Top 12 Free Things to do in London

There are so many reasons why London is my favorite city in the world, not just the city’s obvious reverence of the past. No matter how many times I visit this vast, varied, and vivacious city I keep finding fresh things to do. And many of them are free–which is good since London is an extremely expensive city in which to stay and to eat.

Most of the great free museums ask for donations and have Plexiglas receptacles for these.

I was unable to limit myself to ten, so here’s my Top 12 List of Free Things to Do in London:

1. The National Portrait Gallery. Backing up to Trafalgar Square, this is my go-to place on every visit to London. The collection of Regency portraits is outstanding. I typically visit here several times each trip just to oogle.

This portrait of the Regent dominates one of the chambers dedicated to the Regency. Note Emma Hamilton next to him.

This portrait of the Regent dominates one of the chambers dedicated to the Regency. Note Emma Hamilton next to him.

You can also see the controversial (with only a hint of her spectacular smile) portrait of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and a fabulous informal one of her handsome hubby with his devilishly cute brother. Remember, the gallery’s open late on Thursday and Friday evenings and be sure to check out the bar/restaurant at the top. The London views from there are spectacular.

2. The Wallace Collection. Yes, this is one of London’s great art museums, but what makes it a must-see for those of us who love the English Regency, it is housed in a London townhouse built in the late 1700s for the Duke of Manchester, when it was known as Manchester House. In 1797, Lord Hertford bought the lease, and the house in Manchester Square became known as Hertford House. The Regent visited here regularly since Lady Hertford was his mistress. In Victorian times, the house came into the possession of the illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), of the bachelor 4th Marquess of Hertford. Wallace inherited his father’s extensive art collections and chose to display them in this home. His widow gave the house and its contents to the nation. Hertford House is located close to the Bond Street shopping.

One of the rooms at Hertford House

One of the rooms at Hertford House

3. Kenwood House/Hampstead Heath. Do I begin with the heath or the house? Oh, but I love Hampstead Heath! One can stand amidst natural vegetation unchanged in centuries and enjoy spectacular views of London below.

Kenwood House overlooking Hampstead Heath and London

Kenwood House overlooking Hampstead Heath and London

At the heath’s eastern edge stands the villa known as Kenwood House, which was remodeled by Robert Adam in the late 18th century. Kenwood houses another fabulous art collection bequeathed to the nation, along with the house, in 1927 by the Earl of Iveagh. Artists whose master works are here include Rembrandt, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The house has many attractions, including Adams’ incredibly elegant library, and an orangery–the first one I ever saw. No trip to London is complete for me without visiting the borough of Hampstead, and no trip to Hampstead is complete without a visit to one of my all-time favorite pubs, the Spaniards Inn, a 400-year-old inn adjacent to the vast heath.

4. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Even though it’s touted as the world’s greatest museum of art and design, it’s so much more–especially to those who love Georgian England. You’ll see jewels belonging to long-dead aristocrats and royals, clothing, furnishings, and you’ll even learn about some of London’s great houses that have been demolished.

One of the hundreds of displays at the V&A

One of the hundreds of displays at the V&A

Like at the British Museum, you can spend days here.

5. Primrose Hill. I read somewhere (probably in Georgette Heyer!) that duels used to be fought here during the Regency but have not been able to verify this. Now Primrose Hill is located in an extremely posh area of London near Regent’s Park and St. John’s Wood.

Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill

During one visit here with my son’s London friend, I was shown the nearby house of actor Jude Law. I have since come to understand many, many British celebs live in the Primrose Hill area, including Simon Callow, Daniel Craig, Kate Moss, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, and Robert Plant. The real attraction here–day or night–is the spectacular panoramic view of London.


Mummy at the British Museum

6. The British Museum. One could spend weeks here. Even more memorable than the Rosetta Stone to me are the Egyptian mummies. And one cannot go to London and not see the Elgin Marbles.


