From moonlight to museums, birdsong to the Old Bailey, Kate Green and Giles Kime find 50 gloriously free things to celebrate in Britain.
In 1891, the sometime politician Sir Hugh Munro published a list of all the Scottish mountains and ‘tops’ of 3,000ft or more, from Ben Nevis (4,411ft) down; he’d climbed all but three of the 538 tops when he died from pneumonia on his way back from France in 1919. When you’ve ‘bagged’ 282 mountains (Munros), such as Beinn Narnain (preceding pages), as more than 6,000 people have done, you can bask in the praise and satisfaction, plus the title Munroist or ‘compleatist’.
The fastest compleatist is fell runner Stephen Pyke who, in 2010, took a mere 39 days, nine hours and six minutes, using only kayaks and bicycles to get from Munro to Munro. He finished on Ben Hope, enjoying the bottle of malt whisky hidden at the summit by the previous record-holder, Glasgow postman Charlie Campbell.
Anyone tired of hearing or seeing an owl is tired of life, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson. Sometimes, one has to remind oneself that an owl is real, not a fantasy creature that’s strayed out of a ‘Harry Potter’ film, so otherworldly are they. A ghostly barn owl skimming a field edge or road for prey at dusk, the loving tu-whit tu-whoo of a pair of tawny owls in tall trees or the hilariously cross stare of a little owl (pictured) sitting on a gatepost are some of Nature’s greatest gifts.
Walking national trails
There are 16 of them across the country, offering 2,500 miles of walking, cycling and riding, enabling outings that range from a stroll and picnic to a major project and goal.
One of the best loved is the exhilarating 630-mile South West Coast Path; the 184-mile Thames Path is gentle and endlessly interesting; and the Pennine Way is a 268-mile rugged stamina test. All are beautifully maintained by local authorities and enthusiastic volunteers.
Watching the Boat Race
What better excuse to saunter down to the bank of the River Thames than to watch 18 men (and women) strain every sinew in the cause of university pride, an annual tradition since two old Harrovians, Charles Wordsworth (Christ Church, Oxford) and Charles Merrivale (St John’s, Cambridge) prompted the challenge in 1829.
Other atmospheric sporting occasions that can be enjoyed without the bore of buying tickets include city marathons, the Tour de France (and the Tour de Yorkshire, the Derby (watch from The Hill on Epsom racecourse), the first day of the Hickstead Derby Meeting, the British Kitesurfing Championship at Skegness, Henley Royal Regatta from certain vantage points on the riverbank and, not to be missed, the World Bog Snorkelling Championship at Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys.
As for Wimbledon: no tickets, no problem. Big screens will soon be sprouting up so workers can keep abreast of the championships in their lunch hours. Smuggle in the Pimm’s.
Wild camping in Scotland
Thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003, wild camping is permitted free on unenclosed land in Scotland. You may not always be popular, especially if you leave any trace of your stay, but it is legal, unlike in Wales or England, where you must seek the landowner’s permission.
This means that you can pitch a tent beside a loch, up a glen or on a Hebridean beach; you might be damp, frozen, scared witless by a sheep in the small hours or bitten by midges, but, the following morning, the view from your tent flaps will be all your own.
See a sheepdog working
Once you’ve paused to lean over a gate or looked down into the valley from the top of a hill to watch, it’s hard to tear yourself away. The dogs are so faithful, so eager and graceful, responding to the most baffling (to the onlooker) set of calls with lightning turns or stops. Farming may be mechanising out of all recognition, but this is one traditional method that still works.
Not just free, but you might actually get paid and/or tipped as well, depending on the status of the shoot. You don’t need to own a pedigree gundog – all sorts, as long as they’re game and obedient, are usually welcome, with even labradoodles and sprockers now regulars – and it’s a day out in the fresh air, perhaps on a historic estate, with camaraderie, hot soup and a wee snifter. If you’re a regular, there will be a beaters’ shooting day on which the hired hands usually put the paying guns to shame.
Listen to blackbird song
The early rising blackbird, with its sweetly questioning song, is arguably the star of the dawn chorus, a kind of avian Blind Date before the serious business of feeding gets under way. The blackbird may not be the pushiest in the winged choir – more mellow mezzo than coloratura soprano – but its song is comforting, strong and optimistic, with ‘all of the joy of life’, as Victorian poet William Ernest Henley described it:
The nightingale has a lyre of gold;
The lark’s is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a box-wood flute,
But I love him best of all.
