Horse Guards. Community

Best of Royal London for Free

Free Picks for Your Royal Fix
By Dinah Hatch

There cannot be a city in the world with more free things to do than London. As well as the world-beating Natural History Museum with its enormous blue whale and robot dinosaurs, the interactive Science Museum and the British Museum, home to the world-famous Rosetta Stone, there's enough royal pomp to keep you busy if you're still disappointed about Will and Kate's invitation getting "lost" in the mail. Here are eight of our favorite free picks.

Photo Caption: Horse Guards. Photo by Rob Flynn/ Community
Exterior of the Royal Academy of Music's Duke Hall in London.
Hear a Master-Class at the Royal Academy of Music
There are several free events daily during term time at this spectacularly grand conservatoire, including regular Friday lunchtime concerts that have seen the world-famous 80-year-old Sir Colin Davis conduct the Academy Orchestra. As well as student singing competitions, jazz, musical theatre and lectures from visiting sopranos, the museum is home to more Stradivarius violins than you can see in any one place in the world. Other highlights include letters written by Mendelssohn, and Yehudi Menuhin's entire archive, featuring among other oddities letters he wrote to Margaret Thatcher and Ghandi. Entertaining master-classes are staged by visiting soloists in the spectacular 400-seat Dukes Hall; these sometimes see students put through their paces on stage in a brutal three-hour lesson. There is no need to book a ticket or even to pretend to be a student musician. Just turn up at the 180-year-old Academy and take up your seat.

Contact: Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT (tel. 020 7873 7373;
Tube stop: Baker Street or Regent's Park
Hours: Academy daily 8am
Tower of London at Night. Community
Attend the Ceremony of the Keys
The Ceremony of the Keys is the traditional locking up of the Tower of London that has taken place without fail every night for over 700 years. You can witness this spectacle by writing in person to the Ceremony of the Keys Office at the above address. You must include two possible dates that you can attend that are at least two months in advance (three months in advance if you wish to attend in July or August) as well as a stamped addressed envelope. The ceremony starts at exactly 9:53pm when Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower in his long red coat.

He carries a candle lantern and the Queen's Keys. With what is deemed "solemn tread," he moves along Water Lane to Traitor's Gate, where his escort, provided by one of the duty regiments of Foot Guards, awaits him. Some saluting ensues, after which you hear the following dialogue. "Halt, who comes there?' "The Keys!" answers the Chief Yeoman Warder. "Whose Keys?" says the sentry, who after 600 years should really have known by now. "Queen Elizabeth's Keys." "Oh, those keys," replies the sentry, after which there is some saluting, some God preserve Queen Elizabeth-ing, a bit of drumming and "The Last Post" is played, before you go home to lock up your own house with considerably less fanfare.

Contact: Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB (
Tube stop: Tower Hill
Hours: Daily 9:53pm
Horse Guards. Community
Wave to the Queen at Trooping the Colour
To catch sight of the Queen in person, visit the Trooping of the Colour ceremony held once a year to mark the Queen's official birthday (June) on Horse Guards Parade in St James's Park. Involving much pomp, a lot of sweating in bearskins, some pretty cool marching, clanking metal and jostling for position with fellow royal-watchers, the ceremony sees 1,400 officers and men on parade, together with 200 horses and over 400 musicians from seven military bands and corps of drums and 113 issued words of command.

The parade extends from Buckingham Palace along The Mall to Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall and back again. Precisely as the clock on the Horse Guards Building strikes 11am, the Royal Procession arrives and the Queen takes the Royal Salute. The parade then continues with the Inspection; the Queen drives slowly down the ranks of the Guards and the Household Cavalry. After the event, the Royal Family gathers on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch an RAF flypast. Tickets to watch the ceremony from a seated stand in Horse Guards Parade are allocated by ballot. Applications, with a stamped addressed envelope, must be sent to the above address between 1 January and the end of February; the winners are picked out in mid-March. Alternatively, the ceremony may be seen from Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, and the cavalry division's process to Buckingham Palace from a flag-lined Mall.

Contact: Ticket Office, HQ Household Division, Horse Guards, Whitehall, London SW1A 2AX (tel. 020 7414 2353;
Tube stop: St James's Park
Hours: June, 11am. Check website for specific dates.

Photo Caption: Horse Guard parade in London. Photo by Karla Russek/ Community
Detail of statue in London's Regent's Park. Community
Go on a Bird Walk in Regent's Park
"I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth." I deliver the Hamlet soliloquy Richard E Grant utters at the end of the cult British movie Withnail and I to protest at the early hour (4am) we got up (without breakfast) to see a few chaffinches on dawn bird walk here. Grant delivers his speech in this park at the end of the movie in desperation about his failed acting career. I delivered mine outside the Boathouse Café after dirtying my trousers following a pipit into a bush with my binoculars.

If you print out the suggested walk and map from the website listed below, the other birds I expected to see in the 410-acre park, originally one of Henry VIII's hunting grounds, include grey herons, tufted and ruddy ducks, pochard, coots, Canada and greylag geese, whooper and mute swans, wagtails, sandpipers, swallows, sand martins, swifts, housemartins, sparrowhawks, hobbies, peregrine falcons, pipits, chiffchaffs, willow warblers, spotted flycatchers, wagtails, finches, cormorants and those chaffinches I mentioned above. Although to be honest if I'm getting up at 4am on a weekend I would expect to spot something on a par with a pterodactyl to make it worthwhile.

However, there are great views of Primrose Hill here and Queen Mary's gardens are worth a look. There are more official guided walks with a wildlife officer that start at 8am on Sunday mornings in the spring (Apr-May) and autumn (Aug-Sept) although my wife "forgot" to tell me about those. They typically last one-and-a-half hours. There's also bike hire and tennis courts in the park.