7. London Parks. I couldn’t list just one. My personal favorite, though small, is Green Park. Begin adjacent to the Ritz on Piccadilly and head west all the way to Buckingham Palace. I never tire of the Palladian elegance of Spencer House, which backs up to the park. Hyde Park is huge, and I confess that I’ve never seen all of it, even though on two different stays my London flat was just across the street from it.

Hyde Park

Hyde Park

Another great large park is Regent’s Park, which I will attest to seeing all of, and I had the sore feet to show for it! The neighborhoods around Regent’s Park are exceptionally posh. Expect to see homes belonging to sheikhs. A wonderful smaller neighborhood park is Holland Park in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (which I’ve blogged about when I wrote about Holland House–then and now). The gardens are lovely, and visitors can stroll through the old arcades left from Holland House, where the Barons Holland resided in Georgian times. Much of the house was destroyed in World War II.

8. Cheyne Walk. This is a rarity in London: a street of lovely, substantial mansions practically on the banks of the River Thames. This unforgettable street in Chelsea was home in the 19th century of many artists and authors, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Eliot, JMW Turner, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

This home on Cheyne Walk, overlooking the River Thames, is where Dante Garbriel Rossetti lived in Victorian times.

This home on Cheyne Walk, overlooking the River Thames, is where Dante Garbriel Rossetti lived in Victorian times.

In the 1930s Laurence Olivier lived here, and in the 1960s Mick Jagger lived at Number 48 with Marianne Faithful, and fellow band mate Keith Richards lived at Number 3. The houses have fences around them for privacy and locked gates, but their view of the bustling river has not been obstructed. The closest I’ll ever be to glimpsing inside one of these houses is rewatching a Jeremy Britt episode of Sherlock Holmes. One of Holmes’ fictional clients lived on Cheyne Walk, and a scene supposedly depicts the home’s great river views.


Portobello Road on a Saturday

9. Portobello Road. This antiques Mecca comes alive every Saturday when hundreds of stalls open. I’ve been coming here for two decades and I confess to being a bit disappointed in it in recent years. It’s been discovered by the masses, many of whom probably learned about it from the Julia Roberts film Notting Hill. It’s gotten very crowded, prices have skyrocketed, and a lot of cheap imports have wormed their way in. Still, it’s a great place to see all kinds of “small” antiques, ranging from fine silver and pottery to ladies’ dresser sets and artwork. Many shops and stalls start closing in the afternoon, so come early.


10. The British Library. Close to the British Museum, the new British Library doesn’t have the fabulous reading room of the old British Library, but it’s still worth a visit. I came armed with archival references, a pencil with which to write (no pens permitted), and applied for and received a card. The average tourist will want to see the Magna Carta and other priceless documents on display.

These ancient sacred writings are on display at the British Library.

These ancient sacred writings are on display at the British Library.

11. Kensington Palace Gardens–the street. This street on the north side of Hyde Park is the most expensive address in the world and is sometimes known as Billionaire’s Row. Case in point: the de Rothschilds lived here until 2000. One house recently sold for £90 million–$140 million in U.S. dollars. Many foreign embassies are located here, and while it’s pedestrian friendly, armed guards control vehicular access.

This is the entrance to Kensington Palace Gardens Street from Bayswater Road. Mansions line either side of the street, which abuts Hyde Park.

Billionaire’s Row This is the entrance to Kensington Palace Gardens Street from Bayswater Road. Mansions line either side of the street, which abuts Hyde Park.

12. London Walks. Not to be confused with the commercial London Walks (like Jack the Ripper’s London, or Beatles London, or any of those informative walks I highly recommend), I advocate walking London. Regency buffs will enjoy a stroll along St. James where they can pick out those famed clubs such as White’s or Brooks. There are also self-guided walks of Fleet Street and Legal London, Royal London, and many others.

