Jason Goodwin: How to spend 24 hours in London without spending a penny

Our columnist Jason Goodwin headed to London expecting to have to dig deep to keep himself and his wife entertained. Instead, even the thank-you present for his hosts didn't cost him a penny.

The judges of this year’s Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award are a choosy bunch and won’t mind me saying so: being picky is our raison d’être. We’ve whittled dozens and dozens of travel books, good and bad, to a shortlist of seven. Now, we must closet ourselves away to argue their merits and choose who wins.

That’s where it’s become tricky. Forget the books. The challenge is finding a place in central London where we can meet over a reasonably priced dinner, in privacy, and still make the last train from Waterloo. When I rang my favourite restaurant in Soho, they said a private room would begin at £1,000.

Perhaps the answer is to plan less? When Kate and I last went up to town, we had no real plans beyond staying with friends and attending a charity dinner, yet everything passed as if we’d stepped into a dream or an Audrey Hepburn film.

Kate’s wary of London, so we walk rather than go on the Underground and we started gently with a rootle through the charity shops on Marylebone High Street. At Daunt, I remembered I had credit as a reward for speaking there last summer, so we indulged in the rare, deep pleasure of choosing new books, then slipped into the London Library, silently catching up on brainy journals in the Reading Room like the London Review of Books and The New Yorker.

After a while, we went up to the Royal Academy to see if there was anything on. There was, but we had less than an hour before the show closed and the tickets cost £18 apiece, so we chucked that idea and went down the road to Christie’s, which was displaying an interesting collection of 20th-century British art. That was as free as the delicious espressos they gave us simply for coming in.

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When Christie’s shut, Fortnum & Mason was still open and looking invitingly warm. Attentive ladies squirted us with costly perfumes in preparation for dinner and pointed the way to the Food Hall in the basement. It’s all dry-aged beef, smoked salmon and stately pies, many of which are offered as tasters. I had a bit of sausage roll, slivers of jamón iberico and some cheese, washed down with a tiny glass of claret and a sharpener of London gin.

City of London in distance on misty morning

Good company, too: we chatted to Tom Parker Bowles, who was signing his cookbook, and in Hatchards next door, we bumped into friends that included Jenny Uglow sitting behind a diminishing pile of her book on Edward Lear. It was all rather surreal.

Next morning, our friends walked us to the boundary of their borough, looking into various churches en route, with a quick tour of the medieval glories of the Charterhouse.

In the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great, Kate spotted something sticking up out of a wheelie bin. It was a fine Victorian porcelain bowl, with a bold pattern of flowers, that wasn’t chipped, let alone cracked. Our host admired it furiously, so there was our thank-you present sorted.

At St Paul’s Cathedral, we were slightly taken aback when grim custodians demanded £20 apiece for entering. Hesitating at the barrier – would even Wren’s masterpiece quite justify £40? – we heard the call to midday Communion coming over the tannoy, so we got in, got shriven and got to see Wren’s tomb in the crypt with the Duke of Wellington thrown in.

‘Perfect hobo London,’ Kate said when we got the train.

‘Cast your bread upon the waters,’ the Bible says. I may repeat this to my fellow judges, but I suspect they want soup. And that’s just the first course.