Walk in the moonlight
Real Moon aficionados prefer the orb waxing or waning, when its endlessly fascinating features – the hills and craters that give it a human face – are easier to see, but a full Moon, especially gleaming through the bare branches of a skeletal tree in winter, is somehow friendlier, a comfort on even the metaphorically darkest of nights. Walking, torch-free, in the silvery glow of moonlight is one of the great freedoms of life.
Listen to Just A Minute
One of the jewels in Radio 4’s 6.30pm comedy slot – together with Dead Ringers, which we hear all too infrequently, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue with Jack Dee, a fine successor to the peerless Humphrey Lyttelton – and perfect for the drive home from work, if it weren’t for the potential to drive into a ditch at Paul Merton’s snortingly funny delivery.
For 50 years, contestants such as Clement Freud – remember his languid list technique? – Kenneth Williams and Sheila Hancock have tried to avoid repetition, hesitation and deviation on subjects such as policemen or lemon-meringue pie under the quick-witted chairmanship of nonagenarian Nicholas Parsons. Never change it, please.
Watch a village cricket match
There may not be the Test-match finesse of Joe Root and Alastair Cook, but amateur cricket offers more thrills and spills. There is no crowded Tube to be negotiated, no dress code, no competitive picnicking or corporate entertaining. That said, seats are likely to be in short supply, but who cares when you can lie in the shade of a tree with a punnet of strawberries and check out the new curate’s off-spin?
Hear the ‘hound music’
Technically, going to a meet of hounds isn’t free, because you should pay a cap, especially on Boxing Day when the cash is given to hard-pressed hunt staff, but money can’t buy the joyous sound of hound music, whether it be merry little beagles feathering in a field or sonorous Welsh woollies echoing around a distant, deep valley.
Fishing off the pier
This can be thrilling for the sheer variety of fish that might be available – all sorts of piscine treasures will mill around a pier that juts out a long way – and you can take it as seriously or as lightly as you like.
You don’t need a licence, but you do need to stick to EU rules about which species may be kept and the minimum permitted size. Seagulls can be a downside: a top tip is to keep your bait in a box or a bucket of seawater to stop cheeky gulls from pinching it.
Watching a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons
If you find the rough and tumble of Prime Minister’s Questions makes riveting television, try watching the weekly Tez ‘n’ Jez show in the flesh from the public galleries of the House of Commons. You can get a free ticket from your MP or simply queue.
All other debates (Monday to Thursday) are open to the public, as are those at the House of Lords; these are arguably of a more intellectual nature, with less of the puerile roaring.
Stirring your stumps
Running is free, but motivation can be harder to come by. The volunteer-organised Great Run Local holds runs of either 2km or 5km and will help new runners build up to marathons. Members have covered 253,500 miles (at time of writing) over the past 3½ years. Similarly, Parkrun, which oversees 109,754 events in parks around the world, gets people moving every Saturday morning. Some open-water swimming events are free to enter, too.
Watch other people’s fireworks
They’re the best by far, whether viewed from a bridge over the River Thames in London, from a lay-by on the hill or across the village from your bedroom window. Get yourself to a high point, preferably with sausages and a flask of something sustaining, and let someone else do the hard work.
Delve in rockpools
You don’t need to be Jacques Cousteau to explore the wonders of the deep blue sea. From Port Isaac to Porth y Pwll, from Bexhill to Barra, Britain’s shoreline represents the ocean in miniature: an underwater menagerie of crabs, razor clams, mussels, sea urchins and sea cucumbers clinging grimly onto life beneath the shade of kelp and sea palms as waves crash over them.
Watch our pageantry
Small wonder thousands waited patiently to greet the newlywed Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their heart-warming procession by Ascot landau from St George’s Chapel to Windsor Castle. Whether it’s Trooping the Colour, Changing the Guard, the Opening of Parliament, The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Riding the Boundaries, Royal Weddings or the Lord Mayor’s Show, which is the oldest, grandest civic procession in the world, we do pageantry better in this country than anywhere else. That’s why the most dedicated are prepared to sleep on pavements simply to be able to say: ‘I was there.’
Visit The National Gallery
The Hay Wain or the ‘Rokeby Venus’? The Bathers At Asnieres or the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’? Whistlejacket or Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. So great are the riches of the National Gallery that it’s hard to know where to start, but you don’t really have to choose.
Unlike the Louvre in Paris, where you’ll be relieved of €15 at the door, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where admission is $25, entry to the permanent collections of the National Gallery is always free, so you can go again and again.
Go to an auction
The only time an auction isn’t free is if you win – forget all those films you’ve seen of people accidentally bidding when they wave to a friend or scratch their nose, as you now have to register to take part.
