Fun Freebies

I’ve said it before, and I have no doubt I’ll do it again, but London is a great place to find things to do that cost nothing. Sure, most of the time things are hideously expensive, but every so often, there’s a fun bargain to be found.

In fact, to quote myself at dinner immediately following one of last week’s freebies:
“London is all about going to free gigs in awesome venues, then spending a fortune on food afterwards.”

In the last week (well, just over a week if we’re being pedantic) I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from three such freebies. Unfortunately, as far as the first is concerned, I have no idea how to share the joy, but at least I can recommend a jolly good play…

1. Free tickets to Master Class
An actor friend subscribes to a website that distributes last minute tickets to shows at a cost of £2.50 per play. Apparently it takes dedication to grab a bargain, but when your trade is dependent upon seeing a variety of performances and networking, it’s worth it. An offer of a free ticket to a West End performance on an evening I actually happen to be free is a total no brainer. What’s even better is when, to your total surprise, it’s a brilliant play. (Oh, and when a celebrity has to clamber over you to get to their seat.)

Master Class is a play about Maria Callas – in fact, it’s almost a one woman show – the only other characters are a pianist and three opera students. The genius element is that the lead isn’t expected to impersonate Callas’ singing – the sound of Callas is Callas herself, on recordings that play while the character reminisces. It’s funny, breathtaking in its musicality (the students do sing and are stunning) and touching. But I won’t bother you with a full review as someone else on my row that evening has published one.

2. A free evening gig at the National Portrait Gallery
Tip number one is that the gallery is open late (till 9pm) on Thursdays and Fridays – a bonus for working types (it’s already doesn’t cost you anything to get in). On Friday nights there’s often live music in one of the galleries, which is how I ended up sat in the Tudor gallery listening to the rather spectacularly lovely Jo Mango and band last week. It’s a rare gig that takes place next to a portrait of Elizabeth I and in front of a painting of very serious Elizabethan men – it creates quite the atmosphere! You can find full details of the Late Shift programme on the NPG website, but it also includes lectures and art classes – a must for all culture vultures.

3. Watching a live TV show being broadcast
Regular readers may be aware of my occasional excursions to TV shows. Once upon a time there were a couple of visits to Have I Got News For You, then there was a series of Broadcasting House experiences – Just a Minute, Wittertainment live and The Now Show. But this year I’ve stepped it up a notch, my new student/pauper status meaning it’s worth my finding all the fun freebies I can.

On a bitterly cold night in January I queued outside BBC TV Centre for an evening watching a Room 101 recording (I think it’s on in a couple of weeks’ time – it’s the one with Rhod Gilbert on it). On an even more bitterly cold Wednesday night, I ended up in the audience of a live TV show at the same venue, though curiously it was for Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live. This was an entirely new experience – for the first time I was going to be in a visible studio audience, rather than way behind the cameras. To say it was daunting would be an understatement! I might have worried for nothing, but here’s proof that I made it on camera:

Ok, so top left corner – see the girl in white? That’s Becki. The long haired girl next to her? Me.
You too can play ‘spot Liz’ by watching Episode 1 of Series 2

Acquiring this type of freebie requires a few things:
  • Membership of several mailing lists.
  • Dedication to form-filling in.
  • Free time on the right days.
  • A love of queuing.
  • Or, a friend willing to do all of the above and type ‘2’ into the ticket allocation box.
After several years of getting to know the various systems, here are my tips for you:
  • Join the BBC studio audiences mailing list. You might get a lot of emails to things that you’re not interested in, but it’s worth it for what you are interested in. Jools Holland, Strictly, Radio 4 Comedy – they’re all on this list. (Oh, and they cater for people outside London too.)
  • But certain BBC shows aren’t! Fancy a Hat Trick production? (They’re the people behind HIGNFY and Room 101.) Then sign up to their site. Warning: HIGNFY tickets go like hotcakes on the day they’re released, but it’s always worth a go.
  • Or, you need Applause Store, if you’re yearning to watch QI, Never Mind the Buzzcocks or Britain’s Got Talent (I don’t). In fact, they have a wealth of shows to apply for – I was rather delighted to find An Audience With Will Young on there…
  • Finally, SRO Audiences is where you’ll find chat shows like Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross, plus Dancing on Ice amongst others. In fact, that’s where 10 O’Clock Live tickets can be found.
You’re very welcome.
Oh, and should you end up with a spare ticket to something – say a satirical comedy, for example – why not express your gratitude by offering it to me? No? Oh well. 

