London England on the Very Cheap
Museums and other free attractions make an affordable holiday
By FJ Napoleone
Finding myself stuck in London for six unexpected days due to the inconvenient activity of an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano my first thought was ‘what a great place to get stuck.’ My second thought, however, was ‘this is going be expensive.’ Surprisingly, that was not the case.
As our flight approached Heathrow last spring, the pilot announced that the airport would be closing due to volcanic ash over Western Europe. Ours was one of the last planes to land at the now empty terminal - a strange feeling since Heathrow is normally one of the busiest in the world.
I checked the departure monitors. Across each screen a message scrolled; “All flights canceled. No connecting flights until further notice.”
I collected my luggage and hopped onto the Tube – which would become my main mode of transport for the next week. In the city center, at an internet cafe, I was able to book myself into a budget hotel not far from High Park.
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When traveling alone, I am out for most of the day so typically I avoid any fancy extras like maid service, bath towels, and soaps in favor of a shared bath, and a common room complete with foosball and a bunch of backpackers from all over the world.
These quasi-hostels have their advantages; they are inexpensive, clean, and with no frills, you can almost always find someone to hang out with. Even in the middle of the night, there are folks – some strange yes - but most are just hanging out looking for a foosball partner. It was easy to make friends in this environment. And who better to know about free and cheap stuff to occupy yourself with than traveling college kids?
If music is your thing there is a lot to discover. In Trafalgar Square during my visit, there was a huge celebration hosted the Dutch. A mass of orange-draped, beer-chugging youth boogied in front of a stage that showcased music for almost 8 hours. In the rock-concert setting it wasn’t quite clear what exactly they were celebrating, but as you may know, the Dutch don’t need much of an excuse to have a party.
For music tastes that are a little more low-key, just across the square, you can step into a church, St Martin-in-the-Fields. Daytime concerts are open to the public and the acoustics are perfect. During a previous visit, I discovered a 12-piece string orchestra practicing Mozart for an upcoming concert.
An usher greeted me as I entered, “You’re free to sit and enjoy as long as you keep quiet. No flash photography, please.” It was a good place to sit and relax for a while.
If you’re into the late-night party scene then you will want to head to the Camden Town district. The main drag is lined with pubs and clubs. I chose Koko’s because of the live musical acts. I was impressed by a young trio called Bleech.
The female-led band played a spirited punk-grunge rock style. They didn’t play for very long, maybe 30 minutes or so, but they made up for it in energy level. The rest of the night had a DJ spinning dance mixes for the crowd which was made up of mostly 20 and 30-year-olds. The entrance fee was 7 pounds (about $10 Canadian).
Of course, London is a great walking city as well. One can pass countless hours wandering through the cobbled streets of Covent Gardens in search of used-book shops and buskers. Nearby is Chinatown, always bustling with late-night restaurants. The White Chapel District has Brick Row; with great Indian restaurants, loads of artisan shops and free public art.
An easy, carefree stroll along the Regent Park canal is another great way to spend an afternoon or morning. Colorful riverboats with their eclectic live-aboard residents line the waterways. It’s easy to be transported back in time here.
London is a relatively safe city, but it’s also prudent to use common sense. At night, try to explore with a friend or two and know where you’re headed. Public gardens like High Park and Hampstead Heath are open only during daylight hours. There are plenty of late-night buses and some tube stations are under construction and closed - so plan accordingly.
Upon my return home, I learned about the European Air Travellers Bill of Rights. I made an inquiry and found out that the airline was responsible for any costs I endured caused by my delay. Imagine that. A volcano spews ash in Iceland, and I get free hotel accommodations in London.
Had I known beforehand, I may have stayed at the Four Seasons. But, I’m glad I didn’t. I rather enjoyed the colorful characters that hang out with backpackers - that way I have someone to play foosball with in the middle of the night.
FJ Napoleone is an award-winning writer and university instructor residing in Vancouver, Canada.
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