Travel: Capital fun that's almost free: London is famously expensive but much of what it has to offer can be enjoyed on a shoestring. Louise Nicholson offers a budget guide to fun in the city

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The Independent Travel
LONDON is full of contradictions. One is the cost of having fun. It is simultaneously one of the world's most famously expensive cities - entry to the Tower of London is a massive pounds 6.40 or a family 'bargain' of pounds 17.50 - and one that offers the best value in quality, range and quantity of free or cheap fun.

To make the most of your time, less is more: one big sight or three small ones close together will happily fill a day. And travel can become part of the outing, especially by choosing different forms of transport there and back: say, a boat downstream to Greenwich, returning through the pedestrian tunnel on to the Docklands Light Railway.

A walk is, of course, free and can be sandwiched between a ride on the top deck of a bus and an Underground train trip. One good stroll follows the south bank of the Thames, from Westminster Bridge eastwards to the Design Museum and Conran's restaurant complex beyond Tower Bridge; done in reverse, you end at the South Bank arts complex.

A Travelcard slashes costs and can be used on the Underground, buses, the Docklands Light Railway, Network SouthEast within London, and the wonderful North London Link that runs from the slightly hick North Woolwich in a great arc to Richmond. Built to bring workers to the docks each day, this line still has a rural feel, as it chugs from one mid- Victorian village centre to the next. It is ideal for stringing together, say, Kensal Green Cemetery (Marc Brunel, Thackeray, Trollope et al), a hike up Parliament Hill and an evening in Islington, now awash with fringe theatres, reasonably priced restaurants and good pubs.

To make the most of your money, seek out the abundance of free, or at least cheap, entertainment, especially the more off-beat events. This week offers Easter Passions sung in churches and concert halls, the Easter Sunday Parade in Battersea Park, the Harness Horse Parade in Regent's Park and, in the East End, the traditional Hot Cross Bun Ceremony at the Widow's Son Inn.

In the weeks to come, the Queen's birthday will be celebrated on 21 April with a 41-gun salute at noon in Hyde Park and a 62-gun salute at the Tower an hour later. And to mark Shakespeare's birthday on the 23rd, a service with madrigals and readings will be held in Southwark Cathedral, followed by a cathedral lunch, the ceremonial renaming of nearby Emerson Street as New Globe Walk, and a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor in German.

The controversial charging policies of museums have accentuated the value of a good free event, in particular the quality and range of London's art collections, which also offer just as good insurance against the city's unreliable weather.

Those museums which have not introduced charges are enjoying soaring visitor figures. The free British Museum now attracts more than 7 million people annually and, despite its size, weekends among its 13 1/2 acres of exhibition space and corridors resemble a huge family convention with a runaway invitation list.

But do not be put off. A quieter weekday visit to the museum's John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art and the new and spectacular Joseph E Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities provides an enjoyable way to encounter sublime achievements of the world's oldest cultures.

Afterwards, the little Italian cafe in Russell Square can provide an instant picnic. Neighbouring Gordon and Tavistock Squares, redolent with Bloomsbury Group memories, make good afternoon strolls; and those converted to Chinese art at the BM can drop into the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art for exquisite ceramics in buttercup yellow, smoky green and blood red.

The city's three great art museums have remained free, too. The National Gallery's surprisingly unpacked Sainsbury Wing contains enough oddly shaped Renaissance baby Jesuses and farm animals to keep a young family happy (and a chic but fair-priced restaurant that offers views over Trafalgar Square). At the National Portrait Gallery round the corner, children and parents can have fun putting names to paintings in a visual who's who of British history.

The ducks of St James's Park could be a welcome relief, embellished by the wafting notes of a military brass band. But a post-gallery walk among the statues and monuments that litter Whitehall, Parliament Square and the three big gardens along Victoria Embankment is sure to stimulate more spicy re-evaluations of old British heroes. Why has General Haig such a plum position? Why does Sullivan get a better deal than Gilbert? And why does the engineering genius, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who reclaimed the Embankment from the river, rate only a tiny medallion?

