London On The Cheap



To counterbalance recent pieces here about the high cost of being in London, I tried London on the cheap over the weekend with some friends, and here’s what we found:

First the obvious stuff; it’s down to areas. Avoid the tourist trail if you don’t want to be charged extortionate prices, so forget Knightsbridge, Kensington, Chelsea, Islington, and anything from Piccadilly to Leicester Square. And does anyone need to be told that no self-respecting Londoner would be seen dead in an Angus Steak House or M&M World?

Markets: In general market shopping has improved of late. Once Portobello and Spitalfields sold furniture and antiques – now they’re more about handicrafts and clothes. I bought a shirt in Spitalfields market for £15, and it’s very nicely made. My friend Joanna (above) tried this fascinator for a wedding – £30, and you could probably argue a fiver off of that.

Cool doesn’t necessarily equate with cheap – the newly tarted-up Camden Market is the epitome of uncool. Most of its shops are chains even when they don’t look it, and the food’s terrible. It also feels overcrowded and unpleasant at weekends. Even here, though, there are surprises, like the wonderful Marine Ices (Italian cafe) and the Roundhouse bars.

Cinema and theatre: Sunny days are perfect for finding cheap tickets (Londoners don’t want to sit inside on the rare days of sun), and watch out for concessions – although there’s no consistent policy on these. Time Out’s special offers are often surprisingly good – I saw a play half-price last week by booking through them. What’ often has terrific offers. The Easyjet economic model is in place for many London events, ie. the earlier you book, the better the deal. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t use third parties for music/sporting events, most of whom make money from doing nothing.

Restaurants: if it has a view or any kind of open space, you’ll pay for it. But there are more outdoor venues in London than you realise, from pubs like The Water Poet to restaurants like Clerkenwell’s Medcalf, you can get outside seating at no extra cost. Clubbing comes with the usual price tag, but if crowds don’t freak you, roof spaces like the Queen of Hoxton can be fun. Shoreditch on a warm Saturday night is a trial by fire, involving fights, drunkenness and general insanity – but it has to be tried once.


Parks: For the more sedately inclined, head for the parks. My favourite is the Inner Circle in Regent’s Park, but there’s no neighbourhood that doesn’t have green space. Slump on a hump in Spa Fields (above, Clerkenwell), visit the pelicans in St James’s Park  or head for a cemetery (but not Hampstead – it’s fiercely guarded by mad old biddies).

Cheap ethnic food can be found in all areas, but the quality is shockingly variable. There’s an adage put about by some that ‘you can’t get a good Ruby down Brick Lane’. That’s not true – several are excellent. The problem with many cheap restaurants in Chinatown and Brick Lane is that they have aggressive greeters hustling customers, which is very off-putting. A shame, as there are some fine places behind all the shouting.  Don’t be tricked by the words ‘Award-winning’ – in many instances these are spurious awards the restaurateurs have given themselves.

We opted for a popular website recommendation that turned out to be spectacularly awful – Tayyabe. After queuing for a table we got rude, disinterested service, wrong orders and a numbingly bad meal of identical brown mush dishes.

Street food has undergone a revolution; much of it is very good indeed, although again I’d avoid Camden Market, ruined by excessive tourism, and head for the only-slightly-more sedate Spitalfields. The problem is where and how to eat some of your selections, as there aren’t always tables available. Borough is heaving, and anyway Broadway Market, Brixton Village, and Columbia Road are all much funkier. Exmouth Market no longer has its wonderful book market, though – shame on them.

Sunny days mean good outdoor pools and plenty of places to stretch the legs, with a break in a good pub. We opted for the quirky, charming Commercial Tavern on Commercial Road, with its retro artwork and fifties music (which included Japanese covers of Monkees’ songs – who knew?).

However, a long day out doing supposedly cheap things in the city still managed to rack up a sizeable cost. Why? I’m not quite sure, but all the little bills added up to something heftier than we’d expected. Set a spend-limit and keep your eyes peeled. Gastropubs don’t necessarily work out cheaper than restaurants, as many now offer seriously grown-up food.


