been trading in the heart of the town for almost 800 years, but nowadays Bicester is associated with a more exclusive kind of commerce.
On the edge of town, Bicester Village is a designer outlet mall that receives a mind-boggling amount of tourists, mostly from outside the EU. After discovering a high-end bargain or two you should make a detour to the town centre, furnished with monuments going back 500 years.
You can also use Bicester as a launchpad for days out to some of England’s richest country houses, like UNESCO Blenheim Palace and Waddesdon Manor, owned by the Rothschilds.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bicester:
1. Historic Town Trail
The best way to acquaint yourself with Bicester’s town centre is to download the Historic Town Trail drawn up by the Bicester Local Historical Society.
This 18-stop walk guides you to lots of little points of interest.
You’ll see Bicester’s oldest house, a vicarage from 1500, as well as a 17th-century Dovecote, 16th-century farmhouse, a rebuilt structure from the defunct Bicester priory and the town lockup, a tiny prison from the 17th century where prisoners were kept overnight before being taken to court.
End with a coffee on the pedestrianised Sheep Street, which became the overspill cattle market when the main Market Square became too crowded in the 18th century.
2. Market Square
Bicester’s commercial heart and the site of a market since 1239, the Market Square is strictly more of a triangle than a square! What makes the Market Square so photogenic is the row of island buildings stranded in the square on the west side.
These 16th and 17th-century properties were built by wealthy residents and each one, from 44 to 47 has its own character.
Most impressive is the 17th-century Baroque house with a quoined tower.
The 800-year market tradition is kept up on Fridays where there’s a bit more bustle on the Market Square, while every second Thursday of the month you can browse the best local produce at the Farmers’ Market.
3. Garth Park
Bicester’s award-winning town park was private land until the last landowner passed away in 1946 and the park was purchased by the local council.
Garth House here is an old hunting lodge, built in 1840 and now housing Bicester Town Council.
The park meanwhile has fastidiously tended formal gardens, a bandstand for Sunday concerts in summer, a children’s playground and a cafe in a new pavilion.
Stop at the entrance to get a closer look at the park’s fine wrought iron gates.
Here you’ll see a bell cast in the old Bicester Foundry in 1732. This used to be the call bell at the Town Hall and Shambles until they were pulled down in 1826.
4. Bicester Village
It may sound bizarre, but the second most visited place by Chinese tourists in the UK is this designer outlet mall on Bicester’s southern outskirts.
Bicester Village is so popular with people from China that announcements at Bicester Village train station are given in Mandarin.
Part of the reason is that non-EU visitors can shop tax free and so get extra discounts on top of the reductions already in place.
Some 6.6 million people came here in 2017, a similar total to the British Museum.
Bicester Village is set on a long single artery designed to look like a Scandinavian town centre.
The way is flanked by top designer brands like Gucci, Boss, Prada, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste and DKNY to name just a handful.
5. St Edburg’s Church
In Bicester’s Medieval centre, St Edburg’s Church started out as a Saxon minster and is dedicated to the local 7th-century saint, Eadburh of Bicester.
The surviving building was constructed by the Normans in the early 12th century and extended over the next 300 years.
The oldest stonework can be seen in the crossing, in the form of round early 12th-century Romanesque arches that may have been built to support a central tower.
Eagle-eyed visitors will detect a subtle but interesting difference between the arches on the south and north sides of the nave.
That’s because the south side is older, and so has Early English clustered columns from the mid-13th century, while the north aisle was extended around a century later is separated by stronger octagonal columns.
There are plentiful monuments to important local people, like the Cokers, who were Lords of the Manor of Kings End, and the Page-Turners, powerful landowners and benefactors to the church.
6. Blenheim Palace
The first of some obligatory excursions near Bicester, Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site ten miles west, on the edge of the Cotswolds.
Together with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, this Baroque house is hailed as an archetype for English stately architecture in the 18th century.
Brown’s encompassing park is a “naturalistic Versailles”, while the house by Sir John Vanbrugh is the best expression of the short-lasting English Baroque style.
Blenheim Palace is the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough gifted to the first duke by Queen Anne for the decisive victory at the Battle of Blenheim (1704) in the War of the Spanish Succession.
As a descendant of the dukes, Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace.
Take an immersive audio-tour, go for tea at the orangery and catch an exhibition.
In summer 2018 there were more than 80 works by the French Nouveau Réaliste painter Yves Klein.
7. Island Pond Wood
Without straying far from Bicester you can go on a walk in nature at this Woodland Trust reserve on Bicester’s eastern fringe.
In low-lying wet terrain, Island Pond Wood is quite a new space, having been planted in 1999 with species comfortable with regular flooding.
The wood has alders, willows, ash trees and black poplars, while there’s also a pond that is used by locals for fishing.
8. Waddesdon Manor
Around halfway between Bicester and Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire is a cultural day out that more than merits the journey.
At Waddesdon Manor, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild built himself a piece of the Loire Valley, with a Château that calls to mind Chambord or Chenonceau.
