It’s always worth searching listing sites and local Facebook groups for free days out on Bank Holidays. They are a brilliant source of free days out – London seems to have a free festival or concert every weekend – and we attended Canalway Cavalcade in Little Venice, a really brilliant one, on Bank Holiday Monday.
Read on to find out about a typical day (and typical expenses) at a ‘Free’ festival, and my tips for finding the best ones.
The Cavalcade is a big event, one of London’s biggest and brightest – a festival celebrating canal life and canal boats. As well as hundreds of colourful, lavishly decorated narrowboats there is a huge range of craft stands, refreshments and entertainment for the whole family. In addition, being close to Paddington means it’s catered for by a variety of restaurants and cafes too.
We travelled in Monday morning via the tube. The Childe was very excited about candyfloss, someone had told her it existed and now she was intent on getting hold of some regardless of what we said. In a bold gamble to put her off, her dad said it was “nothing but sugar” and “would make your hands sticky”. Funnily enough it just fuelled her fascination.
We walked around and looked at the boats first. To be honest, this was a bit of a quick fix for an under-5; she was fascinated for about ten minutes then started banging on about candyfloss again so we moved on to another distraction. There were Morris Dancers and music by the amphitheater areas, along with some food and craft stalls and children’s rides. This would be a great place to sit out for a while, but it was incredibly hot yesterday so we decided not to. The charge for the rides was reasonable for London (£2) so we popped the childe on while His Lordship ran down to Sainsburys for cash. One thing to remember: a lot of stands at free festivals will be cash only so plenty of change is the order of the day.
After that, we crossed the footbridge to the refreshments area: lots to choose from including Caribbean, Indian street food, seafood, bakery goods and more. There were also three bars: a wine bar run by one of the food stalls, the official (20% to charity) bar and a Pimms bar. We stopped for a quick ale in the official tent, where there was a ‘One Man Band’ playing – this intrigued the child for quite some time and kept us in the welcome shade! I also got to meet Rosie and Jim, 90s children’s TV stars!
After this, we watched some more free entertainment (Punch & Judy) and coughed up for a go on a children’s ‘ride on’ boat activity. Somehow, in spite of no candyfloss, the Childe looked sticky and grubby enough to warrant a change of top and people tutting at her trousers on the way home (!) so perhaps a picnic mat might help next time.
Could we have done the day for free? Yes – especially if we had brought our own refreshments and swatted up on the free shows for the day. To be honest, we were a little limited by the heat, which was an unusual factor and meant we bought juice (for all), extra water (for all) and beer (for parents, obvs).
Did we buy candyfloss in the end? Well yes, mainly for me though. I let Childe have some to taste and she decided it was ‘so sweet it’s spicy’ and let me finish it, while she had a tub of ice cream instead. Result!
On reflection, I think we will return on a non-festive day next time. We could grab a bite to eat then get the canal boat ride up to Camden or London Zoo. The festival was great fun though, if a little sweaty!
So how do I find my free and low-cost family days out in London? The first thing I always do is search, or sign up to a range of sources. Many smaller festivals don’t have the budget to advertise but can place their events in local listings, so it’s worth checking out:
- Time Out London – you can filter for free stuff and this has the most listings.
- The Evening Standard’s GO LONDON – again you can filter by kids, budget and even dogs!
- Londonist – again a whole lot of great listings.
- Day Out With The Kids – gives national coverage.
- Freevents.co.uk – gives national coverage.
One thing which I also rely on is digital word of mouth. By which I mean, both on my Facebook and my Instagram, I link up to local neighbourhood groups and sites. In Ealing, I’m a member of Ealing 135, Pitshanger Area Friends, Perivale People, Greenford Friends … you get the idea! Local events are either posted to the page/group or else someone posts they’ve seen something and lets others know. Look for fairly active groups and pages with large numbers of contributing, community-positive members who do more than sell used goods for more than you can imagine anyone would pay for a broken Barbie doll and a partially burned scented candle.
Also, check out reviews from past years. It’s useful to know how good catering is, any hidden costs … and how big the event actually is! It works both ways, a lovely woodland festival near me was inundated once after being over shared, but equally we’ve turned up (luckily with Oyster in hand) to events promising a full-day range and they have been one stage and an ice cream van. Knowing things like toilets, food and drink and transport are a must.
What are your favourite free days out?