The strange things that happen in London parks

Us urbanites have to get our grass and tree fixes where we can. For most Londoners bereft of gardens, this means public parks (unless you’re super swanky and live on a Notting Hill-esque enclosed square), of which there are many. Space amongst the green is at a premium whenever the sun comes out and last week’s hugely bizarre autumnal heatwave brought the sun worshippers out in droves.

After church on Sunday I headed to Brunswick Square to make the most of the sun and to simultaneously catch up with the parentals (it’s that all important multi-tasking again). As I’ve mentioned, my mother always asks where I am/where I’m going at the start of the conversation and Sunday was no exception – except that she shouted me down as I began with “I’m sat on the grass in Brunswick Square with sandals on and no sleeves…”. It seems that those across the Irish Sea have not taken well to all the talk of British heatwaves when they’re sweltering in temperatures of 14C as opposed to London’s 29C…

As we chatted, my eyes were drawn to two film cameras that had moved into view, seemingly about to film something happening beneath a large tree. I looked around trying to work out what was going on and spied a group of fairly non-descript people gathering with a sense of purpose. I hoped against hope that I was about to witness an awesome flash-mob in the league of the Welcome Home T-Mobile ad or the fantastic Improv Everywhere, so I watched eagerly and gave my mother regular updates as to what was occurring.

The group assembled under the tree and a gong rang out…

So far, not terribly exciting. Then the gong rang again:
And again:
Then someone came round with a flyer as an explanation. Turns out it was modern dance, only ‘dance’ in a ‘change your position once every 90 seconds’ context as opposed to ‘interpret music in a visual way’ context. As far as I could gather, the troupe were basically making their way from ‘very big tree’ to ‘very small seed’ via gongs…
From a distance it looked as though this guy was doing a plank. 
I’m rather disappointed that on closer inspection, his arm’s on the ground! 
The fantastic news is that this isn’t a one-off! Should you like to witness this yourself, you can – this weekend in fact – they’ll be in Brunswick Square again, as well as Queen Square, Woburn Square and Gordon Square. Entitled ‘Square Dances’ (do you see what they did there?!), “audiences will be able to encounter recurring moments of fleetingly beautiful dance performed by 200 Londoners of all ages…”.

I mock, but seriously, this is what I love London for. Its quirky, public, free to watch events that appear as if from nowhere. Spend more time in parks – you never know what might happen…

Dedication to the cause

Nothing says commitment to a cause like enduring adverse weather conditions for the sake of a passion/obsession – especially in Britain. Rain is a common enough occurrence that to stay at home in the hope of avoiding it would mean missing out on a heck of a lot.

Take Saturday, for example. Miserable weather was forecast, but our plan for the day (fixed up at least two months ago) was to enjoy West End Live in Trafalgar Square, possibly attend a barbecue and then watch Legally Blonde (again) – two out of the three activities required being open to the elements. Thing was, the day dawned bright and sunny, so it was hard work persuading our minds to be sensible and to don practical clothing that would also be suitable for a night at the theatre. Tantrums were thrown in the Met Office’s direction and arguments were had over the reliability of different weather iPhone apps.

The forecast didn’t keep the musicals fans from Trafalgar Square – they were there in droves, ready for all possibilities. In the space of half an hour I must have removed and replaced my cardigan four times; opened and closed my brolly twice; and spent a significant amount of time shielding my eyes from fierce sunshine (couldn’t see the performers properly sans glasses, so sunglasses would’ve hampered my enjoyment). Looking down towards Big Ben, we could see the clouds moving towards us at speed so were at least assured that whatever the weather threw at us wouldn’t last for long.