Work lasted from 1874 to 1889, and the last Rothschild to live here, James de Rothschild, bequeathed the house and its rich collections to the National Trust in 1957. Waddesdon Manor is one of the trust’s most treasured buildings and dazzles for its lavish Renaissance stylings and marvellous Victorian parterre with 19,000 plants and a spectacular bedding display.
In the mansion you’ll be awestruck by the Gobelins and Beauvais tapestries, Sèvres porcelain, Limoges enamel and paintings by Gainsborough and Reynolds.
Make sure to find the Louis XVI-style writing table crafted for Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Henri Riesener.
9. Rousham House
If you’ve ever been to Horse Guards in London or Hampton Court Palace, you’ll have come by the work of the 18th-century architect, William Kent.
Rousham House was remodelled by Kent in an early Gothic Revival style in the 1730s and is remarkable because it has changed very little since then.
The house is visitable by appointment, while the formal gardens are open daily and are also mostly unaltered since they were laid out around 300 years ago.
Lots of historic details remain, like statues, Venus’s Vale and its ponds and cascades, the seven-arched Praeneste, a sham ruin and the Temple of the Mill.
The walled garden has a sweet parterre and herbaceous borders.
One reason the estate is so well-preserved is that it has been owned by the same family, the Cottrell-Dormers since 1635.
10. Boarstall Tower
On Wednesdays you can pay a visit to this National Trust site on the grounds of a former manor house.
Boarstall Tower has rather a sad story to tell.
Built in the 14th century, the estate was acquired by the Aubrey family after the English Civil War.
The house was abandoned and demolished after Sir John Aubrey’s six-year-old son died suddenly in 1777. All that remained was the magnificent 14th-century gatehouse, which lay empty for decades before being turned into a home in the early 1900s.
Given the romantic scene Boarstall became a venue for opulent parties, attended by the likes of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
Out in the parkland is an authentic 17th-century duck decoy, a tunnel built to trap large numbers of waterfowl by using a decoy duck, and now one of only four surviving.
11. Bicester Golf Club
Catch a sunny day and you could pass a leisurely few hours in the gentle Oxfordshire countryside at Bicester Golf Club.
In 134 acres the course par 71 course is an enjoyable test, with 11 lakes, unforgiving bunkers and sloping greens that can catch out the best.
The club also has a 10-bay driving range, practice bunkers, chipping area and putting green.
Bicester Golf Club is attached to a hotel but you don’t need to be a member or guest to play a round or us the 19th Hole Restaurant.
To save a few pounds you can also take advantage of “Monday Madness” when green fees are just £20.
12. RSPB Otmoor
This parcel of marshland a little way south of Bicester was taken over in 1997 and restored by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Year on year the nature reserve has seen an increase in the numbers of migrating and breeding birds.
In winter consider a visit on a sunny day to see the hundreds of waterfowl like teals and widgeons that inhabit the wetlands.
A variety of waders call in during their migrations in spring, while adorable little passerines like whinchats and common redstarts are sighted in autumn.
The beautiful marsh harrier is also around in spring, and more and more pairs of lapwings and common redshanks breed at Otmoor between May and July.
13. Bicester Heritage
The former RAF Bicester, a quick hop from the town centre was sold off in 2013 to a company aiming to develop the first business park in the UK devoted to heritage aviation and motoring.
The airfield’s fine 1920s and 30s brick buildings, hangars and tree-lined have been restored and a whole directory of specialist restorers, component manufacturers, upholsterers, metalworkers and dealers have moved in.
You can take a flight in a Tiger Moth with Finest Hour Experiences, or drive a race-car, which we’ll talk about next.
Bicester Heritage has also become a venue for events like the Sunday Scramble in October when you can see inside the many workshops at the park, and the Flywheel Festival in June to watch rarely seen planes and cars in action.
14. SWB Motorsport
Headquartered some distance away in Daventry, Northamptonshire, SWB Motorsport is a racing team competing in a host of series around the UK, including the FIA British Formula 4. The reason why they’re on this list is because since 2014 they’ve started offering race and military vehicle experiences at Bicester Heritage.
This all began when racing regulations changed and the team needed a new use for its Formula Fords.
So you’ll feel what it’s like to take the wheel of a cutting-edge racing car.
If that sounds daunting you can be a passenger in a two-seater Typhoon.
Since 2016 a host of other vehicles have been added to the company’s fleet, like a high-speed Alvis CVR(T) Spartan tank and a GKN Sankey FV432 armoured personnel carrier.
15. Bicester Avenue
Opened in 2007, Bicester Avenue is a useful follow-up for Bicester Village, even if it’s owned by a separate company.
This centre deals less in fashion and more on products for the home and garden.
Lakeland, Hobbycraft, Laura Ashley and the Bicester Avenue Garden Centre are among the 18 shops and services in a modern, neatly landscaped setting.
In autumn youngsters will have a great time at the Halloween Spectacular, which lays on games, competitions and a fireworks display.
There’s also a children’s play area, carefully planned with specific areas for different age groups.