Make most of your free time

IAN COLLINS Summer and the capital can combine into a very affordable attraction. Ian Collins gives some ideas of how all the family can enjoy London in August on a budget and even for free.

IAN COLLINS

London in August is a capital place for fun in the sun… or the rain. And, although some big attractions cost a small fortune, a family trip can also go fairly light on the pocket.

Some of the highest-profile tourist draws charge the highest fees - and also entail the longest queues. Wandering around the Tower of London can feel like taking part in the evacuation of Dunkirk, and that conveyor belt that winds you through the Crown Jewels may owe more to the idea of getting you out pretty speedily than giving you a better view.

And who could possibly enjoy the experience of a long wait outside the London Dungeon for tickets that start, for adults at least, at £14.95 a time? To me that really is a torture.

I had a miserable time at the London Zoo recently (admittedly just before the opening of Gorilla Kingdom), with a dismal parade of sad prison inmates and many empty cages. The pain began at the admission desk - where a family ticket, for two adults and two children, or one adult and three children, costs £51.50.

Far better is the dazzling display of 70 free museums and galleries now on offer in the capital. The British Museum is a world in itself, and while the top of Tate Modern gives you a free view of London to rival that from the London Eye, Tate Britain is just brilliant and beautiful.

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On arrival at Liverpool Street or King's Cross it's well worth taking the time (and almost inevitably joining a queue) to register for an Oyster card. Under-18s will need passport-style photos. The cards are free and open-ended. You then activate them with sums of money - I spend £50 a time, but then I partly live in London - for big savings.

A normal Zone One single fare of £4 (yes, we rook tourists and other occasional travellers here), but it's reduced for Oyster travellers to £1.50. That level of levy is bad enough.

As part of Mayor Livingstone's re-election campaign, adult Oyster fares are falling from £1 to 90p on buses and trams from the end of September.

Meanwhile, all under-18s in full-time education can travel free on buses and trams. All 14 and 15-year-olds need an Oyster photocard and those aged 16 and 17 in full-time education need a student 16-17 Oyster photocard.

All children under 11 can also travel free on the Tube and Docklands Light Railway when accompanied by an adult with a valid ticket. Under 16s can get reduced fares on the Tube and DLR. For more details visit www.tfl.gov.uk or call 020 7222 1234 - that phone number is anyone a good addition to address books as it is a general travel information line and a great guide to how to get anyway in London.

(Any sensible traveller will also come with a pocket A-Z Guide - or buy one on arrival.)

But good as Oyster cards can be for limited journeys, if you plan to make repeated trips on public transport in a short period it can work out cheaper to buy daily or weekly Travelcards, which are accepted on buses, trams, Tube and trains throughout the capital.

It pays to do a little bit of calculation at the start of the day - especially as Tube passes can also be incorporated with train fares when you book your tickets from East Anglia to London.

Anyway, let's assume we have arrived in London. Where to now?

Within a ten-minute walk there are the fabulous Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch showcasing middle-class domestic life between the reigns of the two Elizabeths, the Bank of England Museum (where children can learn everything from the art of calligraphy to the making of fridge magnets, as well as picking up tips about maths and money) and the Museum of London. All for free.

But I can't imagine any more fun or fascination in a small urban area than that on offer around South Kensington Tube station.

Here, side by side, are the science, natural history and Victoria and Albert museums - and access to the permanent collections is now wholly and wonderfully free.

There is enough to savour in these national treasure houses for the whole of a summer holiday, but additional paid-for entry to temporary exhibitions may be thought worthwhile. Ice Station Antarctica - the Natural History Museum's new “unmissable family hands-on blockbuster experience”, as Ken Livingstone's Londoner paper puts it - could be good value at £7, and £4.50 concessions (family tickets £19).

After any of the above you can park yourself in Hyde Park for nothing - and just watch the world go by over a picnic. If you're feeling really flush, lash out on an ice-cream or a deckchair. But a vacuum flask, a bottle, sandwiches and fruit make for an affordable (and nutritious) feast compared with the mug's game of ready-made snacks and fizzy drinks. Oh the bliss of bottled tap water.

Kids Week - actually running for 15 days from August 17 to 31 - allows youngsters to see an unrivalled selection of theatre shows for free when accompanied by a paying adult.

More than 30 top West End shows are participating in the tenth year of this summer scheme. They include Billy Elliot The Musical, Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story, Mamma Mia, The Lord of the Rings and We Will Rock You.

There will also be more than 50 free events, from dance workshops to behind-the-scenes theatre tours and even some swashbuckling stage fighting.

Bookings can be made online at www.kidsweek.co.uk or by calling 0870 400 0800. t

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Here's a plan for a free family day, save for the costs of transport.

t 10.45am: Arrive at Green Park Tube station and wander across the park, while the children run off some energy, making sure to be at Buckingham Palace for the 11am changing of the guard.

t 12pm: Have a picnic by the bird-rife lake in St James's Park. Watch out for the pelicans.

t 1pm: Walk to Victoria and catch the Tube to South Kensington for that choice of science, natural history and Victoria and Albert museums.

t 3pm: Take the Tube to Westminster and walk over the bridge to the South Bank and then stroll past all of its attractions from the London Eye to the Design Museum. Take a look at the new-look Royal Festival Hall, Shakespeare's Globe and Tate Modern - and Borough Market is a Saturday treat. Enjoy unrivalled views of the river.

t 5.30pm: The energetic can walk all the way back to Liverpool Street over Tower Bridge, beyond which the Circle Line can also be picked up at Tower Hill. That neatly links with either of the two London termini for East Anglian trippers.

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