My secret to a fab (& cheap!) day out in London

FIRST PUBLISHED: 2013

FULLY UPDATED: 2017

Iona Bain

It’s one of the capital’s best kept secrets, but art lovers on a budget are fast discovering the free joys of 2 Temple Place and its historic surroundings in the heart of London. I was lucky enough to visit on a beautiful March afternoon where a trip around the Temple district, and even a jaunt down Fleet Street, was also possible. Even if art appreciation is not your strong suit, there’s so much you can get out of this atmospheric corner of London.

In total, I spent around £13 on a truly diverse day out, which included a coffee at 2 Temple Place, a pint in a fabulous throwback of a pub and two full-price entrance fees to fascinating yet very different historic sites. This is superb value when you contrast it to the price of a single ticket for a blockbuster exhibition (nudging £15 for an adult) or even a trip to the cinema in the capital (now an astonishing £13).

But firstly, cue the main draw of this area (in my view). 2 Temple Place has a very prosaic name but that belies a very opulent place indeed. It was originally built as the headquarters for the fabulously wealthy William Waldorf Astor. Little wonder, then, that despite a degree of damage suffered during the Blitz, it has retained some glorious features. There are technicolour stained glass windows, a gold weather vane and cheeky carved figures from The Three Musketeers that dot the wooden staircase, among many other highlights. The building alone is something to behold but it also hosts a free exhibition every year.

An elegant, ornate room in the Astor House makes for a great setting for an art gallery Two Temple Place, known for many years as “Astor House”, is a building situated near Victoria Embankment. It is both an architectural gem and a veritable treasure house of exquisite artwork.
When I last visited, the exhibition was on painters from Cornwall. Anybody that’s ever been to this most picturesque of regions will recognise the incredible artistic heritage it has produced, and the exhibition provided a window into a painter’s paradise.

The quirkiest part of this trip is finding somewhere to sit in the many rooms given over to café seating. We ended up sitting behind the building’s huge safe – it’s so rare to see past activity preserved, completely without comment and with the trust that nobody will interfere with it! But you can guarantee enough room to move. Unlike exhibitions at the Royal Academy, where ticket sales can reach the hundreds of thousands, Temple Place usually attracts around 50,000 – 70,000 visitors.

Then it’s onto the surprisingly open spaces of the Temple district itself, the legal heartland of London today. The buildings are highly similar to those you’ll encounter in Oxford or Cambridge but unlike those places, you can move freely around the Temple area without needing an inside track (so long as you don’t make a nuisance of yourself). We even had a picnic, in the Spring sunshine, on one of the numerous benches sprinkled around the place. We couldn’t leave the area without peeping inside Temple Church, originally established by the enigmatic Knights Templar and now more famous (or infamous) for its association with Dan Brown’s yarn “The Da Vinci Code”. It costs £4 for full price entry, but it’s an atmospheric must if you’re in the area. There are also regular concerts and services that might provide low-cost ways to absorb the mystery of Temple Church.

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We then stepped into a very different universe on Fleet Street, obviously home to many of our newspapers in yesteryear. It’s now more alluring if you’re a fan of archaic and unusual drinking establishments (let’s face it, who isn’t?) Firstly, there’s El Vino, which notoriously banned women from drinking in its hallowed rooms until just thirty years ago, but Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese really takes the biscuit. It has actual sawdust on the floor, the most authentic fireplace you’ll ever see and pork pies still on the menu. It feels almost totally unaltered since the days when Charles Dickens frequented the bar and it is well worth having a drink (very reasonably priced for Central London) to take in the old fashioned lighting and smells of this truly unique pub.

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Finally, we wound our way down the backstreets towards Dr. Johnson’s house and find out more about this larger-than-life figure from London’s past. Generously, I got in on a family ticket but for a full-priced entrance fee of £4.50, you get a truly comprehensive overview of this fascinating man’s life, from his epic labour of love (writing the entire English dictionary, no less) to his colourful social life. One of his friends nearly bankrupted himself by attempting to create beer without hops or malt – this was just one of many bizarre facts about the elite London circles that Johnson mixed in.

Whether you’re interested in religion, history, law, literature, the English language or just quenching your thirst in an eccentric location, there is something for everyone, regardless of budget, just a stroll along from Temple Station.

2 Temple Place is open to visitors between January and April, but you can sample its delights on Open House Day in September. In 2017, this happens on 17th September – so don’t miss out.

I have provided a contrast between the cost of a typical cinema trip, ticket on the London Eye and adult pass to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. You make up your own minds!

Ticket to cinema (central London) = £13

Ticket to go on London Eye (online booking) – £23.45

Ticket to see Summer Exhibition at Royal Academy – £15.50

TEMPLE

2 Temple Place = free

Coffee = £1.95

Walk around Temple and picnic = free

Temple Church = £4

Pint in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese = £3

Dr Johnson’s House = £4.50

TOTAL = £13.45

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