London Without Admission Fees

London can be an expensive city to visit. Its hotels are notoriously expensive, at least in the popular tourist districts. The general cost of living is higher in the capital than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. And some of the primary tourist attractions have high admission fees. But on our recent trip, we found that it was possible to enjoy sightseeing around London without paying any admission fees at all.

During our visit, we spent three days wandering around parts of the city. We visited several markets, checked out the street art in various places and visited a couple of locations that are off the beaten tourist track. We used a variety of trains, underground and buses to get to and from certain areas – and a lot of walking. For the public transport, having a topped-up Oyster card made it easy to transition from one form of transport to another.

Day One – Destination Brixton

Our primary destination for the first day was Brixton. We were keen to visit the area that was a centre of Caribbean culture throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, as well as the scene of rioting, when the local Black British population rose up to protest against a history of police racism and harassment.

But first, we caught one of the iconic red double-decker buses and rode to the Herne Hill Market. Of course, to enjoy the full effect, we rode on the upper deck. The market operates every Sunday, between 10.00am and 4.00pm, with stalls selling a variety of cooked food, locally grown or produced products, fresh seafood, crafts, rugs, and clothing. Some of the food looked delicious – and tempting – but we were there in the morning and were not yet ready to eat. The French Tartiflette looked particularly delicious, and the Rainforest Vegan stall was loaded with appealing options.

From Herne Hill, we began our walk along Railton Road into Brixton. Back in the 80’s, Railton Road was known as the Front Line, and was the epicentre of the Brixton Riots. We hadn’t walked far along the road when we saw this large mural, that speaks to those troubled times.

Most of current-day Railton Road is unremarkable. I suspect that much of its former cultural identity has been lost due to gentrification. But one particular house stood out from the rest, much to the chagrin of his neighbours, I am sure. The occupant is operating a small business, repairing cycles, as can be seen from the hand-written sign.

As we got closer to the centre of Brixton, we passed the Brixton Advice Centre which provides advice on housing, benefits, debt and money for any residents of Lambeth. The Centre also holds a pro bono legal advice clinic where people can get advice on a range of legal problems. The Centre’s windows feature images of some of the leading community activists from back in the 1980’s, including Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Farrukh Dhondy and Olive Morris. These names and faces were familiar to us, having watched documentaries about Brixton and the community uprising.

Having reached the centre of Brixton, our first visit was to Brixton Village. This market area was built in 1937 and features several narrow lanes, that are called avenues, which are covered by a glass roof. These avenues are home to over 100 shops, although many of them have become cafes and restaurants over the past two decades. It’s a brightly coloured shopping space with some interesting little shops.

We returned to Brixton Village later in the afternoon, to enjoy some Jamaican food at Fish, Wings & Tings. We had been disappointed not to have found more Caribbean restaurants as we walked through Brixton, so we walked back to the only one that we had seen. I had hoped for curried goat. As that wasn’t on the menu, I settled for some delicious ox tails with fried plantains.

After our first visit to Brixton Village, we walked a short distance to see Electric Avenue, perhaps known to some as the title of an Eddy Grant song with its chorus “Oh no we gonna rock down to electric avenue, And then we’ll take it higher”. The song, released in 1982, was about the Brixton Riots. But the history of Electric Avenue goes back much further.

It was built in the 1880’s and was the first market street in Britain that was lit by electric lights (hence the name). In its day, it was a fancy shopping street that was famous across London, as can be seen from these old images from the Brixton Buzz website (check out the website for more history on Electric Avenue and Brixton).

The years have not been kind to the avenue and it’s now a shadow of its former glory. The curved street and Victorian buildings remain, but the ground level is now home to butchers, vegetable stalls and a variety of other small shops.

Pop Brixton is a much more modern undertaking, having been created in 2015. The project was conceived to utilise a disused piece of land in Brixton. Refurbished shipping containers have been used to create a bright and trendy social space featuring restaurants, bars and retail outlets. It was intended to be a temporary installation, with an initial lease expiring in 2017. The fact that it remains today seems to point to its success. We arrived around noon, so it was still sparsely attended.

Whilst walking through Brixton, we enjoyed looking at some street art, including both sides of a bridge that spans the main road, reading “Come in Love” on one side and “Stay in Peace” on the other.

As we moved towards the edge of Brixton, we had a look around Windrush Square. At the edge of the square is the Ritzy Cinema, which dates back to 1911, when it opened as the Electric Pavilion. It was one of England’s first purpose-built cinemas. It has undergone name changes and refurbishments and now operates as a multi-screen complex with a bar. Importantly, it retains its beautiful exterior. Elsewhere on the square, we located a memorial to the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960) and for Dorothy “Cherry” Groce, who was shot and paralysed by a police bullet during a raid that sparked the 1981 Brixton Riot. She died in 2011. We also found a Bermuda connection on a Second World War memorial, located at the edge of the square. The memorial recognises the contributions of African and Caribbean soldiers who fought with the Allied Forces. It specifically mentions the Bermuda Militia Artillery & Infantry (which later amalgamated with other units to form the Bermuda Regiment).

