Seven Days Out in London

I’ve lived in London for more than thirty years. Here are my suggestions for cheap days out in the city, based on my own interests and aimed at independent travellers curious to discover some of the less obvious London attractions.

Day One. Holborn

From Holborn Station, head for Lincoln’s Inn Fields to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum  and the Hunterian Museum then explore the green spaces of the Inns of Court. Carry a copy of Bleak House (1853) and call in at the Dickens Museum afterwards. The October Gallery is also worth a visit, not least for the ladies toilets! Finally walk to Judd Street to the Patisserie Deux Amis where you can pretend to be a character in a French film – Thérèse Desqueyroux works well.

Day Two. Hampstead Village

Turn left out of the station and stroll down Flask Walk. Call into Keith Fawkes second-hand bookshop and pick out a cheap paperback. Get completely lost in the back streets before heading to the Heath for a picnic. If it’s rainy you can visit the Freud Museum or Keats House Museum or pop into the Flask or the Holly Bush for a port and lemon as though you’re in a Patrick Hamilton novel.

Photo by author (August 2015).
Photograph by author (August 2015).

Day Three. Deptford (market days are Wednesday and Saturday)

Take a Docklands Light Railway train from Bank or Tower Gateway to Deptford Bridge. Sit at the front and imagine you’re the driver. Enjoy the glass and water dockland views out of the train window. Walk from Deptford Bridge station to the High Street and spend the day hunting out pop-up art projects or looking for bargains in the market stalls or independent shops. Peter and Joan’s at number 119 is an Aladdin’s Cave of colourful wools, cute buttons and gorgeous fabrics. Call in at Cafe Selecta for a mug of instant coffee (90p) and two slices of toast and marmite (90p) served by friendly staff then make your way to St Paul’s Church to admire the beautiful Baroque architecture of this landmark structure.

Fish for sale at Deptford Seafood Center. Photograph by author (September 2015).
Fish for sale at Deptford Seafood Center. Photograph by author (September 2015).

Day Four. From Kensington to Covent Garden

Start the day with a breakfast tea in Benugo’s at the Victoria and Albert Museum. If it’s sunny you can sit in the courtyard. Otherwise stay inside to enjoy the mirrored and tiled beauty of the Morris room. Then you might go mainstream and explore the museums at South Kensington – or you might head directly to the tube station to take a train to Covent Garden. From here it’s a short walk along Long Acre to Freemason’s Hall where you can join a tour of the grand art deco building (free, advance booking recommended). Afterwards walk back along Long Acre until you get to the Rose Street turning where you will find Bageriet. It’s worth awkwardly sharing a table to enjoy the delicious coffee and cinnamon buns in this small Swedish bakery.

Day Five. West End

From Great Portland Street tube station walk to the Royal Institute of British Architects where there is a varied programme of talks and temporary exhibitions. Next get completely lost wandering through the back streets of Fitzrovia and the West End. Head vaguely south and go into as many pubs and cafes as you like. Clutch a copy of Roland Camberton’s Scamp (1950) to read in quiet moments. The eventual aim is to reach the National Portrait Gallery and make your way up to the café – not for the food but for the amazing view across slate city rooftops and Trafalgar Square. Go at a quiet time when you only need to order a drink rather than an expensive meal. End the day by strolling to the Thames to watch the sun go down from Westminster Bridge, in a Whistler-ish style.

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Look out for attractive design details inside RIBA. Photograph by author (May 2015).

Day Six. East End (vintage market at Spitalfields takes place on Thursdays)

From Liverpool Street station, cross the road to the Bishopsgate Institute to look over the daily papers under the glass dome in the atmospheric Bishopsgate Institute library. Or bring along a copy of Alexander Baron’s King Dido (1969, set in 1911) to read. Leave the building by the side entrance then enjoy a slow stroll around Spitalfields Market’s vintage stalls before calling in at the Town House on Fournier Street for tea in the basement. Next wander through the back streets of Spitalfields towards Whitechapel. You’re on the leisurely lookout for Victoria Cottages near Deal Street. Once you’ve discovered them, return to Brick Lane for a bargain-price filled bagel from the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. If you can set it up in advance, arrange a visit to Dennis Severs’ House as part of your East End excursion.

Day Seven. Greenwich and the River (vintage market on Saturdays and Sundays)

Take the river bus to Greenwich. Read Howard Clewes The Long Memory (1951) ahead of the trip to add an element of mild peril as you travel past re-purposed warehouses and battered old barges. On arrival at Greenwich, visit the Clocktower outdoor market to rummage through boxes of twentieth-century musical scores or crates of crockery, brooches and badges. Next, make your way to the curious Fan Museum before striding up the steep slopes of Greenwich Park to take in the panoramic views of London and the Thames from outside the Royal Observatory. For afternoon tea and cakes, Royal Teas Café is recommended.

Greenwich in blossom. Photograph by author (May 2015).
Greenwich in blossom. Photograph by author (May 2015).

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to spending seven days in London but I hope it will provide some ideas for new and old visitors to the city. Feel free to add your own suggestions below!

Alternative London makes compulsive reading

Alternative LondonIn the 1960s a new wave of London guidebooks began to appear, offering insight into the city’s attractions to would-be visitors of all incomes, lifestyles and backgrounds. My particular favourite is Alternative London first published in 1970 and compiled by author, traveller and pioneer of the wholefood movement Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998). The guidebook was well-received from the first, somewhat to Saunders’ surprise given its outspoken and idiosyncratic content. A reviewer from the Observer said: ‘Alternative London makes compulsive reading – lots of original and imaginative suggestions.’ Saunders attributed the popularity of Alternative London to the fact that it was authentic; that is, it was thoroughly researched by someone who knew, loved and ‘lived’ his subject. In the afterword to the 1971 edition (Alternative London went through six reprints in the 1970s and 1980s), Saunders explained:

‘I’m not the journalistic type at all; I haven’t read a book in the last 18 months; I don’t get any papers, haven’t got a telly. What I learn is from my own experience, or from other people relating theirs to me. I’m a frustrated, dissatisfied kind of person who’s always getting involved in something which I hope will provide me with some kind of answer. Also I don’t fit into any social slot – I drift as an outsider among all sorts of people. And that, combined with isolation from the news, gives me an overall sense of what’s going on.’

In part I love Alternative London for the hip and happening geometric cover, which Saunders designed (I hope his estate would be happy to approve my reproducing the cover above to illustrate this post). I also enjoy flicking through the pages to be reminded of how much the world has changed since the 1970s. For example, in a section on money, Saunders advises visitors to London to ask their bank for ‘a card and secret number’ to take advantage of cash dispensers which give out £10 at any time and are ‘becoming more common on the streets of the city’.

In a discussion of food prices, Saunders urges his readers to complain if they receive bad service or are overpriced before providing us with an intriguing glimpse into 1970s customer care in the capital:

‘Don’t hesitate – managers prefer you to say what’s wrong rather than boycott their shop. And you may get rewarded: when I last complained about my pork pie being clammy, a straw-hatted Wall’s representative came round with a giant fresh one.’

An entire social history blog might be constructed out of this one passage, not least because pork pie aficionado Saunders went on to become best-known for turning Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden into the wholefood and alternative therapy centre it is today. Not a pork product in sight.

If you would like to find out more about Nicholas Saunders, there is a website dedicated to his life and memory here: http://www.stain.org/nicholas/