Monday, 20 October 2014

A day out in London for (almost) free.

I have always blown the metaphorical trumpet for the wonders of being a freelancer, rather than being permanently employed – you are your own boss, you can take holidays whenever you want and for as long as you want, you can earn more money working fewer days, tra la la. The downside of freelancing is lack of income when you’re ill. Being a fit and healthy 40-something, my sick days are few, thank goodness, but when surgery suddenly looms, you have to be prepared for a recuperation period, where no money is coming in.

I had knee surgery recently and was off work for 4 weeks. That was fine... I had budgeted (sort of) for that period of inactivity. Although I knew I would lose a months wages, all it meant was a slight adjustment to my normal routine. I have never been a big spender on things – months and months go by between purchases of clothes or shoes; my television blew up over 3 months ago and I haven’t bothered to replace it; I tend to substitute expensive skincare with cheaper, more natural alternatives (hurrah for coconut oil and tap water), and I also embrace the look of darker roots before I have my highlights re-done. My luxury items, the stuff that makes my heart go pitter-pat, are experiences and people – memories if you will – and that is where most of my money goes (after boring things like the mortgage and bills). Trips abroad, theatre tickets, cinema, ballet, lunches and dinners with friends, all put major dips in my bank account, so knowing I had to be very very careful with money until I started working again, I also had to be a little more creative with my entertainment. 

With a free Sunday approaching, and finally being able to walk without wincing in pain, I decided to see how much I could do, for free, in a single day in central London. Here’s what I did.

Sunday 9 am
Eat a hearty breakfast. This I count as free because I already had the ingredients in my fridge.
Cost = 0

10 am
Drive into central London. Driving my car, I also count as free because I already had petrol in the tank. There is no congestion charge on Sunday and also no charge for street parking. 
Cost of travel = 0

11am - 1pm (ish)
Attend my first Sunday Assembly. Now, I’m not exactly sure how to describe this unique experience, this group of people, other than how they describe themselves. On their website, they say they are: A global movement for wonder and good – helping you to live better, help often and wonder more. I love that. I wonder about things all the time (at school, my teachers called it daydreaming), I like to live life to the full and I try and be a good person and help others. So it seemed a good fit. I had read about it a year ago and had always wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity until now. The two people that set it up, Pippa and Sanderson (comedians by day, funnily enough), wanted to do something that had all the best bits of church (i.e. singing, a warm community of people, coffee and cake afterwards) but without the religion. Most importantly, they wanted the addition of awesome rock and pop songs, played by a live band, that people could sing along to en masse! So far so good. 

I was a little nervous and got there early, parking outside an old building in Holborn, like a curb-crawling stalker, watching people as they went in. After I had noticed more than a dozen 30 to 40-something (rather handsome and very well dressed) men walking in, I hesitated no longer. I parked my car and walked into the old hall, with a spring in my step. Everyone looked perfectly normal. I don’t know what I expected to see – misfits and oddities maybe – but everyone looked like me. Well, you and me, but better looking. And by that I don’t mean weird clean-cut Mormon good looking, I mean nice clothes, takes care of themselves, good looking. There were a lot of fine bearded, buffed brogue-wearing and twinkly-eyed men. There were shiny-haired, chatty, expensive jean-clad women. Sanderson, ironically (as it’s all about being non-denominational), looked like Jesus (or should I say, how Jesus is depicted in paintings and sculptures): about 35 years old, over 6'3", slim, with light brown shoulder length hair and and an impressive shoulder length beard. He was very funny (expected) and led proceedings with a combination of self-deprecating humour and charm. The 200+ crowd (I so want to say congregation) sang and laughed and cheered and clapped and sang some more. The sing-a-longs were just brilliant… big booming classic rock anthems with lyrics projected onto a screen on stage, and every now and again, the screen would flash up, "Dance break", and the whole room exploded into improv dancing. I tell you what… singing and dancing like a nutter with 200 other people, is not something you usually find yourself doing sober, and in daylight, but I tell you what, it felt good. I had a stupid smile slapped across my face the entire time, and then, when the singing and dancing stopped, there was a male choir called Chaps, 2 hilarious slam poets, a talk about leadership... and then there was coffee and cake! Brilliant. There is no charge for these two hours of life-affirming madness, but donations are welcome, and were placed in a hessian sack that was passed around during a particularly raucous rendition of Starship’s, We Built This City. I watched my neighbours put in various amounts, ranging from £1 coins to £5 notes. I opted for a shiny £2 coin. I know that sounds terribly miserly but I was a trying to do the day for free and bottled it at the final hessian hurdle!

Cost of two hours of joy = 0 if you’re scrooge, £2 if you’re on a budget, any other amount if you have no money issues.