It can be extraordinary theatre when record prices are reached and an opportunity to see some of the rarest treasures (most sales also have public viewings before the event). Earlier this year, Christie’s paraded more pieces from Napoleon’s Marly Rouge Collection than ever seen before (he treasured the Sèvres dessert service so much he took it with him into exile) and later in 2018 Sotheby’s will sell medals from the collection of the Duke of Cambridge – not the current Prince William, but instead a cousin of Queen Victoria.
See the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
Stoke-on-Trent could have been an unremarkable place, were it not for its long heritage of exquisite craftsmanship. The Potteries Museum has the Staffordshire Hoard, the world’s greatest display of Staffordshire ceramics and a great cafe. The Spode Works Visitor Centre, in Josiah Spode’s fomer pottery, the birthplace of bone china, is free to enter, too, as is the Moorcroft Pottery in the ‘Mother Town’ of Burslem. Seize the chance to paint a piece of your own pottery, as skilled workers have done for 300 years in the acknowledged world centre of the craft.
Sit in a Spitfire at an RAF Museum
These two superb museums, in Colindale, north London, and Cosford, Shropshire, are both free to enter, providing evocative reminders of past daring deeds and thrilling close-up views of flying machines.
At Colindale, you can sit in a Spitfire, provided you fit into the cockpit (wearing a skirt isn’t a good idea, apparently); Cosford currently has a Cold War exhibition and lecture series, plus a Black Hawk helicopter flight simulator. There’s never been a better year to visit than in this, the RAF’s centenary.
Stand and stare on Waterloo Bridge
There are more beautiful London bridges, but few offer two views of the capital and the Thames – the Millenium Wheel and Palace of Westminster versus St Paul’s Cathedral and the skyline of the Square Mile – which are so spectacular that, when captured in photographs, look as if they’re computer-generated. Manhattan, eat your heart out!
Join a book club
These can turn a passion for literature from a solitary pursuit into a social one and, let’s face it, in many cases, it’s the Sauvignon Blanc that’s a bigger attraction than any group analysis of Lincoln in the Bardo. One of the most popular book-club choices of the past decade is about a book club: the charming The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which was recently made into a film.
Listen to church bells
Can you tell English full-circle ringing from Bolognese or Veronese peels? Bell-ringing practice on a summer’s evening or the joyful carillion that heralds a wedding offer some of the loveliest village sounds, provided you’re not an expert, when the ‘misses’ – nigh impossible for the layman to detect – can, we understand, be irritating.
Enjoy the wildflowers
The magic carpet that unrolls across the countryside, as snowdrops give way to primroses, celandines, snake’s head fritillaries, bluebells, poppies, cornflowers, scarlet pimpernels, harebells, sneezewort, thrift and winter aconites, is gone all too quickly.
Although the ability to distinguish a horse mushroom from the alarmingly named deadly webcap can be a matter of life and death, there are rich rewards for knowledgeable foragers in terms of satisfaction and bounty.
Nettles, bulrushes, gorse, dandelions, samphire, blackberries, plums and sloes are only some of the riches to be gathered. Make them into soup, scatter them on salads or mix them into puddings for virtuous and tasty treats. The greatest prize of all is the truffle – as long as your dog doesn’t eat it first.
Listen to music at lunchtime in London
Every Friday, there’s a free lunchtime recital at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre. Although the music is pot luck – it might be Arabic folk songs, New Orleans jazz or chamber music – it’s sure to cheer up your sandwich lunch, as a short, informal injection of music always does.
St James’s Piccadilly (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Bride’s are among other London churches offering free lunchtime concerts; Hertford College, Oxford, and Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge, have recitals every Wednesday; and, during the Edinburgh Festival, St Mary’s Cathedral in Palmerston Place has daily free concerts.
Sit in on a trial at the Old Bailey
Everyone from Dr Crippen to the Kray Twins and the Yorkshire Ripper learnt their fate at London’s central criminal court (which hasn’t changed significantly since it was depicted in 1809, left), not only before the judge, jury, barristers and scribbling hacks, but also the occupants of the public gallery that’s open to anyone over the age of 14. No food, drink, writing materials or electronic devices are allowed, but you can bring a travel chess set for the less juicy bits.
