Capital on the cheap
There are ways of visiting the attractions of the capital without breaking the bank. Yvette Huddlestone describes how.
A long weekend in London is always an attractive idea but it can end up being quite a costly exercise – London is, after all, one of the most expensive cities in Europe. People will often choose to go to Paris or Brussels for a weekend instead and may well find it works out cheaper. However, it is possible to visit London on a budget – with a bit of careful planning.
Over the October half-term break I set myself the challenge of organising a three-day break to London with my two teenage sons that wouldn’t break the bank. They were keen to go back to the city in which they were born and visit it as tourists. On previous trips as younger children they had enjoyed exploring some of the many excellent museums in London and wanted to return to view exhibits at the Natural History Museum and Science Museum, in particular, in more depth.
We also had friends to meet and were planning to take a walk around the area where we lived in south London when they were tiny. All these activities are free, so as a low-budget itinerary things were shaping up well. Next on the agenda was to find accommodation.
We wanted to stay south of the river as this was the area we knew best and also where many of our old friends still live. The big chain hotels are mostly located in central London, although they do have some in outlying zones and, while many of them describe themselves as budget often they are more expensive than you might expect.
Searching on the internet, we found a number of small guesthouses and bed and breakfast places that were more in line with the kind of cost I was looking for and eventually we settled on Clapham Guest House. It had lots of favourable reviews on TripAdvisor, was situated in the very attractive Clapham Old Town and just a short walk from Clapham Common Tube station.
Clapham Old Town is a lovely place to stay with the green open space of the Common, plenty of sensibly priced little cafes, an independent cinema (the Clapham Picturehouse), independent shops as well as the usual high street supermarkets; and by Tube it is only about 20 minutes to central London. Getting around in London is easy and when the Tube is working smoothly – and out of the rush hour – it’s a great way to travel. One-day travelcards on the Underground are still pretty good value for money fortunately.
All the major museums are free and we spent the whole of Sunday in South Kensington, starting off at the Natural History Museum and then moving on to the Science Museum. The dinosaur skeletons are the highlight of the Natural History Museum but there is so much else of interest among the 70 million treasures, covering 7.5bn years, housed within the walls of the magnificent Victorian building. These include a 90ft-long replica of a Diplodicus (affectionately known as Dippy) located in the central hall, a life-size model of a blue whale, the planet’s largest mammal, and smaller artefacts such as a first edition of Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species. An added highlight during the winter months is the museum’s 950 sq metre ice skating rink which is open from November to January.
Across the road at the Science Museum, we found a fascinating temporary exhibition about the work of mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The museum’s permanent collection contains 300,000 items including Stephenson’s Rocket, the first jet engine and James Watson’s model of DNA. There are also many objects collected by Henry Wellcome on a medical theme – both my sons found the Glimpses of Medical History and the Science and the Art of Medicine exhibitions particularly interesting. And if you fancy a break from walking around, the museum has a 3D cinema showing science and nature documentaries.
Also in South Kensington are the sumptuous art and design delights of the Victoria and Albert Museum and in Bloomsbury the magnificent British Museum, with about seven million objects. Both museums are free and deserve at least a day each to explore, or several return visits. There are many other smaller museums in London, also free – the wonderful John Soane museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is particularly worth seeking out. While all the above-mentioned museums do not charge an entrance fee, they suggest visitors leave a donation and I would urge everyone to do so .
Window shopping on Oxford Street is another great low-budget activity as long as you are disciplined and don’t get tempted into buying It’s especially worth a visit at this time of year when the Christmas lights are spectacular.
Our visit coincided with the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition at Tate Britain, so on the Monday morning before heading home, we took the Tube to Pimlico and strolled along the river to the gallery. Although we had to pay for the Pre-Raphaelites, entrance to the gallery’s permanent exhibition is free. Other free art galleries in London include The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square which houses one of the world’s finest collections of western European paintings from around 1250 onwards, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Modern. If you fancy a trip to a smaller gallery, the Wallace Collection contains artworks by Titian, Rembrandt and Velazques.
Our long weekend comprised a bit of science, some natural history, retail therapy, some art, and time spent with friends; the perfect mix – and it didn’t break the bank.
East Coast trains from Leeds to London King’s Cross www.eastcoast.co.uk
Clapham Guest House www.claphamguesthouse.co.uk
Natural History Museum.nhm.ac.uk
Tate Britain www.tate.org.uk
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