Strolling on the South Bank of the River Thames

Strolling on the South Bank of the River Thames

I urge visitors to walk the city. When I first started going to London many years ago, the East End and south of the Thames were not that desirable. Not so today. One of the best walks in London is along the South Bank of the River Thames. We start at Westminster Bridge and go all the way to Tower Bridge. It can take a full day if one stops along the way to see the Globe or the Tate Modern or any of the trendy restaurants.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s not a part of this burgeoning metropolis I don’t enjoy walking. Or visiting. That’s one of the reasons why it’s my favorite city.–Cheryl Bolen, whose articles on Georgian England can also be found on her website,

© Cheryl Bolen, 2014

19th Century London at Dawn

What were Londoners doing if they were not born into the class that was permitted to sleep late? Just after the break of dawn, shops – and, surprisingly, pubs (public houses) – opened. Here’s an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which was published in installments beginning just after the Regency, in 1837. This short excerpt paints a vivid picture of the various conveyances and workers, including milk women.

milk woman

milk woman



In the Bethnal Green Road the day had fairly begin to break. Many of the lamps were already extinguished; a few country wagons were slowly toiling on toward London; now and then, a stage-coach, covered with mud, rattled by: the driver bestowing, as he passed, an admonitory lash upon the heavy waggoner who, by keeping on the wrong side of the road, had endangered his arriving at the office a quarter of a minute after his time.


The public-houses, with gas-lights burning inside, were already open. By degrees, other shops began to be unclosed, and a few scattered people were met with. Then, came the struggling groups of labourers going to their work; then, men and women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with live-stockor whole carcasses of meat; milk-women with pails; an unbroken concourse of people, trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town,


[In] the City the noise and traffic gradually increased; [and in] the streets between Shoreditch and Smithfield it had swelled into a roar of sound and bustle. It was as lilght as it was likely to be, till night came on again, and the busy morning of half the London population had begun.

Oliver Goldsmith Describes Vauxhall Gardens

By Cheryl Bolen


Vauxhall Gardens, 1751

On my recent sojourn in England I came across a small 1909 book titled London’s Lure. Some of that country’s greatest authors are represented in these pages, and I shall be blogging about their observations about their nation’s capital.

Today I present “Lien Chi Altagi at Vauxhall Gardens” written by Oliver Goldsmith:

The people of London are as fond of walking as our friends at Pekin of riding; one of the principal entertainments of the citizens here in Summer is to repair about nightfall to a garden not far from town, where they walk about, show their best clothes and best faces, and listen to a concert provided for the occasion. . .


Nightly entertainment at Vauxhall Gardens, late 1700s

The illuminations began before we arrived, and I must confess, that upon entering the Gardens, I found every sense overpaid with more than expected pleasure; the lights everywhere glimmering through the scarcely moving trees, the full-bodied concert bursting on the stillness of the night, the natural concert of the birds in the more retired part of the grove, vying with that which was formed by art; the company gaily dressed, looking satisfaction, and the tables spread with various delicacies, all conspired to fill my imagination with visionary happiness of the Arabian lawgiver, and lifted me into an ecstasy of admiration.

“Head of Confucious,” cried I to my friend, “this is fine! This unites rural beauty with courtly magnificence! If we except the virgins of immortality that hang on every tree, and may be plucked at every desire, I do not see this falls short of Mahomet’s paradise!”


Oliver Goldsmith

            “As for virgins,” cries my friend, “it is true they are a fruit that do not much abound in our Gardens here; but if ladies, as plenty as apples in autumn, and as complying as any houri of them all, can content you, I fancy we have no need to go to heaven for paradise.” (Goldsmith in 1774 at the age of 44.)

Top British Authors’ Homes (of the past)

On her last trip to the United Kingdom, Cheryl Bolen wandered through the lovely grounds at Wordsworth's Rydal Mount in the English District.

On her last trip to the United Kingdom, Cheryl Bolen wandered through the lovely grounds at Wordsworth’s Rydal Mount in the English Lake District.