The showers were annoying – not least because the unfurling of umbrellas obscured our view of the stage somewhat (and a member of our party revealed that he had a paranoid fear of being poked in the eye by one, so found the whole thing rather traumatic), but it certainly wasn’t enough to send us under cover. We had come for free musicals and free musicals were what we were going to see! Then came a true test of our resolve – the Jersey Boys set began (ok, yes, so the jukebox musical is a test for all our resolves…) and as they did so the heavens opened and rain poured down…

…And down, and down. There was a brief pause, then it began again. The water level in the square began to rise (they may need to look at its drainage), and I began to search for higher ground. But the crowd stood firm, determined to stay put and enjoy themselves. Then the rain turned to hail – and still we stood firm. Sure, it was uncomfortable and unpleasant, but while we could see a spot of blue in the sky, we believed that hope was not lost.

See, Morv was not happy.

The crowd standing firm – but damp.

Eventually it stopped – I say eventually, the sun returned before the Jersey Boys had finished their set and we happily watched Mamma Mia excerpts while drying out in the sun and deciding where to go for lunch. As a result of the experience, I think we learned a few valuable lessons:
  • Sandals are appropriate footwear in such circumstances. Yes, I may have looked (and felt a bit cold) but my feet dried super quickly and I did not have to spend the rest of the day in damp shoes.
  • If you’re carrying extra, warm clothing with you, it’s best not to keep it in a fabric bag – in torrential rain it won’t necessarily stay dry. 
  • Shorts & leggings were a good idea – again, because leggings dry quickly. Denim shorts on the other hand, not so sensible – like jeans, once damp it takes forever to get dry (and there’s little worse than an afternoon with a soggy bottom). 
  • Shaking yourself dry may look ridiculous, but can be effective…

Bruce & Morv ably demonstrate the shaking technique.

Oh, and the ultimate post torrential rain warmer-upper is this beauty:
That would be a dark chocolate & rum milkshake with added Oreo bits.
It’s practically an entire meal – and a cocktail, in a glass.

A pickled Saturday afternoon

One of the amazing things about London is that, despite its horrific expense in many areas, there’s quite a fantastic amount of entertainment that can be had for free. Most of the big museums cost nothing (except for major exhibitions), you can find free concerts across the city – heck, today you could even watch ice sculpting gratis at Canary Wharf!

Today, I was en route to Covent Garden (favourite free Saturday haunt) for some ‘aimless mooching’ [it was actually quite specific mooching – I wanted to check out the Fat Face sale (again) and try and acquire a beautiful pair of shoes from M&S (strange, but true)] when I had a text from a friend asking if I’d be up for doing something cultural. But of course I would – especially as their tardiness in getting the day started meant I was able to do my mooching before they arrived.

Various options were explored. There’s some great exhibitions on at the V&A at the moment – from the architecture of tube stations, to chocolate loving and bookbinding. Sir John Soame’s House (close to where we ended up) was an option, as was a potentially pricey Gaugin exhibit at Tate Modern. I was in Fat Face perusing the sale aisle during this conversation and may well have disturbed other customers when I uttered the words “well, what’s not to like about pickled bodies?”.

Our destination ended up being the Hunterian Museum, located in the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a mixture of the history of British surgery and an anatomical exploration of various creatures, both human and non-human (this is where the pickled bodies came in). Embarrassingly, this was my first ever visit, despite it being (quite literally) 30 seconds from where I went to university for three years.

It sounds like quite a niche (and possibly gross) museum in which to spend a Saturday afternoon, but you know what? It’s not so bad – and this is from someone who has to look away when people give injections on TV, or when graphic surgery’s shown. All I would say, is that if you were taking me on a date, this would not be somewhere to take me, hence my surprise that there were so many couples inside (some engaged in particularly annoying PDAs, which are even more inappropriate while stood in front of dead things).

The audience was an interesting mixture of people, from those (mostly young and a tad gothy) who were there for the dead and pickled things; perfectly normal people (like us) who were interested in the history and science; and parents with children – older children who couldn’t be torn away from the rather graphic surgical film (I turned away at the words “now the flap of skin will be stapled to the skull…”) without force. I also spotted a toddler in a pram, which seemed odd – wouldn’t the many, many jars of dead things be disturbing? Then I remembered that Clutterbuck folklore tells that on my first trip to the Natural History Museum (aged 2) I told people on my return that I’d been to the zoo – I’d gone round so quickly that I hadn’t noticed none of the animals were moving! Actually, I was worried I was going round too quickly this time, but it turned out my companion was something of a slow reader and was making notes of every error he found on the displays – once a copy-editor, always a copy-editor.

