By Ben Aitken, author of Here Comes the Fun
Ben Aitken is a local writer and one time volunteer at the Library and local Shelter. He is the author of five books: Dear Bill Bryson, about following Bill Bryson around the country for no good reason; A Chip Shop in Poznań, wherein he moves to Poland to peel potatoes; The Gran Tour, which is travels with his elders on a series of budget coach holidays; The Marmalade Diaries, on moving in with an 85-year-old widow ten days before a national lockdown; and most recently Here Comes the Fun, an investigation into the serious business of having a laugh. Now he proposes a selection of things you can do for kicks in London that won’t break the bank.
If it is true – as Samuel Johnson professed – that London has all that life can afford, it is no less true that much of it is unaffordable. Fortunately, as I was to discover in the writing of Here Comes the Fun: A Year of Making Merry, London also has its fair share of budget boat-floaters.
One good example is Kentish Town City Farm. Here, for the princely sum of precisely zilch, you can spend an uplifting half-hour weighing up goats, studying sheep and running a curious eye over chickens. I go twice a week and the pigs never disappoint.
Just a modest trot from the farm is the sylvan expanse of Hampstead Heath, where you can regularly join Emily Rhodes, whose Walking Book Club convenes here one Sunday every month to discuss dubious narrators while taking a stroll.
Your bookish perambulation might be followed by a smidge of lawn bowls. On the southern edge of the Heath, just a jack’s toss from the Highgate Road, you’ll find the Parliament Hill Bowls Club, a welcoming outfit that caters to both curious chancers and seasoned rollers alike. Over the course of an hour, for the modest sum of just five pounds, I was introduced to the sport by an ambidextrous veteran, who as well as furnishing me with a range of technical pointers, didn’t mind sharing a medley of wise words, the best of them being: “The world’s your oyster, lad, and for God’s sake don’t chew it.”
At which point why not take a seat – and then stay there for an hour. It might sound odd, but by the end of my year of making merry, sitting on a bench had become a bit of a fun favourite. Although of course scarcely one of fun’s more adventurous shades, sitting on a bench and just taking in the world is nonetheless a reliable source of the f-stuff. It is drama. It is novelty. It is conversation. It is beauty. It is all-of-the-world, and so little at once. And if nothing else, it is flipping cheap. My go-to bench (if you’d like to avoid it) is on the corner of Berkley Road and Regent’s Park Road.
It’s time to get your skates on – literally. After hiring a pair from the London Skate Centre on Leinster Terrace, continue to Hyde Park and there cut your teeth (and find your feet) around the park’s intricate network of walkways. You might choose to blade in the vicinity of Kensington Palace, or alternatively round the feet of Peter Pan, whose marble likeness is, to my mind at least, a gentle reminder of the life-enhancing importance of embracing one’s inner child (even if that child was objectively horrid until the age of fourteen).
Back in standard footwear, why not head south to Millbank for the free pleasures of Tate Britain? Not only is the whole collection free to view, but you can treat yourself to a free guided tour every day at 12 noon, 1pm or 2pm. You just meet at the top of the rotunda staircase and join whatever tour is going that day, according to the guide’s particular interests. Tours last 45 minutes, so still time to grab a sandwich in your lunch hour, and return to work with spirits refreshed.
Next stop, still south of the river, is Ruskin Park in Denmark Hill. Here, every Saturday afternoon, the Friends of Ruskin Park get together to do a spot of edible gardening. In my experience, this will typically involve donning a pair of gloves, harvesting a few spuds, chin-wagging with the other volunteers, and then taking home a bag of sugar snap peas.
If I’m feeling more active, I might nip off to give a ninety-minute commanding performance in the centre of midfield. I play for a veterans’ football team, for which I was recruited in the toilet of the Pembroke Castle, though I’m assured there are other routes into the game. This was about a year ago, at the beginning of my fun-finding mission, and because I was determined to say yes to everything back then, one week later, I found myself, aged 36, at the centre of a spirited 11-a-side fixture for the first time in twenty-five years. I made an instant faux pas on my debut: falling over while attempting a back heel.
The final whistle gone, it’s time for some improvisational theatre. I recently did an 8-week course at City Academy, and while £200 for twenty-odd hours of frivolity isn’t exactly peanuts, it’s arguably a better use of funds than sinking a similar sum into the odd thirty pints of craft lager over the same period, which was what I was originally minded to do.
I’d recommend a penultimate stop at the old public baths in Hackney, where you can practise your freestyle cathartically to instrumental music without the aid or abetment of Bollinger. For little more than a tenner over the course of the three-hour danceathon you will come to learn (if you’re anything like me) the unfiltered version of everything you are – which is what Ecstatic Dancing promises to unveil. In my case it was a person standing awkwardly in the corner watching other people flourish, but hey, I was learning something meanwhile.
The best final port of call is a cookery school in Clerkenwell called Migrateful, whose instructors are all migrants or refugees. For about forty quid, I learned how to rustle up three dishes of Ukrainian extraction in a communal kitchen so telegenic I half-expected Greg Wallace to emerge any second from the pantry clutching spotted dick and custard. At the end of the session, you sit down with your classmates and instructor to enjoy the fruits of your labour, while liberally hobnobbing on the issues of the day (namely, just how good a signing Zinchenko has been for Arsenal).
A word of warning to finish: just about the only thing you can say with confidence about fun-following is that it’s massively subjective. Meaning there’s a strong chance that, were you to stir yourself to carry out all of the above, you wouldn’t get the slightest kick out of doing so. In that event, by all means track me down for a refund. You’ll find me on that bench I mentioned. Or contemplating chickens. Or rolling woods near Gospel Oak. Or attempting to salsa at Cecil Sharp House.