Those of us who love the Regency era would probably select Jane Austen’s house in Chawton as our favorite literary site in Great Britain. While it did make the cut in the recent 90 Places You Must See in Britain published by British Heritage, some of the choices are surprising.

Abbotsford is Sir Walter's Scott's newly refurbished home in -- where else? Scotland.

Abbotsford is Sir Walter’s Scott’s newly refurbished home in — where else? Scotland.

The British Heritage booklet is sort of a top 10 compilation. There are the top 10 gardens, top 10 castles, top 10 stately homes, etc.  British Heritage claims these must-see sites are selected by their editors. Anglophiles may take issue with some of their picks.

Though I don’t consider myself an expert on literary sites in Great Britain, I was surprised that the top pick under literary sites was D.H. Lawrence’s Birthplace in Eastwood, a Nottingham suburb. Because I have never visited Lawrence’s Birthplace, nor ever heard much about it, I cannot claim the expertise to pass judgment. But. . .

What about Stratford-upon-Avon, for pity’s sake? The city Shakespeare put on the map comes in at paltry sixth on the list.

For many years I’ve made it a point to visit authors’ homes when I travel in England. Of course I made the pilgrimage to the Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District, which fills the number 4 spot on the Literary Sites list. Outside of Stratford-upon-Avon (where I visited the bard’s birthplace as well as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage), the only other author residence on the top 10 list that I had visited was the Dickens House Museum in London’s Bloomsbury, which was the ninth pick.

Thomas Hardy's Cottage is one of the Top 10 Literary Sites in Great Britain, as selected by the editors of British Heritage.

Thomas Hardy’s Cottage is one of the Top 10 Literary Sites in Great Britain, as selected by the editors of British Heritage.

Two more homes that made list are high on my list of wanna-sees. They are Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford (5) and Rudyard Kipling’s Bateman’s in Sussex (7), both purchased after these two enormously successful authors made their fortunes writing.

The other sites rounding out the British Heritage list were Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Dorchester, Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse in Laugharne, Wales, and the Writers Museum in Lady Stair’s former Edinburgh home. That museum honors Scotland’s three most noteworthy authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Conspicuously absent from the list was the Bronte Parsonage in the West Yorkshire moors – which has always been high on my want-to-see list.

I am chomping at the bit to see one of the latest literary houses to open to the public: Agatha Christie’s Greenway near the South Devon coast. It just opened to the public in 2009. I will see it on my upcoming trip to Great Britain.

Greenway - Agatha Christie's home near the South Devon coast is now open to the public.

Greenway – Agatha Christie’s home near the South Devon coast is now open to the public.

Authors’ places I’ve enjoyed include Thomas Carlyle’s home in London’s Chelsea, Ruskins’ Museum in the Lake District as well as Wordsworth’s Rydal Mount, also in the Lake District, and Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm, also in the Lake District.

I spent a fascinating couple of hours at Keats’ House in Hampstead. That wasn’t really Keats’ house since he was a boarder there, but the home is now used as a museum to honor the poet. He was engaged to marry the daughter of the house before he was claimed by tuberculosis at age 25.

I have also visited Dr. Johnson’s house in London’s old City and Churchill’s Chartwell in Kent, where he penned his bestselling non-fiction.

Discussing Britain’s literary associations is a whole other topic, which would fill a book. In fact, I possess that book. I highly recommend the The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles, touted as an A-Z of literary Britain. I got my copy at an Oxford University Press book store in the U.K. Mine is a 1980 paperback containing 413 encyclopedia-style pages, listed by locale rather than the author. In addition, it offers a map appendix.

Here is just one little sampling in the voluminous section on London:

St. George’s Church, Hanover Square is an early 18th-c. church where the following were married: Shelley and Harriet Westbrook in 1814 after a ceremony in Scotland following their elopement, Disraeli to Mrs. Wyndham Lewis in 1839, Marian Evans (George Eliot) to John Cross in 1880, and John Galsworthy to Ada Galsworthy in 1904.