We left Brixton behind and caught an underground ‘tube’ train to Waterloo Station. The Leake Street Arches were just a short walk away from Waterloo. Described as London’s biggest street-art canvas, this 300-metre tunnel runs under the railway tracks of the Waterloo Station. Every section of the walls, and much of the ceiling, is covered in spray-painted street art. The art is constantly changing, as artists paint their work over whatever was there before. During our visit, there were several artists working on new pieces. The tunnel is still used for pedestrian traffic and can be accessed from either end.

Having enjoyed the variety of street art that the tunnel provided, we walked around the neighbourhood at the opposite end. Along the way, we passed the Vaulty Towers pub, the Old Vic theatre and a restaurant located in an old 1910 fire station.

We walked towards the riverfront, to the Southbank Centre, where we found a small street food market. We bought a mid afternoon snack and sat next to Nelson Mandela to enjoy it. Then we watched the skateboarders for a while, before walking alongside the River Thames, past the London Eye to a point where we could see the Houses of Parliament on the opposite bank. We were done for the day, so we waked back to Waterloo Station and returned to our hotel, via the underground and a train.

Day Two – Regents Canal and Camden Lock

For our second day of admission-free sightseeing, we headed to the Regents Canal. To get there, we caught a train from Wandsworth Town and then switched to the underground at Waterloo Station, getting off at Paddington Station.

The Regents Canal is 13.8km long (8.6 miles) and joins the Grand Union Canal near Paddington Basin. I had read that when we exited Paddington, we should ask Google Maps to take us to Camden Lock (walking) and that it would automatically route us via the canal. Whilst that was partly true, the first part of the walk was through the streets to a bridge near Lisson Grove, from where we followed the canal to Camden Lock. However, our route missed out a section of the canal close to Paddington, which has been called Little Venice. It would therefore have been better to start out at the Paddington Arm of the canal, and follow it from there, so as to include Little Venice (pinned on the maps below).

Despite missing out on a particularly scenic stretch of the canal, our route was still enjoyable. Once we were walking along the canal’s tow-path, we passed under several nondescript bridges, the undersides of which were home to nesting pigeons. But then we reached a scenic section where we could see mansions with manicured lawns, on the opposite side of the canal. Just a short distance further, in stark contrast to the mansions, there was a makeshift camp underneath a bridge, where a group of homeless people have fashioned a temporary home.

The next segment of the canal runs alongside the north-western border of the London Zoo. It was there that we enjoyed a special treat. The zoo’s pack of African Hunting Dogs was actively running around their pen, close to the canal. Such beautiful animals!

As we continued to walk along the tow-path, we reached an area of the canal where narrow boats are moored. There is also a large red floating Chinese restaurant, moored in a small basin. Around a bend, we found more live-aboard narrow boats, moored in an area with weeping willows hanging over the canal. We passed under a bridge at the Pirate Castle and, from there, we could see a crowded arched bridge over the canal, signalling to us that we were approaching Camden Lock Market.

Whilst the Regent Canal may be off the beaten tourist track, Camden Lock certainly is not. Located off the Camden High Street, the market is reported to attract 28 million visitors per year. The area was a run-down timber yard until two friends and business partners bought it in 1972. They opened Dingwall’s Dance Hall there in 1973, which became a popular haunt for punk rockers. In March 1974, a small pop-up market consisting of 16 stalls first opened next to Dingwalls. It snowballed from there. By the 1980’s, Camden Lock was being called ‘London’s trendiest Sunday hang-out’. The market is known for its artisan crafts, as well as clothing and jewellery. It also has a sizeable street food market, which is where we headed first – we were hungry! Whilst there were lots of food options from around the world, I decided to try a Yorkshire Burrito, inspired by the county where I was born. It consisted of braised beef shin with potatoes, gravy and stuffing, all wrapped in a large Yorkshire pudding.

After eating lunch and wandering around the market, we stood on the Camden High Street Bridge and watched a boat passing through the Hamstead Road Lock.

The bridge is a popular hangout spot for Punks. One of them, with an impressive mohawk, was holding a sign that said “Help a Punk to get drunk”. Have to respect his honesty 🙂

We finished up our sightseeing for the day with a walk along Camden High Street. The shop fronts in that section of the street have quirky designs that give the area a nice, fun ambiance. After enjoying the shop frontages, we hopped onto an underground train at the Camden Station and made our way back to the hotel.

Day Three – Markets, Silver Vaults and a Museum

Our third, and final, day of sightseeing included some lesser known locations as well as two more familiar places. They are all free to enter, but I can’t promise that you won’t spend money in some of them.