In 1942, Ian Allen, a trainee in Waterloo’s public-relations office, became bored with writing the same letters of response to train enthusiasts and set up the Loco-spotters club, which sold guides to people whose heart’s desire was to tick off sets of trains. Trainspotter has become a rather derogatory name for someone, often clad in a woolly hat, who sits around at railway stations with a notebook and flask of tea or who spends a lot of time peering over bridges, but there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
Meeting The Queen
Happily, money can’t buy this; it’s a case of right place, right time and being deserving of it. Many feel anxious beforehand, but they needn’t, as Her Majesty is well-practised in putting the frozen and terrified at ease—it’s because of these individual, discreet kindnesses that we love her so much. Also, if you know anyone celebrating a diamond-wedding anniversary or their 100th birthday, it’s worth remembering that a congratulatory letter from The Queen (which you have to write to request or apply for online, in advance) will always be one of the recipient’s most treasured possessions.
Following your nose
The scent of jasmine wafting from a village garden, a whiff of hay and horses from the Royal Mews in London or the smell of hot, damp earth after a heavy summer shower are guaranteed to raise your spirits.
Bread savoured straight from the oven (especially a warm crust with lashings of creamy butter), woodsmoke on a December evening or that first breath of fresh sea air all have the power to transport us to happy times. Even the pervasive wet-dog smell can be enjoyable, evocative as it is of hearty walks.
Reading at the British Library
All libraries are wonderful places, and long may they flourish, but this is a truly extraordinary resource, containing more than 150 million items, including a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland, some eight million stamps and four million maps, the Magna Carta, Beatles and Jane Austen manuscripts and the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra. It’s used by more than 16,000 people (many online) every day. There’s on-site space for 1,200-plus Readers; a pass is free.
See baby farm animals
The sight of lambs gambolling, calves frolicking, foals being cheeky and piglets playing tag completely belie the blood, sweat, tears and vet’s bills suffered by the farmer, who’s probably been up all night in a howling gale, but the youngsters make all the effort worthwhile and are a boon to anyone in charge of small children.
Swimming doesn’t have to mean chlorine and scrambling around for a £1 coin for the lockers – there is another, healthier, but much colder way. From Hell’s Cauldron in the Yorkshire Dales to the car-free serenity of the Easdale slate quarries in the Firth of Lorn in the Inner Hebrides, the possibilities for this most wholesome of pursuits are endless.
Visit ancient earthworks
Avebury henge, the Uffington White Horse, Offa’s Dyke – these are special places that command superstitious respect, and the mysterious mounds, bumps, ridges and boulders that one can stumble upon during a solitary walk through sheep-grazed grassland can capture the imagination with myriad legends; the Rollright Stones can reveal the name of your future husband. Enjoy the free view of Stonehenge from the A303 while you can, before the road is forced underground.
Take in a National Park
Locals may curse the restrictions on planning that come with living in a national park, not to mention the chance of getting stuck behind an oblivious motorist doodling along on a Sunday afternoon, but the fact that this country isn’t big enough to accommodate real wilderness, such as that in North America, is what makes these places precious. Each park has its own character and legends, whether it’s the granite tors of Dartmoor, the shining expanses of water in the Lake District or the drama of the Cairngorms.
Hunting for the shiny, mahogany-brown nuts in the shadow of a chestnut tree is almost as much fun as the game itself, as is soaking them in vinegar before baking them (varnishing demonstrates a distinct lack of sportsmanship). The first devastating blow to an opponent can prove far more addictive than the most knuckle-whitening game of Grand Theft Auto, even for teenage boys.
Got to a farmers’ market
They’re only free until you buy something, of course, but they’re atmospheric places that inspire curiosity. Not only are they alive with colour and fresh smells, they also offer a useful reminder of what fruit and veg looked like before they were grown to the exacting standards of the supermarkets and swathed in unnecessary amounts of plastic.
Be inspired by poetry
With a little imagination, the British landscape offers limitless opportunities for immersion into the lives of great writers. There’s the Hardy Way, a 220-mile trail through Hardy’s Wessex, created by Margaret Marande; the Coleridge Way, the (hopelessly indirect) 51-mile route that, legend has it, the poet took from Nether Stowey to the Exmoor coast; the Tolkien Trail around Stonyhurst College, Lancashire; and the Dylan Thomas Trail in Wales. Of course, some are modern inventions, but there’s a magic in taking paths that may have been trodden by pondering geniuses, from searching the Isle of Skye for traces of Gavin Maxwell to wandering Dickens’s London.
You don’t have to be religious to be moved by Palestrina’s contemplative, rising-and-falling setting of the Magnificat as it fills the vaulted ceiling of a great church or cathedral. Some of the best musicians in the land are to be found in the major choirs attached to Britain’s holy places and anyone can slip into a back pew to hear them free of charge in that blissful winding-down period between work and home.
