The largest town in West Berkshire, Newbury forms a pair with Thatcham on the River Kennet by the North Wessex Downs.
The UK headquarters of Vodafone and a couple of other high-tech firms are based in Newbury, and the town’s business acumen goes back a long way.
In the 16th century the cloth trade was in full swing here, and the big-time cloth merchant Jack O’Newbury built the hall that now holds the town museum.
Later, Newbury was an inland port on the Kennet & Avon Canal, which is still integral to the townscape at the Wharf and Victoria Park.
A few minutes from the centre of town is Highclere Castle, which you may know as Downton Abbey from the hit TV show.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Newbury:
1. Highclere Castle
Anyone who has seen the TV series Downton Abbey will know this magnificent country house right away.
Highclere Castle has been the country seat of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679, and most of the architecture dates to the turn of the 1840s.
This is in the Jacobethan style, a revival of 16th and 17th-century forms.
Earlier, the leading 18th-century landscape architect Capability Brown laid out the gardens.
In the summer months and selected dates during the rest of the year you can step into the lives of the fictional Crawley family, viewing filming locations outside and inside, on a tour through the great hall, library, dining room, music room, saloon, drawing room and bedrooms.
You’ll also witness a collection of Egyptology brought here following the 5th earl’s participation in digs like the Tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922.
2. Shaw House
Owned by West Berkshire Council, this splendid Elizabethan manor house on the northeast fringe of the town dates to 1581. Shaw House was commissioned by the rich cloth merchant Thomas Dolman, and is important architecturally as an early representative of the symmetrical H-plan.
Elizabeth I visited in the 16th century, while in the 18th century Shaw House belonged to James Brydges, the 1st Duke of Chandos, who was a patron for the composer George Frideric Handel at the start of his career.
February to September you can come to look around Shaw House on weekends, and there’s plenty going on for all the family.
This might be afternoon teas, outdoor film screenings, outdoor theatre, history-themed children’s workshops, puppet theatre, flower arrangement classes and talks about the history of the mansion.
3. Donnington Castle
Near the River Lambourn on the north side of Newbury are the haunting ruins of what used to be a royal stronghold.
Donnington Castle dates from 1386 and in 1398 was sold to Thomas Chauncer, son of the famous poet Geoffrey, a pioneer of English literature.
In Tudor times the property belonged to the crown, and both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I spent time here.
Its defining period came in the Civil War, when control swung between the Royalists and Parliamentarians.
In 1646, after an 18-month siege, the defences were hauled down, and all that survives are the powerful gatehouse and extensive star-shaped earthworks from the Civil war.
4. Sandham Memorial Chapel
An unfrequented treasure in the Hampshire countryside, the Sandham Memorial Chapel is enriched with a cycle of paintings by the British artist Stanley Spencer.
The building dates to the 1920s, and Spencer completed his series of 17 paintings up to 1932. These are based on his recollections of the First World War and deal with Spencer’s day-to-day life during the conflict rather than the horrors of combat.
The chapel’s design was inspired by the 14th-century Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, famously adorned with a fresco cycle by Giotto, and holds an important annual service for Remembrance Day.
5. West Berkshire Museum
This regional museum is in two of Newbury’s most treasured historic buildings.
One is the Cloth Hall, constructed as a cloth factory in 1627, while at the Wharf you can go inside the former granary.
The museum, which was revamped in 2014, looks at West Berkshire from a few different angles.
You can get to know some of the important personalities who have lived here, like Jack O’Newbury who ruled the cloth trade in Tudor England.
The museum recalls the two Civil War battles that took place in Newbury and charts the 19-year history of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, protesting nuclear weapons at the RAF base up to 2000. There’s an exhibition for Newbury Racecourse, as well as temporary displays and seasonal shows for painting, sculpture and crafts.
6. Newbury Racecourse
In some circles the name “Newbury” is synonymous with horseracing, and the town’s renowned circuit even has a dedicated railway station.
Newbury has held race meets since the beginning of the 19th century, while the current racecourse arrived in the Greenham area in 1905. Newbury host both National Hunt (jump) and flat racing, which means there are more than 30 race days all year round.
The highlights of the calendar are the Ladbrokes Trophy in November and the Grade I Challow Novices’ Hurdle at the end of December, both of which are jump events, while the Group I Lockinge Stakes in May is on the flat.
Summer brings live entertainment on race days, and the likes of Tom Jones and Jessie J have played the Party in the Paddock series.
7. Corn Exchange
In 1993, the solemn Neoclassical Corn Exchange (1862) on Newbury’s Market Place was converted into a 400-seater performing arts centre.
The Corn Exchange had a history of live entertainment, and was the setting for a legendary fight between members of The Who in 1966. There’s a broad choice of classic pop, rock and also classical music at the Corn Exchange, with live broadcasts from the Royal Opera House during their season.
Dance enthusiasts can watch shows, join in workshops and see live streams from the Royal Ballet.
