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!

Big Bow Day Out

Visiting London this summer and fancy doing something different? What about a big day out in Bow in east London? Begin your visit with a ride on the Docklands Light Railway to Stratford where you can explore the recently opened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Bring your swimming things to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy an Olympic-quality swimming experience at municipal pool prices in the Aquatics Centre. Then hop back on the DLR to Bow Church station. If the weather is kind you might picnic in the peaceful and pretty Memorial Garden alongside Grove Hall Park.

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From there, slip into the Nunnery to view the East London Group of Artists Exhibition (on until Sunday 13 July). Many of the paintings displayed depict a curiously soft-focus inter-war East London. Railways, wharves, roads and bridges are popular themes – and the surrounding streets are often eerily deserted.

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Detail from Bow Bridge (Walter Steggles), undated.
Detail from Railway Fence (Walter Steggles) c.1928
Detail from Railway Fence (Walter Steggles) c.1928.

Some half a dozen works exhibited feature localities that lie beyond East London – but invariably these possess an East End link. Canvey Island in Essex, for example, has long been a popular destination for day trippers from the city.

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Detail from Canvey Island (Walter Steggles) c.1933

On leaving the exhibition, call in at the neighbouring Carmelite Cafe for slices of home-made cake served on cute bone china plates. Or, for a more gritty or traditional east London experience, visit the Bow Bells pub on Bow Road (keeping an eye out for the lurid paintwork on the walls as you head up the stairs to the toilets). Make time to appreciate some of the smaller historic details as you wander between station, park, gallery, pub and tube, such as this beautifully-worked wrought-iron SALOON LOUNGE sign over the doorway of the former Kings Arms pub on Bow Road.

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If you have time afterwards, you might like to view the spot where peace activist Mohandas Gandhi stayed when he visited London in 1931. Kingsley Hall is situated just off the Bow Road and offers meals in its 3 Bees Cafe every Tuesday from 4pm to 7pm.