The third great art museum is the Tate Gallery, where this year's rehanging has turned up a good dollop of Hodgkin colour, sensuously tactile Hepworths and, surely not by accident, Van Dyck's portrait of a remarkably plain ancestor of the Princess of Wales.

The Tate is not far from Vincent Square where the Royal Horticultural Society holds a string of flower shows. And for outdoor areas, try Chelsea Royal Hospital's spacious grounds where the children can play, the Chelsea Physic Garden and, over the bridge, Battersea Park.

Faced with the 'free' opportunities, the South Kensington cultural complex has had to soften the blow of charges. A pounds 23 annual family ticket (a family is generously defined as two adults and up to four children) gains entry to the area's three big museums for 12 months from date of purchase. With the Victoria & Albert Museum demanding a 'voluntary donation', the Natural History Museum (combined with the Geological Museum to form Life and Earth Galleries) asking pounds 10.50 per family visit, and the Science Museum charging pounds 4 for adults ( pounds 2.10 for children, no family ticket), this is a true London bargain. Just two visits and the family is quids in.

Smaller museums usually make a modest charge, but those that were homes of past Londoners retain the spirit of their former occupants and they often have gardens. Roaming around the exotic house (and large- lawned garden) of the High Victorian painter, Sir Frederick Leighton, in Holland Park or Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne's overstuffed terrace house off Kensington High Street, visitors feel as though they have received a personal invitation to get to know the owner better. In Hampstead, the same is true for the homes of Keats and Freud.

In Lincoln's Inn Fields, the house of architect, aesthete and antiquarian Sir John Soane is filled with 'good buys', be they a Turner painting, a Flaxman sculpture, the Egyptian sarcophagus of Seti I (for which Soane gave a three-day-long arrival party) or a series of biting contemporary Hogarths (The Rake's Progress and The Election are cunningly hung in layers, so they fold out from the walls).

Here, too, is Soane's model for the Bank of England, the construction of which began in 1788, took more than 20 years and was concealed this century by Sir Herbert Baker's rebuilding. To get an idea of Soane's achievement, take a walk eastwards into the City to the Bank's Bartholomew Lane entrance. Inside, the Bank of England Museum - founded in 1694 ostensibly 'to Promote the Publick Good and Benefit of our People', but in truth to raise money for war with France - manages to make money fascinating for the most unworldly, its story ending with a big, hands-on room stuffed with computers.

But not all London days are rainy. Almost 11 per cent, some 64 square miles, of Greater London is public parkland, and Regent's Park is arguably the city's best people's park. When he designed it, John Nash envisaged a luxurious garden estate for aristocrats. Today, it satisfies the fussiest London holiday needs. In addition to extravagantly equipped playgrounds, large expanses of grass, a lake (with rowing boats), the zoo, open-air theatre and the magical Queen Mary's Rose Garden, it is graced by the passage of Nash's Regent's Canal along the north side.

If you can drag yourself away from what was described, on its completion in 1825, as a 'high point of utility as well as beauty, an invaluable addition to the comforts and pleasures (of Londoners)', this extension of the Grand Union Canal is worth exploring. From Camden Lock, an occasional boat trip glides off eastwards through a dozen locks and the 960 yard-long Islington tunnel, past Victoria Park and down into Limehouse Basin.

The Barley Mow pub, formerly the dockmaster's cottage, overlooks the basin and the Thames, and is best enjoyed during lunch on its wide terrace. And in keeping with demands for a variety of transport, the Dockland Light Railway's Limehouse station is on hand for a speedy return.

Fodor's London Companion by Louise Nicholson is published on 22 April ( pounds 9.99).

LONDON TOURIST BOARD

The tourist information service is in Victoria Station forecourt (open daily 8am-7pm), with outposts at Liverpool Street Station, Selfridges, and Southwark Heritage Centre at St Mary Overie's Dock. LTB Recorded Information Service 0839 123456, Easter events line 0839 123418. LTB river trips recorded information line,

0839 123432.