16 comments on “London On The Cheap”

  1. pheeny says:

    Can I recommend The George Inn Southwark ? Genuinely historical and decent food at reasonable prices. Also near to Borough Market which is worth going to just to see the displays, and just a brisk walk away from the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern

  2. pheeny says:

    Should say it is the INN that is historical not the food haha

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Okay, what does “you can’t get a good Ruby down Brick Lane mean”?
    Hate to always seem to ask, but my career trained me to do so. ‘Say doctor, were you ever able to get that ruby down Brick Lane. He had a smallish mouth and that idol stone was really a whopper.

  4. Jo W says:

    Dan, a ruby is a cockney slang term for a curry- as in Ruby Murray- curry.( She was a singer of Irish origin in the 1950s). Sorry if you were confused, not being able to speak the local lingo like wot we does. 🙂

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Don’t be sorry, Jo W. It’s a great and fun linguistic adventure. And I appreciate it when people let me know what these encoded phrases and words mean. So….thanks

  6. Roger says:

    “fifties music (which included Japanese covers of Monkees’ songs – who knew?).”

    If the Japanese songs were from the fifties, surely the Monkees’ versions were the covers.

  7. admin says:

    Oh Roger, Roger…had I been writing a novel I would have rephrased this for the line edit. As it was, I was writing it in an airport as they were about to call my flight. I meant that the music included Monkees, not that they were from the fifties.

  8. Alan G says:

    Dan – I’d love to give more examples of Cockney slang. But they sound a bit funny in a Scottish accent.

  9. m says:

    I’d love to see more examples of slang.
    Have bookmarked this post in case I get to visit again. We were going to visit Camden Market but had forgotten that it was a weekend and it was such a horrifying zoo that we left.

  10. snowy says:

    Lists of slang words can get tiny a bit dull if just delivered, well…. as a list. They need to be put in a frame to ‘set them off’ to advantage, an example:

    THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS by Marriott Edgar

    I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
    As happened in days long gone by,
    When Duke William became King of England,
    And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

    It were this way – one day in October
    The Duke, who were always a toff
    Having no battles on at the moment,
    Had given his lads a day off.

    They’d all taken boats to go fishing,
    When some chap in t’ Conqueror’s ear
    Said ‘Let’s go and put breeze up the Saxons;’
    Said Bill – ‘By gum, that’s an idea.’

    Then turning around to his soldiers,
    He lifted his big Norman voice,
    Shouting – ‘Hands up who’s coming to England.’
    That was swank ‘cos they hadn’t no choice.

    They started away about tea-time –
    The sea was so calm and so still,
    And at quarter to ten the next morning
    They arrived at a place called Bexhill.

    King ‘Arold came up as they landed –
    His face full of venom and ‘ate –
    He said ‘lf you’ve come for Regatta
    You’ve got here just six weeks too late.’

    At this William rose, cool but ‘aughty,
    And said ‘Give us none of your cheek;
    You’d best have your throne re-upholstered,
    I’ll be wanting to use it next week.’

    When ‘Arold heard this ‘ere defiance,
    With rage he turned purple and blue,
    And shouted some rude words in Saxon,
    To which William answered – ‘And you.’

    ‘Twere a beautiful day for a battle;
    The Normans set off with a will,
    And when both sides was duly assembled,
    They tossed for the top of the hill.

    King ‘Arold he won the advantage,
    On the hill-top he took up his stand,
    With his knaves and his cads all around him,
    On his ‘orse with his ‘awk in his ‘and.

    The Normans had nowt in their favour,
    Their chance of a victory seemed small,
    For the slope of the field were against them,
    And the wind in their faces an’ all.

    The kick-off were sharp at two-thirty,
    And soon as the whistle had went
    Both sides started banging each other
    ‘Til the swineherds could hear them in Kent.

    The Saxons had best line of forwards,
    Well armed both with buckler and sword –
    But the Normans had best combination,
    And when half-time came neither had scored.