Good neighbours make the world go round. It’s the smallest things – bringing over half a dozen eggs, deploying a technical mind to set up a new smart TV in time for the Royal Wedding, letting the chimney sweep in, watering the sweet peas when someone’s away, taking the dog out when their knee’s blown up – that make all the difference to the atmosphere and contentment levels of where you live.
No one minds the odd loud party if warned – and especially if invited – and most people understand that building works don’t last forever. Just don’t let your Jack Russell murder their pet rabbit or your leylandii overshadow their garden, and do get rid of that overflowing skip!
We take so much for granted – red kites wheeling and keening, the profusion of deer, foxes investigating rubbish bins and seals lolling on beaches—but a rarer sighting can still give a sudden thrill: a kingfisher darting down the riverbank ahead; a badger out in daylight, trundling hastily into cover; a woodcock jinking through thick forest; or the glistening mask of an otter, surfacing like a periscope.
The mystical head of a brown hare is extraordinarily prehistoric close-up; dippers are mesmerising, busy little birds; the markings of pine martens and oystercatchers are smart and pleasing; the roar of a stag is primeval and frightening. No one, not even the most dedicated of experts, sees or hears all these things every day, which is why they’re so precious.
Walk through the quadrangle at an Oxbridge college
You don’t need half a dozen A*s to walk through the gates of an Oxbridge college; most will allow you in for a brief visit without checking your academic credentials. Like churches, they offer a chance to see extraordinary architecture – medieval, Georgian, Victorian and even 20th century – set in aspic.
All right, we’re not California or Hawaii, but this island nation still offers plenty of surfing thrills and the chilly temperatures will sort the men from the boys. Thurso in Caithness, Freshwater West in Pembrokeshire, the Oyster Falls ‘outer bombie’ at Croyde Bay, Devon, and the Cribbar near Fistral beach, Newquay, Cornwall, are, according to those in the know, among the best waves.
And the big daddy of them all? The rip-roaring Severn Bore (above), one of the world’s highest surge waves, reaching a height of 9ft.
Walk a public footpath
The solitary, meandering walk, beloved of 19th-century thinkers such as Wordsworth, is becoming a lost art, despite the existence of some 140,000 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales, a large proportion of which cross countryside that belongs to tolerant private landowners.
The upside of this is that, in many places, blissful aloneness and much higher chances of spotting wildlife are easily achieved; the downside is that some underused footpaths are decaying, prompting howls of outrage from rambler groups. Landowners are legally responsible for these footpaths (with local authorities paying 25% of upkeep costs), but we surely need to find a happy medium, with walkers meeting owners halfway.
Become a volunteer
Many of those who took part regard their fortnight as Games Makers at the London Olympics as one of the best experiences of their lives, despite the awful purple shirts and badly cut grey trousers. Volunteering – and there’s a fantastic culture of it in this country – whether it be rebuilding a stone wall in a national park, embroidering kneelers for a beautiful old church, ushering at a music festival or blowing a whistle at a horse trials, can get you into all sorts of beguiling places with interesting people.
Visit a church
There’s nothing more delicious on a sticky summer’s day than the cool, sepulchral gloom of an English church and its aroma of beeswax and Brasso. In towns and cities, churches such as St Mungo’s Cathedral, Glasgow (pictured) have the added advantage of offering an oasis of serenity away from the madding crowd, as everyone thunders past on their way to more flashy attractions.
Plus there’s the breadth of perfectly preserved architecture and magnificent art treasures they contain – at least in those that survived the depredations of Cromwell and his henchmen.
Stargazing doesn’t work so magically against blazes of artificial light, but, happily, Britain boasts some of the most extensive official dark-sky areas in Europe, with Exmoor, the Brecon Beacons and Northumberland among them.
You can take it as seriously as you like – knowing Orion’s Sword from Orion’s Belt – or you can lie on your back and soak up the silence and sobering infinity of the night skies: the Pleiades cluster alone, which shifts through space like a flock of starlings, has some 3,000 stars (it looks as if it’s only a handful) and lies a mere 444 light years from Earth – almost close enough to touch, surely?
Not everyone knows that The Princess Royal, Master of maritime charity Trinity House, is one of Britain’s most prominent lighthouse baggers. She’s reputedly top of the pack, having been to more than 80, although she’s still got a way to go as there are about 200 lighthouses in the UK.
Having a boat is handy, as some, such as Chicken Rock, off the Isle of Man, are a long way out to sea. Hartland Point in north Devon – known as ‘the promontory of Hercules’ – and the lighthouse on the Mull of Kintyre, from which you can see Northern Ireland, are among the wildest.
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