1 pm
Whilst half the Sunday Assembly crowd went to the local pub, feeling a proper drink was in order, I was still trying to spend as little money as possible and felt it was not the appropriate time to try and get a stranger to buy me a drink (sobriety and daylight being another factor), so I opted out and spent my lunchtime sitting on a bench in a small park in Russell Square, amidst falling russet leaves and playful squirrels. Once again, I had most of the contents of my mid-day meal already in my fridge, so I brought along a mini picnic: cheese and pickle sandwich, cashew nuts, banana and a re-cycled plastic bottle filled with ribena (my own holy wine!).
Cost = 0

1:30 - 3 pm
Drive to King’s Cross, park the car and walk to the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. If you pretend you are a resident in one of these opulent places of rest, no one will pay you any attention if you stroll about the place, gawping at the incredible architecture... which I did. Luckily, I went to a literary salon here a few months ago, so I knew vaguely where I was going as I walked through the maze of hallways and staircases, and no one batted an eyelid! You can also sit in the lobby and have a cup of coffee (again, it's not my fault if they think I'm a guest) and people watch to your heart’s content. Expensive hotels, like this one, are the best places to people watch. With rooms costing £400-£900 a night, there are only a certain few people that can afford to stay here, and they are an eclectic bunch! From Russians dripping in cashmere, fur and gold, to tiny suited Japanese businessmen, bowing at each other and drinking whiskey, to little old ladies that look like Miss Marple… there are all sorts, and if like me, you are terribly nosey and enjoy a bit of eavesdropping, they are also great fodder for writing ideas! 

After my cup of refreshment, I walked out of the hotel and straight onto the Eurostar platform, then over the canal to the newly developed Granary Square at the back of King's Cross. Canals, boats, buskers, water features and the Museum of Illustration make this another great place to visit for free.

I then walked up to St. Pancras Old Church and found the Hardy Tree. This amazing Ash tree is surrounded by spiralling gravestones. It was designed by the architect Thomas Hardy (before he became a writer) when a new railroad was being built, and a 100 graves had to be dug up and repositioned. It was his creative solution and is ridiculously beautiful.

I then walked to the British Library and into the beauteous space of 170 million books, maps, drawings and manuscripts. 170 million items covering 6 miles of shelving! I hate the word but can think of no other. Awesome.

Cost = 0

3 - 4 pm
Drive to the Tate Modern. If it is a nice day, and it was, there is nothing better than being high up with a view stretching across the river Thames to the buildings of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Gherkin (don't know it's real name). Luckily I am a member of the Tate and can catch a lift to the 5th floor and hang out on the roof terrace free of charge. 

I was a little cheeky with my drink options here though, but as I was on a mission to spend as little as possible I rose to the challenge of getting something without paying. Confidence and a smile get you a long way! It is an expensive place to get a cup of tea or coffee, but at the end of the counter is a bucket of ice, some sliced lemons and cups and saucers. So I simply picked up a cup and saucer and asked the waitress if I could have some hot water (they can't charge for water), then took a few slices of lemon and voila… a lovely hot refreshing drink. Am I sounding ridiculous? I know I know… I was blinded by my own challenge! But hot water and lemon on a cold crisp autumn day really is quite divine.

Cost = 0

4 - 5 pm
Drive to the Tower of London to see the poppies. This art installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is something you truly have to see for yourself if you can, because photographs do not do it justice. Thousands of volunteers have been planting red ceramic poppies around the moat of the tower for most of the summer and autumn. Once finished, in time for Remembrance Day on November 11th, there will be 888,246 poppies, each one representing a life that was lost in The Great War, a 100 years ago. It is not only incredibly moving but absolutely stunning. 

I left the poppies and a thousand other tourists and suddenly realised I was in desperate need of the loo. But the one thing seemingly impossible to do in London is to go for a wee, for free. Public loos now charge 50p to go through their turnstiles!! No way José! So I ducked into the nearest pub, pretended to look around for my non-existent friends, and used their water closet instead.
Cost = 0

5 - 6 pm
Drive to Borough Market. I was actually planning on buying my supper as I walked around the amazing food stalls but I soon realised – having been offered everything from tasty morsels of cheese, slices of cured meats and marinated olives, to crumbled brownies, broken cookies and little shots of wine – that I needed nothing more. I was full up. Thank you kind and generous market traders for your little samples. Don’t worry everyone, I have spent absolute fortunes on goodies here in the past, so I didn't feel a jot of guilt at my one-off freebie taster day.

Cost = 0

6 pm
As you can imagine, after walking for a lot of the day, my knee was complaining loudly and I was utterly exhausted, so I toasted my success with another thimbleful of wine and drove home. 
Cost of entire day = £2. Not bad.

There are hundreds of things you can do in London for free; galleries, exhibitions, parks and museums (the John Soanes Museum being my absolute favourite… utterly fantabulous, quirky and 100% free of charge). You can watch buskers in Covent Garden and street dancers in Trafalgar Square; you can flit from market to market and nibble their wares; you can get a free massage or haircut if you don't mind being a guinea pig for a student; you can watch bands, comedy, poetry and book readings for free in pubs, if you check local listings; you can do the salsa or samba with experienced dancers for free in latin clubs; and if you volunteer you can get backstage for all sorts of events. 

I only managed a few of those things in one day, but it really opened my eyes to what is possible, right on my doorstep. I love London and don't think I will ever tire of it. Ok, you have to be fit enough to be able to walk for hours, and you have to like looking at things. It helps if you enjoy people watching and don't mind bringing your own picnic but it is possible to have the most incredible day out and not break a fiver. Of course, it's much more fun if you do it with friends so I am accepting volunteers for my next excursion!