Kids can take part in “make and do” days, while there are shows all year long by top comedians.
On a typical evening you can also show up for a film, be it a Hollywood production of independent release, while the Kitchen & Bar in the foyer is a slick place to go for lunch.
8. St Nicolas Church
Reconstructed in one go in the 16th century, St Nicolas Church is a uniform example of the Perpendicular Gothic style, and its unusual size is an upshot of Newbury’s prosperous cloth at this time.
You can make out little motifs in the stonework that tell you exactly when the church was built, as the pomegranates and portcullises symbolise the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1509. See the detailed tracery on the windows, which are glazed with Victorian stained glass from a 19th-century restoration.
Inside, seek out the Jacobean pulpit from 1607 – the founder of Methodism, John Wesley is known to have preached from here in 1740. On the south aisle you’ll find the magnificent 16th-century Renaissance memorial for Griffin Curteys, also depicting his wives and children.
9. North Wessex Downs
Newbury is on the periphery of a 670-square mile region of rolling chalk hills.
The North Wessex Downs are the third largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK, and offers roller-coaster walks over lush green hills, crystal clear chalk streams, long-distance views and lots of wildlife.
One trail, the Lambourn Valley Way begins right in Newbury and follows the course of the River Lambourn for 20 miles back to the Uffington White Horse.
This 110-metre-long prehistoric image of a horse was carved out on Whitehorse Hill some 5,000 years ago.
You don’t need to go that far, as within minutes of leaving Newbury you’ll be cresting hills and spotting deer and birds of prey like red kites and buzzards.
10. Watermill Theatre
This celebrated, pocket-sized performing arts venue was established in 1967 in an 18th-century mill on the River Lambourn.
Seating 220, the Watermill Theatre is held as one of the country’s top producing theatres, with some of its productions touring at the biggest venues around the UK. There are up to ten new plays each season, and these might be adaptations of fairytales, famous novels by anyone from Dickens to Terry Pratchett, classic plays, Shakespeare, or new writing by some of the best talent around.
To illustrate, in 2018-19 there were productions of Jane Eyre, Robin Hood, Noël Coward’s Easy Virtue, and a new play Trial by Laughter by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman.
11. Kennet and Avon Canal
Built in phases during the 18th century, this waterway cuts a swathe across the West of England between Bristol and Reading.
For most of its lifetime the Kennet and Avon Canal shipped Somerset limestone to London, before falling into decline when the railways came.
Newbury has an especially pretty section of canal, running past the Newbury Wharf, the remnant of a once busy inland port.
The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust has a cafe and information centre at the wharf, and schedule trips on a narrowboat on weekends at 12:00 and 14:00. If you’re ready for a self-navigated voyage you can hire your own barge for a day or more.
12. Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre
South of Thatcham there’s a 165-acre Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The Thatcham Reed Beds, on what used to be a gravel quarry, have national significance for their environment of grassland, hedgerows, dense alder woodland, fens and sprawling reed beds.
This patchwork of habitats provides a home for all sort of plant and animal species, including breeding birds like common terns, swallows, house martins, swifts and Cetti’s warblers.
The Discovery Centre has interesting exhibitions on natural history and wildlife and maintains a system of trails through these environments.
The Lakeside Cafe prepares light hot and cold meals, and there’s a gift shop in aid of the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust.
13. Victoria Park
At the start of the 20th century this common next to the Kennet was re-christened Victoria Park, in honour of the long-serving monarch.
The park’s statue of the queen, footed by four lions, was first erected in Newbury’s Market Place in 1903 before ending up on its current spot in 1966. In summer, families can make the most of the many facilities here, including a splash park, boating pond and skate park.
You can hire a tennis court or take a picnic next to the canal, while there are weekly concerts at the bandstand, by local and military brass bands.
14. Bucklebury Farm Park
On what used to be a working farm is a family animal and activity park across 77 acres in the green Pang Valley.
The Bucklebury Farm Park stands out from similar attractions for its large deer herd, made up of sika, axis, fallow and red deer species.
All day long there are deer safaris and tractor rides taking you up close to these majestic creatures.
Many more farmyard animals await, like llamas, pygmy goats, pigs, boars, donkeys, sheep and chickens, while kids can bond with rabbits and guinea pigs at the petting zoo.
For outdoor play, there’s a castle-themed playground, giant bounce mat, go-karts, a zip-wire, while drinks and snacks are on offer at Crunch’s Cabin and Woody’s Cafe.
15. Newbury Artisan Market
On the last Sunday of the month, Northbrook Street and its connecting lanes are engulfed by a market from 10:00 to 16:00. There’s art, vintage clothes, one-off crafts, homewares, flowers, enticing street food and high-quality produce.
You can pick up sauces, macaroons, ciders, jams, olives, organic honey, pastries, choice cuts of meat and freshly baked breads and pastries.
There’s a Kid’s Corner to keep youngsters busy and entertained while you take a few minutes off, and some months you can see a live band play.