If my home were in flames and I could save just one book from my extensive library, The Oxford Literary Guide would be that one book. – Cheryl Bolen, whose lighthearted romantic mystery Falling for Frederick (Book 1 in the Stately Homes Murders) is now available in print – and is available internationally for the first time

Fashions in the era of Jane Austen

photo standing

Jody Gayle

Jody Gayle is the editor/designer of Fashions in the Era of Jane Austen, and it is solely through her efforts that this wonderful resource is now available both electronically and as an oversized paperback with hundreds of color illustrations.

Thank you, Jody, for being my guest today, and thank you for introducing a whole new generation (and more) to Ackermann’s Repository. First, will you tell us what Ackermann’s Repository was?

The Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts was a monthly British periodical published from 1809-1829 by Rudolph Ackermann.  It was a highly popular nineteenth-century publication devoted to the study of the arts, literature, commerce, manufacturing, politics and fashion.  I believe a contemporary example could be a monthly version of the New York Times with somewhere between 60-80 pages.  However, the Repository of the Arts included a significant amount of information provided by the readers including personal letters, poems, opinion pieces and general articles.

Jody coverEach monthly issue contained several illustrations produced by artists using a technique called etching. Two of the illustrations were always hand-painted prints normally featuring the whole body of a woman dressed in the latest fashions.  Every fashion print included a detailed description of the type of clothing shown, its style, cut, trim, color, type of fabric and the accompanying accessories.

In compiling your book, why did you make the decision to reproduce all the illustrations with the exact same language that was used in their original publication?

There were a couple reasons why it was important to include the language of the time to accompany the fashion plates.  When I began my research I found books with tons of beautiful fashion prints.  Then I began reading Ackermann’s Repository that included the descriptions and discovered a whole new dimension and depth to the illustrations.  It seemed sad that the words of the past were being forgotten and I felt there would be others who might like to read the descriptions.  Plus, I wanted to provide a convenient means for scholars and authors to access this information.  There are over 240 issues of Ackermann’s Repository and over 16,000 pages!  It can take months to research or find all the fashion prints.

Can you describe for us the some of the steps you had to take in order to produce your incomparable work? inside-1


Just a few years ago I worked for a local newspaper company and they also published a bridal magazine so I had some idea of the process of printing and design.  I was able to publish my book due to the fantastic program through Amazon.  It allows authors to self-publish their own digital and paperback books but then every little detail and decision has to be made by the author without the assistance of a publishing house.

I began by contacting the Philadelphia Museum of Art Library for the permission to use their copies of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts.   Then I spent my time searching, scanning, and organizing the illustrations and then searching, typing and organizing all of the text.  Developing the organization system was crucial to keep the illustrations and the accompanying descriptions straight.  I had to be meticulous since one of my goals was to provide a resource to scholars and authors.  Everything had to be exactly right and accurate.   There wasn’t an easy way to accomplishing this task other than pure determination and hard work.  Then I had the whole book professionally proofread and compared to the original documents.

The Kindle book was designed by me but I paid an experienced company to format the book but for future projects I can format the book myself.  A critical decision in designing the paperback book was choosing the size of the book.  This decision impacted everything from the fashion plate quality and detail, the book design, and ultimately the price of the book and shipping costs.  In the end I chose the largest book size available and the size is similar to a textbook.

Just how many pages are in your book, and how many illustrations?

Well, since you asked I counted and there are 291 illustrations and 376 total pages.  When I first uploaded my book to Amazon it was too many pages and I had to redesign the book so some of the illustrations included the descriptions on the same page.  When you purchase the Kindle version there is a note to readers that due to its large file size, this book may take longer to download.  Fashions in the Era of Jane Austen are the fashion plates from 1809 to 1820.  My next project will contain the next nine years I was unable to include in the in the first book.  I am having a difficult time deciding on a title.

Once again, Jody, many thanks for your contribution to Austen era scholars and writers.