Once a small village in the Windsor Forest, Bracknell answered England’s need for extra housing after the Second World War and was developed as a “New Town”. After a few decades of wear and tear the town centre has been reborn as “The Lexicon”. This entailed a massive regeneration scheme, building upmarket shops and eateries with outdoor seating and sprucing up some local landmarks.
Out in Bracknell’s parks it’s quite a thrill to know you’re on a former hunting ground for kings and queens, while Ascot Racecourse on the town’s east side is as royal as it gets.
There’s culture at South Hill Park, an all-round arts Mecca, and adventure in the Swinley Forest, which has a high ropes course, children’s science centre and the remains of an Iron Age hill fort.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bracknell:
1. Lily Hill Park
A Green Flag Park in 56 acres to the northeast of Bracknell, Lily Hill Park is a former country estate with restored Victorian landscaping.
You can log onto the Bracknell Forest website to download a leaflet about the park, which was once within the Windsor Forest.
In this space are some English oaks up to 500 years old from those times.
There’s lots of surviving ornamental planting from the Victorian period, alongside that ancient woodland, a mature tree collection, wildflower and hay meadows and an assortment of hardy-hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas planted back in the 1920s.
Rambling through Lily Hill Park you’ll also encounter a community orchard, yew walk, Edwardian water garden, a pond with boardwalk and Lily Hill House, which is now used as private office space.
2. The Look Out Discovery Centre
In the south of the town, on the cusp of the 2,500-acre Swinley Forest, the Look Out Discovery Centre is a hands-on science attraction for kids.
There are more than 90 activities to take part in, diving into topics like Light and Colour, Woodland and Water, Body and Perception, Forces and Movement.
Children will be able to play a tune with laser beams, capture their silhouette in the shadow box, create crazy designs with the art machine, launch a hydrogen rocket and see an inflatable globe suspended in the air by a Bernoulli blower.
Outside, “Build It” is a play construction site where little ones can design a house and work together using dumper trucks, wheel barrows and a rubble chute.
3. Stanlake Park Wine Estate
Berkshire’s largest vineyard is about ten minutes from Bracknell town centre, outside the village of Twyford.
The winery was born in 1979 but is on an historic estate around a beautiful 16th-century Elizabethan manor house.
Growing in Stanlake Park’s 25 acres are more than 10 grape varieties, as you’ll discover on a tour.
These visits are designed to be fun and down-to-earth, normally taking place on a weekend.
As they book up weeks in advance you’ll need to plan ahead.
You’ll be shown the vines in the walled garden before seeing where the grapes are pressed, viewing the fermentation tanks, the barrel room, the “fizz room” and finally the bottling line.
At each point you’ll be able to try a different wine, adding up to eight in the end (three whites, two roses, two sparkling wines and one red).
4. Ascot Racecourse
A few short miles east of Bracknell is one of the country’s most distinguished racecourses.
Staging National Hunt “jump” meetings, and races on the flat, Ascot is active all year round.
To give newcomers an idea of Ascot’s importance to horse racing in the UK, 13 of the country’s 36 annual Grade I horse races (the highest level of Thoroughbred and Standard-bred stakes) are held at this track.
But one week in June is extra special: Royal Ascot dates back to 1711 and is attended each year by the Queen and other members of the Royal Family.
For centuries Royal Ascot was a mainstay of the British social calendar for the aristocracy, and still receives nationwide attention, especially in the tabloids.
Eight of the track’s Group 1 races take place in this week, including the most prestigious, the Gold Cup on Ladies’ Day on the Thursday.
5. South Hill Park
The old Birch Hill estate in the south of Bracknell is another inviting Green Flag park.
The estate’s glorious 18th-century Italianate mansion is still standing and today is used by the South Hill Park Arts Centre, which we’ll cover next.
Out in the refined parkland you’ll come across a rose garden, a graceful Italian formal garden, a special toddler garden, lots of sculptures and deep oak, sweet chestnut, lime and birch woodland.
There are four waymarked trails showing you around the estate, as well as an educational nature trail with quirky wood carvings.
6. South Hill Park Arts Centre
Over the last 35 years South Hill Park has evolved into a performing arts centre whose patrons include Kate Winslet and Kenneth Branagh.
This began with the construction of the Wilde Theatre, while the mansion went through a multimillion-pound revamp in the early 2000s, furnishing it with arts and craft studios, another performance stage, galleries, a cinema, dance studio, a recital room and bar in the mansion’s atrium.
There are more than 300 events, shows and films at the centre each year, together with over 250 workshops and courses.
South Hill Park also has seven artists in residence, specialising in printmaking, jewellery design/silversmithing and ceramics.
7. The Lexicon
Bracknell’s post-war town centre was starting to show its age by the 2000s and over the last decade has gone through one of the largest urban regenerations in the UK. Some £240m has been invested into this project, adding 70 new shops and restaurants, but also restoring the town’s high street and buildings like the quaint old timber-framed pub, the Bull.
There’s a new 12-screen Cineworld cinema and lots of new outdoor dining terraces in summer under the canopy at Pizza Express, Nando’s, Wagamama and Prezzo.
