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’sOnStage.com 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.