    So the Duke called his cohorts together
    And said – ‘Let’s pretend that we’re beat,
    Once we get Saxons down on the level
    We’ll cut off their means of retreat.’

    So they ran – and the Saxons ran after,
    Just exactly as William had planned,
    Leaving ‘Arold alone on the hill-top
    On his ‘orse with his ‘awk in his ‘and.

    When the Conqueror saw what had happened,
    A bow and an arrow he drew;
    He went right up to ‘Arold and shot him.
    He were off-side, but what could they do?

    The Normans turned round in a fury,
    And gave back both parry and thrust,
    Till the fight were all over bar shouting,
    And you couldn’t see Saxons for dust.

    And after the battle were over
    They found ‘Arold so stately and grand,
    Sitting there with an eye-full of arrow
    On his ‘orse with his ‘awk in his ‘and.

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    I for one say thank you for all the typing Snowy.
    Clearly the Duke was a well-sighted archer.
    “Will you hit him from here, my Lord?”

  12. Jo W says:

    Yes,well done Snowy! I thought I could hear Stanley Holloway rendering that.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    One of my favourites, Snowy, as well as Marksman Sam and Albert and the Lion, of course. I can still do bits of them. I really hope I can get this to post – I am NOT a robot – because the Sat. Hotel, Snowy, is the Leisure Inn Hotel, 40-41 Leinster Gardens, Westminster Borough, London W2 3AN

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Right, so here’s an odd little one from last Friday. Victoria Station area, just off Eccleston Bridge on Hugh St. On the corner is Nicholson’s St George, lots of gilt on the signage, dated to 1873, brass plate suggesting smart clothes (undefined) big write up claiming Churchill as a one time resident in the area and the downstairs dining room named for him. Two blocks away, still on Hugh St., is the Greyhound, only slightly smaller, of indeterminate age, definitely neighbourhood regulars, a little battered, although someone with training has been painting up the best known Churchill quips on the wall. Crowded bar so through doorway into separate room with pass through from the bar and a very small fireplace with cast iron grate. Friday evening, people just off work, and table of 4 young fellows enjoying pints (3.80). They were joined by a bouncy young woman, friend of one of them. She and a girlfriend had just signed for a new flat in Vauxhall and she had pictures to show. At this point I had to ask about the price because there had been a gasp. 850 a month. Total? No, each. But it has a balcony said one of the fellows. We had excellent fish and chips and I had a good cuppa. Liked it, felt comfortable.
    Next night we went to the George – 2 blocks away – much posher crowd in bar and every indication that food is downstairs. Downstairs almost full, area carved out of the pub’s original storage, I’m guessing. Proper menu, very good food, very good, and prices quite reasonable, but the clientele were Polish, Italian speaking, USian (as my friend calls Americans) and a few I didn’t!t have clues for. Hugh St has a solid bank of Georgian- Victorian fronts that have been carved up into peculiar little hotels, but it is astounding the difference between those two places, so close together.

  15. snowy says:

    OK, Helen. Got the address.

    It’s just up the road from the false houses, Nos. 23 & 24. [Since they were recently used in a TV Detective series, there might be hordes of people out side taking pictures.]

    A thought occured to me, [don’t snigger, even dead fish exhibit measurable ‘brain activity’].

    You are hosting a meet-up on Saturday, lots of people would like to attend but are unable due to time or geography. How about inviting them to join in via ‘Social Media’?

    You have an iPad and the venue has wifi, I have a ‘ready-rolled’ Twitter account that could be used for the occasion.

    People could pop in and say “Hello”, pictures can be posted etc. [Until the Gin kicks in and you all slide under the table, obviously.]

    It exists ONLY as an idea, and I’m NOT going to do ANYTHING with it, without YOUR explicit consent, but if the idea appeals let me know and I’ll put it into effect.

  16. John Griffin says:

    Thanks for the ideas – went to Spitalfields on Wednesday and loved the tea dance there, bought an ace umbrella, and had a quiet walk back towards Holborn through the City. What a difference between that and the crowds in the West.

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