Contact: North London, NW1 4NR (tel. 020 7486 7905;
Tube stop: Regent's Park
Hours: From 5am until dusk.

Photo Caption: Detail of statue in London's Regent's Park. Photo by GERARD HUTTON/ Community
Commissioned in 1675 by Charles II, the Royal Observatory was set up to discover an accurate method of determining longitude.
Ron Emmons
Stand Either Side of the Earth at the Royal Observatory
Founded by King Charles II in 1675 to solve the problem of finding longitude at sea, here you can stand on the famous meridian line with a foot on each side of the Earth's globe, guide a space mission and touch a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite. There are photos of Saturn taken from the Cassini spacecraft, a chance to learn how the universe was formed, and on certain Sundays (check ahead) visitors can view sunspots through a Hydrogen Alpha 28-inch telescope, once the largest in the world. While you're here, check out the bright red Time Ball on top of Flamsteed House, first used in 1833. It was one of the world's earliest public time signals, alerting ships on the Thames, and it still operates each day at 12:55pm when the ball rises half way up its mast. The Time and Longitude Gallery is also worth a visit for its collection of marine clocks. The planetarium is chargeable. The best time to come is before 11:30am, the busiest is 1pm on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Contact: Blackheath Avenue, Greenwich, London SE10 8XJ (tel. 020 8858 4422;
Train stop: Dockland Light Railway: Cutty Sark, a 15-minute walk away
Hours: Daily 10am-5pm.

UPDATE: The Royal Observatory will be closed during the London Olympics. It is scheduled to reopen Aug. 4, 2012.

Photo Caption: Commissioned in 1675 by Charles II, the Royal Observatory was set up to discover an accurate method of determining longitude.
London cabs waiting outside the Harrods department store. Community
Window Shop at Harrods
Serving more than 15 million people a year, the largest and most controversial store in Britain isn't somewhere you'll want to open your wallet too wide but it's worth a visit to gawp at people who are prepared to spend £1,000 (yes) on a bedsheet. The store, owned by Mohamed Al Fayed, is the last in Britain to sell real fur, has a dress code barring the wearing of products it sells (bermuda shorts, ripped jeans, sandals, cycling shorts) and it also boasts two shrines to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. Some more superlatives from the store with the famous motto Omnia Omnibus Ubique -- All Things for All People Everywhere (but especially for those who can afford a £28 Christian Dior baby bib): it has over one million square feet of selling space, more than 300 departments and is lit at night by more than 12,000 (ironically) energy-saving lightbulbs. Its famous customers have included AA Milne, Sigmund Freud, Noel Coward, and Kylie Minogue.

OK, where is it best to head for first? The chocolate department is fantastic, the food hall makes Fortnum & Mason look like a corner shop, and you must see the pharaohs in the Egypt Room, reputedly modelled on Al Fayed himself, while the swanky loos are worth a snoop. Also, don't come on a Saturday -- it's heaving with tourists and foreign shoppers queuing to get their VAT exemptions. If you want extra carrier bags to impress your friends, ask for them -- the staff are, as you'd expect, geniality personified.

Contact: 87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7XL (tel. 020 7730 1234;
Tube stop: Knightsbridge, South Kensington or Sloane Square. Hours: Mon-Sat.

Photo Caption: London cabs waiting outside the Harrods department store. Photo by RooBunky/ Community
The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
Witness the Pomp of the Changing of the Guard
The Changing of the Guard is one of the oldest and most popular ceremonies associated with Buckingham Palace and you can gain much kudos with the tourists outside the gates by loudly declaring as my wife did, that its proper name is, of course, the Guard Mounting. The process of changing the guard is as simple as it sounds. The New Guard exchanges duty with the Old Guard, the handover accompanied by a Guards' band. The music played during the ceremony ranges from traditional military marches to songs from musical shows. The Foot Guards are in the full-dress uniform of red tunics and bearskins (great coat order in the winter) and it all takes place in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace at 11:30am, lasting about 45 minutes. It's daily from May until the end of July and on alternate days for the rest of the year. There is no Guard Mounting ceremony in very wet weather.

Contact: Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA (tel. 020 7414 2353;
Tube stop: St James's Park or Green Park
Hours: 11:30am.

Photo Caption: The Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace in London.
The Queen's House, Greenwich as seen from the Old Royal Observatory on Greenwich Hill.
Ron Emmons
See the White Lady Ghost at Queen's House
Designed by Inigo Jones, Queen's House was the first Palladian villa in England. It was commissioned by King James I, possibly to apologise to his wife Anne for losing his temper after she accidentally shot his pet hound during a deer hunt. The house showcases the National Maritime Museum's fine-art collection, including paintings by Gainsborough, Hogarth and Reynolds and is also renowned for its elegant Tulip Staircase, the first geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain.

The staircase is also the location of the Rev RW Hardy's famous "ghost" photograph taken on 19 June 1966, which revealed what appeared to be two or three shrouded figures on the staircase. This was the main excuse my fretful wife used to refuse to enter the building, meaning I was forced to go in alone with the children. I had to carry them up a flight of the Tulip Staircase, one under each arm like surf boards because they were tired from pelting up and down the Maritime Museum. Don't miss the Great Hall, with its impressive geometric black-and-white floor tiling and wooden balcony running around the walls, where musicians played during King James's times.

Contact: Greenwich, London SE10 9NE (tel. 020 8858 4422;
Train stop: Dockland Light Railway: Cutty Sark
Hours: Daily 10am-5pm.

UPDATE: The Queen's House is closed during the Olympics. It is scheduled to reopen Sept. 22, 2012.

Photo Caption: The Queen's House, Greenwich as seen from the Old Royal Observatory on Greenwich Hill.