TRAVEL

For information on all London travel, the Travel Information Centre at Victoria Station is open daily 8.15am-7.30pm; others are at the Underground stations of Euston, King's Cross, Liverpool Street, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus, all open daily except Oxford Street (closed Sunday). London Transport Inquiries (071-222 1234). Travelcards are sold at Travel Information Centres, British Rail stations, all Underground stations and some newsagents; priced according to the number of zones and length of validity; those aged 5-15 pay child fares but require a photocard, available from Travel Information Centres and post offices on production of proof of age and passport photo; adults buying weekly, monthly or annual card also need a photocard.

Riverboats to Greenwich from Westminster Pier; daily service, return boats from Greenwich Pier.

Boats from Camden Lock to Limehouse Basin (first trip 15 May) are by the London Waterbus Company, 39 Camden Lock, NW1 (071-482 2550), which also runs other canal trips.

Docklands Light Railway runs Mon-Fri; Docklands Daypass on sale at Tower Gateway and Island Gardens.

MUSEUMS

British Museum, Great Russell Street (071-636 1555, information 071-580 1788), open daily (free).

Design Museum, Butlers Wharf, Shad Thames (071-403 6933), open Tues-Sun (charge).

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road (071-938 9123, information 071-938 8710), open daily (free after 4.30pm Mon-Fri and 5pm Sat, Sun and bank holidays).

Science Museum, Exhibition Road (071-938 8000), open daily (charge before 4.30pm).

Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road (071-938 8500, information 071-938 8441 for general, 8349 for temporary exhibitions), open daily ('voluntary' donation).

Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 53 Gordon Square (071-387 3909), open Mon-Fri (free).

Leighton House, Holland Park Road, details (071-603 9115 or 071-602 3316)

Linley Sambourne House, 18 Stafford Terrace ( details from Victorian Society, 081-994 1019), open Wed 10am-4pm, Sun 2-5pm (charge).

Keats House, Wentworth Place, Keats Grove (071-435 2062), open daily (free).

Freud's House, 20 Maresfield Gardens (071-435 2002), open Wed-Sun, noon-5pm (charge).

Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields (071-405 2107), open Tues-Sat (free).

Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane (071-601 5545), open Mon-Fri (free).

GALLERIES

National Gallery, Trafalgar Square (071-839 3321, information 071-839 3526), open daily (free).

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place (071-306 0055), open daily (free).

Tate Gallery, Millbank (071-821 1313, information 071-821 7128), open daily (free).

EASTER EVENTS

Bach's Passion According to St John, St Paul's Cathedral (071- 248 2705), 6 April, 6pm (free). Passions by Vittoria at Westminster Abbey (071-222 5152), Palm Sunday, 10.30am (St John) and Good Friday, 10am (St Matthew), (free).

Easter Sunday Parade, Battersea Park (LTB for information), Easter Day, 10am-9pm (free).

Harness Horse Parade, Inner Circle, Regent's Park (LTB for information) (free).

Hot Cross Bun Ceremony, the Widow's Son Inn, 75 Devons Road, E3, lpm (free).

GARDENS AND PARKS

Royal Horticultural Society Spring Flower Show, Wembley (081-900 1234), 8-11 April 9.30am-7.30pm, 12 April 9.30am-5pm (charge).

Royal Horticultural Society, Vincent Square (071-834 4333/821 0132), General Spring Flower Show, 20-21 April 10am-5pm (charge).

Chelsea Royal Hospital, Royal Hospital Road (071-730 0161), Great Hall, Chapel and gardens open daily (free).

Chelsea Physic Garden, Royal Hospital Road (071-352 5646), open Wed and Sun from 11 April, 2-5pm (charge).

Kensal Green Cemetery, Harrow Road, open daily; free.

Parliament Hill, part of Hampstead Heath; nearest North London Link stations Hampstead Heath and

Gospel Oak.

London Zoo, Regent's Park, (071-722 3333), open daily (charge).

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

South Bank Centre (071-928 3002, booking 071-928 8800) open daily.

Tower of London (071-709 0765), open daily (charge).

Open-Air Theatre, Regent's Park (071-486 2431) season opens 28 May, booking from 19 April; productions include Romeo and Juliet and a children's play.

Shakespeare's birthday celebrations, information from Shakespeare Globe Trust, 1 Bear Gardens (071-928 7710).

(Photograph omitted)

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