We started out in the City of London area, exiting the London Underground at the Bank station. We walked a short distance through the City to our first destination of the day, the Leadenhall Market. It sits above what was once the Forum of the Roman town of Londinium, but it didn’t start its life as a market until 1321. By the early 1400’s, it had become one of the best places in London to buy meat, fish, poultry and eggs. It went on to become the most important market in medieval and early modern London. The steel and glass building that stands today was constructed in the 19th century (1881). It is no longer a meat market. Nowadays, it houses boutique shops and restaurants, but the original wrought iron meat hooks can still be seen outside some of the shops. It isn’t a large market, but it is worth a visit to see the Victorian architecture. Look up, and you’ll see several silver dragons perched atop ornate pillars.

Harry Potter fans will be interested to know that Leadenhall Market was used as a location in the 2001 movie “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. It was portrayed as the entrance to Diagon Alley. In the film, Hagrid leads Harry through the door of the Leaky Cauldron pub, to reach Diagon Alley. A blue painted shop by the market was used as the front of the pub. (The photos below were sourced online)

We walked a little further, passing a small herd of elephant sculptures, to reach our second market. There has been a market on the site of the Old Spitalfields Market since 1638, when a licence was first issued by King Charles I. The existing buildings were constructed between 1885 and 1893 and the market was acquired by the City of London Corporation in 1920, to serve as a wholesale market. The wholesale fruit and vegetable market moved to another site in 1991 and the stalls inside this original market were redesigned in 2017. It now boasts a clean and modern interior, with small stalls arranged in neat lines, around a central street food hub. There looked to be a nice variety of food for sale and the stalls were doing a roaring trade, with workers from the area who were on their lunch breaks. We would have liked to try the food, but it was crowded, with no available space to eat. We decided to wait until we got to our next location to eat lunch.

The Liverpool Street area has several markets to choose from. We had previously visited the Brick Lane Market and remember that it was a vibrant place to visit, so we headed that way. However, we had forgotten that Brick Lane only has a market on weekends, and we were there on a Wednesday. We had also forgotten just how many Indian restaurants line both sides of the street. It wasn’t a wasted journey, as we enjoyed some street art along Brick Lane.

We knew that the Petticoat Lane Market was also in the general area. Before heading that way, I checked on Google Maps, which said that it was open. However, when we got there, there were only about a half dozen clothing stalls operating along the street. The main Petticoat Market is only open on Sundays. Fortunately, there were several food stalls on one of the side streets, and we needed to eat lunch. A Jamaican food truck had curried goat listed on the menu, but they said that they wouldn’t have any food available for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, all the other stalls were bustling. I settled for a duck and chicken Katsu combo wrap – it was huge! We stood in the street to eat, whilst taking in the skyline from Petticoat Lane, including the ‘Gherkin Building’.

Our next destination was certainly off the well-trodden tourist path. We made our way to Chancery Lane to visit the Silver Vaults. The underground Vaults are said to offer the largest retail selection of fine antique and contemporary silver in the world. They originally opened in 1885 as The Chancery Lane Safe Deposit, but they soon also became a secure selling place for London’s silver and jewellery dealers. The present building opened in 1953. The 29 shops are located inside secure vaults, on either side of a long corridor. There are display cabinets along the walls, containing some smaller items. The shops themselves have some absolutely beautiful pieces on display. Each shop was full, from wall to wall, with silver items ranging from small tea spoons to large ornamental items. We were only sightseeing, and didn’t want to impose on the shop owners, but we found a few of them to be very welcoming and they invited us to look around their shops. I did see a particularly impressive set of six silver wine goblets, whose fine stems were comprised of elephants with their trunks held high (£2,750 for the set). I wish that I could share photos of some of the amazing items that we saw. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted for security reasons. Instead, I must rely on posting these images from the Silver Vaults website, to give an idea of what the Vaults look like. We really enjoyed our visit and were always mindful that it isn’t a tourist destination. We were respectful to the shop owners and didn’t enter the shops unless we were invited in, knowing that we were not going to be buying anything.

We had time for one final visit before heading to the hotel, so we walked a short distance from the Silver Vaults to Sir John Soane’s Museum (link to website). Sir John lived from 1753 to 1837 and is said to have been one of the greatest British architects of his day. He must have had good connections because, in 1833, he was able to negotiate an Act of Parliament to preserve his house as a national museum after his death. He built the house himself, by joining together three adjacent houses. The house (museum) is full of art, antiquities and curiosities, that Sir John collected over his lifetime. It is said to remain exactly as it was when he died, as per his own instructions. Sir John clearly designed the interior of the house to accommodate all of his collections. In places, it seems to have developed in quite a random manner, particularly when you consider that he was a great architect. There are narrow passageways and some alcoves that are crammed with collectibles. But its eccentric nature added to the interest, as we explored the building. Admission is free and still photography is permitted (without flash).

As you can see, we managed to cram in quite a bit of sightseeing over three days. Several of the places we visited had a historical context. All of them were interesting, and free to visit.

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