Some of the many, many jars of dead things and bits of dead things.

Perhaps I’m focussing too much on the dead stuff. In fact, much of the museum is devoted to the history of the collection [sadly two-thirds of it was lost due to bombing in WW2. Things pickled in alcohol tend not to survive fire…] and the development of surgery over the last couple of centuries. Never will you be more grateful to the NHS, or thankful that you weren’t living a century ago. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also walk around the museum clutching different bits of your body as they’re mentioned. Teeth? Jaw will suddenly clench and your hand will go to your mouth. Stomach? Arms wrapped around you protectively. Women’s bits? Cross legs and inwardly cringe. [TMI? Apolgies.] 
But what have I learnt? That until the 20th century, surgeons didn’t need to have qualified as doctors – in fact, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, you could just pop along and watch a surgeon at work to learn the trade, eeek. Until anaesthetics and infections were properly understood, it was best to carry out amputations as fast as possible – one surgeon managing it in 28 seconds (with a curved knife). Oh, and the possibility of a future where antibiotics no longer work is very, very scary.
As we finished the history of surgery exhibit, a question crossed my mind. What was the gift shop going to be like? An important question I feel, after all, it’s always the highlight of any museum visit. Would I be able to buy my very own pickled lizard? (I was very taken by the pickled lizards, somehow reptiles, amphibians and similar looked less wrong pickled than mammals and made me a lot less sad than the collection of human foetuses at the end of the museum did.) Sadly, I was to be disappointed, the shop was small and contained little medical related tat – though you could buy a syringe-like pen or a history of amputation (costing £100). 
I do hope this hasn’t put you off – it is a good, free afternoon’s entertainment, honest! Best not to eat just before you go, just in case you are of a particularly sensitive disposition. (Although, I’d not had lunch and felt my stomach start to rumble viciously half-way round, which felt rather wrong, while looking at stomach operations…) Oh, and you get a badge on a lanyard while you’re in the building – did I mention that? Possibly the most exciting aspect of the entire visit! 

The best things in life are free

It’s not often in life that you get really good stuff that costs absolutely nothing – especially in London. True, we get a fair number of free live events (West End Live being a favourite) and a certain amount of tat handed out at train stations, but otherwise it’s pretty much the most expensive place you could live.

When you do stumble across an excellent freebie it therefore tastes all the sweeter. Who’d have thought that I’d manage to get a morning at a delightful spa utterly gratis? Plus, any of you people reading this in Britain could benefit too. All I had to do was hand over the lid from a water bottle and voila!

Yes…a water bottle lid.
Not any old water bottle – Schweppes Abbey Well (available in both still and sparkling). It’s not the most common brand, but I’ve found it in my local newsagent and it was the water provided at Conference last week (I went round collecting lids from unattended bottles, I’m a total menace).

Schweppes currently have a promotion (amusingly named Schwim Free) which enables you to have a free swim at selected pools across the country, Monday to Friday. The cunning thing is that some of the pools are in rather swanky health centres, so you can get on to quite a good deal.

The friend who introduced me to this scheme had discovered a particularly classy venue in Canon Street, complete with decent pool (we did 40+ lengths before doing anything else), jacuzzis, steam rooms, saunas, relaxation area and a balcony adjacent to the river. Beautiful. A particularly amazing facility was a jacuzzi in which you lay on a submerged sun lounge type thing and were then pummelled with jets of water. An utterly delicious experience. Definitely the perfect way to start my final day off, especially when accompanied by a friend you can natter with in the steam room, sauna and while lying on sun loungers…if only there’d been a cocktail waiter too.

Sadly not hi-res, but that would be the laned pool. On the left is the jacuzzi with the loungers in, below is another, smaller pool. Directly opposite is the ‘relaxation area’. Yummy. 

A word of warning: some of the venues have very specific times when the offer is available, so check thoroughly before you try it out. But, I’ve had a bit of a look around a few locations (other bits of London, Tewks and Brum) and there are other spa-associated pools, so it’s definitely worth investigating.