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Family travel: Go wild in Oxfordshire

Its secret gardens are legendary, but perhaps the best way to enjoy the historic city of Oxford is from a rural base outside its hallowed walls

Family travel: Go wild in Oxfordshire
The Old Rectory, Worton.

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There’s some serious garden envy going on. Four adults sit on a sun-soaked patio, sandals kicked off, toes wriggling happily in the heat. It’s silent save the occasional sigh: “Why don’t we have a garden like this? We should definitely have a garden like this…”

This is the sort of garden us city folk — a group of friends from across England — can readily imagine owning were we sufficiently lucky (or wealthy). The lawn is just big enough to run children ragged yet remains homely; its flower beds just wild enough to weather a few hoofs from a football; and, when children are at a safe distance, it’s peppered with wild bunnies. Leading off the lawn are paddocks and woodland for children to scale trees and explore the undergrowth.

A quick glance over the gate into the woods reveals the kids are in their favoured spot: inside a tipi-like den made of giant branches, a treasure found on their first solo recce. Beyond the woods lies a (fenced off) lake and the rest of Worton Farm: its organic vegetable fields, piggery, two other holiday cottages, plus a brand new cathedral-like barn built for wedding parties. There’s also a farm shop, little swimming pool and cafe.

Our holiday let, The Old Rectory, like the rest of Worton, is made from handsome Cotswold stone. It’s the hamlet’s oldest, said to appear in the Domesday Book — a sprawling, farmhouse complete with flagstone floors in the kitchen, creaking wood-beamed ceilings, and an attic room that recalls the nursery in Peter Pan — a place all five kids happily retire to each evening (if not, necessarily to sleep). This leaves us grown-ups to cook up a storm in the double oven, pile logs into the wood burners or, weather allowing, BBQ on the patio.

On the odd occasion the kids grace us with their presence, we beetle off for easy excursions. Oxford is just 10 minutes’ drive away, so before you can say “Are we there yet?”, we’ve parked up and piled them into one of the city’s (gloriously free) museums. First stop is Ashmolean — Oxford’s more manageable answer to London’s British Museum — to see its superb collection of Egyptian mummies. We eat a quick lunch on the museum’s elegant roof terrace, surrounded by the city’s gables, gargoyles and dreaming spires, before the kids (and probably the other diners) have had enough.

Being within dashing distance of the city means we manage plenty more visits: to the Botanical Gardens for a picnic; Christ Church to indulge Harry Potter fantasies (two of the early movies were filmed at this Oxford University college); and, the highlight, the recently re-opened and revamped Natural History Museum, complete with soaring Victorian glass ceilings. But where the kids really want to be is at the house, seeking out dens, camps and their attic refuge. And who are we to argue?

Best for: Young families.
Highs: Beautiful country living within easy reach (on foot or by car) of a historic, family-friendly city.
Lows: Parking in Oxford is a pain, limited to a couple of hours. Best to find an outlying car park and walk in; the city’s small enough to explore on foot, even with little legs.
How to do it: The Old Rectory sleeps up to 12 in five bedrooms (three en-suite). From £218 a night (two-night minimum stay); a week’s rental starts at £1,500. wortonfarms.co.uk

If you liked this… try these

Durham: Stay out in rural Northumbria or its spectacularly rugged coastline and make day-trips into this university city. A great spot for history (and Harry Potter) fans, whose cathedral stills even the most fidgety souls.

Bristol: With its elegantly revamped docks, the interactive museum and attractions complex @Bristol, a vibrant street art culture and superb ethnic eats, this West Country hub should be a hit with everyone from tots to teens.

Edinburgh: See the world turned upside down at the Camera Obscura, climb a volcano, take a ghost tour after dark, feel the castle shake under daily 1pm cannon fire and explore the city’s murky past in the dungeons.

Published in the Summer 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)