Capital elebration of open-air entertainment

IAN COLLINS Visitors to London from June to September can count on countless outdoor attractions - even if it's a good idea to pack an umbrella and a woolly in order to enjoy the open-air experiences in calmest comfort.

IAN COLLINS

Visitors to London from June to September can count on countless outdoor attractions - even if it's a good idea to pack an umbrella and a woolly in order to enjoy the open-air experiences in calmest comfort.

Instead of taking the Circle (of Hell) Line from Westminster to High Street Kensington, take the green walk - cutting across Whitehall, then through St James's Park, skirting the front of Buckingham Palace into Green Park and then following the diagonal route into Hyde Park and then Kensington Gardens.

A well-prepared traveller always brings the basics for a picnic, and the main hazard when dining al fresco en route is that you may have to share vital victuals with ornamental waterfowl or wild birds.

But then wild sights abound. When I paused to complete a sudoku puzzle on a bench between the Serpentine and the Albert Memorial recently, a supersonic sparrowhawk snatched an unwary mouse almost from between my feet.

The very best attraction in the Barbican arts centre this summer is viewable for free from the main terrace. Ideally via binoculars, look up to the top of the western-most tower block and, on a ledge or railing, you may see the pair of peregrines that have already fledged two chicks (and four last year).

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If you're lucky enough to see their stupendous aerial antics (far better than anything from the Red Arrows) you'll cease to wonder why it is that the Barbican now seems magically low on lumbering feral pigeons. The hawkish pair of falcon and tiercel have been polishing them off for breakfast.

The eagle-eyed may also spot these ravishing raptors while queuing outside Madame Tussaud's or milling in front of Tate Modern. The University of Westminster campus opposite the waxworks and the Thames-side power station turned museum have both being commandeered for peregrine nurseries.

While I run a mile from the crowds of the Chelsea Flower Show - and will steer clear of the looming, teeming bloomer of a show at Hampton Court in early July - I adore the peace and quiet of the Chelsea Physic Garden (now open each Wednesday and Sunday afternoon) and the Museum of Garden History (closed Saturdays) in the redundant church beside the main gate of Lambeth Palace.

Recently I paid a terribly depressing visit to London Zoo. Just before the opening of the much-hyped enclosure for gorillas, I viewed the empty penguin pool and pitied various sad creatures hunched in caged corners.

Open expanses of Regent's Park beyond remain wonderful at all times, but especially in summer. I love the lake and the great variety of gardens - havens for boaters and birders and armchair horticulturalists like me - and the bandstand with jazzy ensembles making mellow on Sunday afternoons.

If you're not among the thousands on the guest list for any of the three royal garden parties at Buckingham Palace this season grab a flavour of the party by grandstanding a bandstand.

But possibly the highlight of my favourite London park, laid out with such style and grace by John Nash early in the 19th century, is the Open Air Theatre. The 2007 season is already in full swing.

Established in 1932 - just over a hundred years after the inner and outer circles were completed - it is the oldest fully professional, permanent outdoor theatre in Britain, with one of the largest auditoriums for drama in London (plus a very welcome picnic area alongside).

It is rightly famous for performances of Shakespeare plays, and no year passes without the theatre's very own signature piece, A Midsummer Night's Dream. June is seeing a celebration of Macbeth, and every summer Sunday there is a different offering of revue, comedy or cabaret. Later treats on a programme running to September 15 comprise the children's show Fantastic Mr Fox and the musicals Lady Be Good and The Boyfriend.

Meanwhile, over in east London, the Canary Wharf Summer Series makes the most of giant screens in Canada Square Park.

If you can't get across to SW19, and find telly coverage all too constraining, you can catch the gallant struggles of Britain's first-round losers at Wimbledon very shortly. Soon they'll be showing British Formula One Grand Prix.

On Thursday evening, and again on July 28, there will be free screenings of live performances from the Royal Opera House, with a London Symphony Orchestra concert also in store and a July 17-28 gala will include a Charlie Chaplin tribute with live music.

Tomorrow the Wharf links up with the Greenwich and Dockland International festival to present Dancing City - a display of outdoor dance amid the gleaming backdrop of London's very own Manhattan or Singapore.

Now there are open-air delights all the way along the South Bank, from the old County Hall beside Westminster Bridge to the Design Museum way beyond Tower Bridge.

The uncovered riverside highlight is of course Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, a faithful replica pioneered by the late great actor-director Sam Wanamaker (Zoe's dad) and protected by roof fringe of fire-proofed Norfolk reeds. First completed in 1599, this Wooden O once went up in smoke mid-performance and was finally closed down by fiery Puritans in 1642. The dramatic fare on offer this season includes Othello and The Merchant of Venice, though there's also a light slice of English history courtesy of Jack Shepherd's Holding Fire!

From now until July 12 the City of London Festival is hosting open-air performances throughout the Square Mile and on its eastern fringe beyond Liverpool Street station.

And, just across Tower Bridge, in the shadow of City Hall (the lop-sided armadillo-like building also known as Livingstone's Testicle) there is a hollowed-out auditorium known as the Scoop and already hallowed by cinema fans.

We're now into the final week of the free venue's annual film festival More Movies - with a programme of classic, cult and recent box office hits being screened on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evening.

t Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, York Gate off Marylebone Road NW1 (08700 601 811; www.openairtheatre.org). Tube: Baker Street or Regent's Park.

t Canary Wharf Summer Series, Canada Square Park, off Upper Bank Street E14 (www.mycanarywharf.com). Tube/DLR: Canary Wharf.

t The Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside SE1 (020 7401 9919; www.shakespearesglobe.org). Tube: London Bridge.

t City of London Festival, 12-14 Mason's Avenue EC2 (020 7796 4949; www.colf.org). Tube: Bank, Moorgate or Mansion House.

t The Scoop, The Queen's Walk, beside City Hall SE1 (020 7403 4866; www.pooloflondon.co.uk). Tube: London Bridge.

When planning a visit to capital you can check out events on the Visit London website (www.visitlondon.com).

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