The Lexicon is also designed to be a community space, hosting live outdoor music, exhibitions, children’s activities and seasonal events during Halloween, Christmas and Easter.
8. Swinley Forest
Also a remnant of the Windsor Forest, this massive tract of woodland marks Bracknell’s southern boundary.
The Swinley Forest is now mostly a modern Scots pine plantation and is still managed in the hands of the Crown Estate.
The woodland encompasses gently rolling hills, with a few man-made earthwork mounds that go back to training grounds built just before the Napoleonic Wars.
A scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part I was filmed in Swinley Forest, requiring 160 trees to be cut down.
The forest has a few visitor amenities, including the Look Out Discovery Centre, and is also considered one of the best places in the Southeast to go mountain biking.
9. Tally Ho Stables
There’s a special feeling taking the reins, knowing that you’re riding where kings and queens hunted for hundreds of years.
Tally Ho Stables offers lessons and hacks for riders of all experience levels, and there might not be a better place to saddle up than the Windsor Great Park.
All your equipment will be provided and you’ll have a well-behaved horse to ride through some gorgeous and occasionally challenging scenery.
Special evening rides are a great way to spend a summer evening, and if you’re feeling uncertain, you’ll always be in the company of an experienced and qualified ride leader.
10. Go Ape Bracknell
The towering pines in the Swinley Forest are just right for a high ropes course, built by the much-loved Go Ape brand.
The main “Tree Top Adventure” course has been designed to test stamina and skill, but also endurance as you may need up to three hours to complete it.
Some of the toughest challenges are the Swinley Swing and Pendulum Pass bridges, where you’ll have to shimmy sideways over a 13-metre drop.
The exhilarating Alpine Zip-Wire on the course is 160 metres long! Kids between 1 and 1.4 metres can take on “Tree Top Junior”, a bite-size version of the adult course, while Go Ape also hires out Segways for off-road rides through the Swinley Forest.
11. Caesar’s Camp
A 20-minute walk into the Swinley Forest from the Look Out Discover Centre will bring you to an Iron Age hill fort covering 17 acres and encircled by a mile-long ditch.
Caesar’s Camp is a name given to many Iron Age sites around the country, and has no obvious link to the Romans.
But that doesn’t make this 2,500-year-old site any less intriguing.
It’s easy to make out the steep rows of earthwork ramparts that formed the defences, and the council has installed a series of interpretation panels illustrating Iron Age society and the possible political and commercial activity that took place at Caesar’s Camp.
Birds like nightjars and woodlarks make a habitat on the site, while at the highest points you can look across central Bracknell to the north.
12. Museum of Berkshire Aviation
A worthwhile day out for aviation fanatics, this museum is only ten minutes on the A329 from the centre of Bracknell.
The Museum of Berkshire Aviation is at what used to be the Woodley Aerodrome, which was home to the manufacturer Miles Aircraft between 1932 and 1947. The museum displays a number of planes by this company, some of which, like the Miles Student two-seat side-by-side trainer and the Miles Martinet, are the last surviving models in the world.
Also extremely rare is the Fairey Jet Gyrodyne, a cross between a helicopter and an autogiro.
Miles Aircraft was taken over in the late-40s by Handley Page, and the Handley Page airliner on show outside was built here at Woodley in accordance with a Miles design.
13. Dinton Pastures Country Park
In the same neck of the woods as the Museum of Berkshire Aviation, Dinton Pastures Country Park is a destination for activity-packed summer excursions.
Comprising seven lakes, the park offers boat hire from March to September, and has wildlife meadows, two cafes, an award-winning play park that opened in 2014 and an 18-hole adventure golf course.
The list of boats for hire includes canoes, kata-kanus and kayaks, as well as sailing dinghies if you already have some experience.
Open water swimming sessions take place on Wednesday evenings in summer.
On a walk or bike ride all year round there’s an enormous amount of wildlife to spot, from roe and muntjac deer to owls and all sorts of migratory and resident waterfowl, waders and passerines.
14. Coral Reef Water World
Bracknell’s main pool looks like the kind of thing you’d find in a waterpark rather than a public amenity.
There’s an erupting volcano, five water slides, a pirate ship, rapids, a bubble pool and all sorts of things for younger children to climb on in the Little Corals area.
Adults meanwhile can retreat to the peaceful Coral Spa, away from the madness of the main pool.
This has a spa pool, cool pool, heated sun loungers, three saunas and a Japanese steam room, ensuring an hour or two of perfect relaxation.
Inside a ten minute radius of Bracknell town centre there are seven different places to swing a club.
What’s great is that these aren’t all the ultra-posh courses you might expect.
Lavender Park Golf Centre for instance has a nine-hole par 3, just the ticket for newcomers, and the 18-hole par 72 at Bird Hills is very reasonable, with green fees as low as £16 at off-peak times on weekday mornings.
Bilingbear Park and Downshire are affordable pay and plays on well-kept parkland courses.
At the other end of the spectrum are The Berkshire (£150 on weekdays) and the Royal Ascot Golf Club, while Mill Ride is a little cheaper and has a championship course designed in 1990 by the esteemed architect Donald Steel.