March 9, 2021

Living the Cheapskate life: journalist Harriet Marsden on open-air swimming, the magic of Morley's & London's best park cafes

Harriet Marsden is a native Londoner and freelance journalist writing for publications including The Times, Foreign Policy and The Independent. She has just released her first book, Don't Lose Your Head: Life Lessons from the Six Ex-Wives of Henry VIII.

I rest my head in…

Myatts Field. Next to the Camberwell Submarine actually. Stay with me on this – it’s halfway between Stockwell and Camberwell, just off Brixton Road, but the nearest tube station is Oval which is technically in Kennington. South London is a trip.

Where’s the cheapest place you’ve lived in London? And the most expensive?

Simultaneously the cheapest and the most expensive: my parents’ attic conversion (cheap for me, as in, free. Expensive for them, obviously). It’s as big as my flat now, and twice as fancy. One downside: it was hotter than the gates of Hell.

Where are your favourite London cheap eats?

Morley's is a South London institution for a reason – thank god I have one within drunken walking distance. Get the popcorn chicken, obviously. I love Chaplin’s café on Brixton Road, for either the duck egg with truffle mushroom or the homemade pasta of the day.

Camberwell's East Street Market is amazing for fresh produce, and down the road there's Wuli Wuli for handmade Sichuan dumplings for under a fiver (way better than the hugely overrated nearby Silk Road, which doesn't even do lunch). That reminds me, pierogi (Polish dumplings) and vodka from Mamuśka's in Waterloo! A fresh halloumi wrap from a kebab place is always a solid bet – I love Lebanese Kitchen @ Best Kebab on Dulwich Road.

The Kennington pub does one of the best Sunday roast deals, and in the cellar of St Mark’s Church outside Oval there’s a little community-run café called Streamz which does amazing jerk chicken. You can’t go wrong with a proper greasy spoon though – I love Star Cafe in Camberwell.

If you're on the Southbank, there's a food truck near Queen's Walk that serves hot donuts with Nutella, perfect for a winter walk. Anywhere in Mercato Metropolitano is great, but my personal favourite is the deep-fried gnocchi. But you know, if you go to any food market with a big smile you can eat samples for free...

For something a bit more special, Awesome Thai is the best restaurant in London and I will fight anyone that says otherwise. Get the chicken and cashew nuts with egg-fried rice. The Churchill Arms in Notting Hill. Get the chicken and cashew nuts with egg-fried rice there, too. Siam Central in Fitzrovia. Get the… I can’t say it again.

Your perfect no-spend London day would involve…

Pottering around a market –Portobello or Maltby Street, Southall in Little India if I’m going further or Oval farmer’s market if I’m staying closer to home – to sift through old crap, try on jewellery and cadge food samples. A walk down the South Bank, from east to west, making a little detour at Waterloo down into the Leake Street vaults, to see what’s new with the artwork. Then home via Vauxhall City Farm to say hi to the alpacas. If it’s raining, probably something nerdy like the Egypt section at the British Museum. If it’s warm? Set up shop in the park with a book.

Have you ever had a free Pret coffee?

I have! To this day, it remains the single greatest moment of my life. Felt like winning the Lottery. I don’t have a *clue* what the trick is, but – I’m always very smiley in Pret because I love Pret. So maybe that helped. Although I will say I looked like sh*t so maybe it was a pity brew.

Where’s your favourite free place to visit in London?

The British Library! It’s beautiful, it’s a treasure trove of resources, it’s practically a free co-working space and it always has these incredibly quirky, interesting exhibitions on (although some of them you do have to pay for).

I’ve already mentioned markets, but my big love is parks. Richmond, Kyoto Garden in Holland Park… Brockwell Park at last orders, after the sun sets, looking down from the hill as the city lights come on. You have to jump the fence to get out, but it’s worth it. Vine Road Recreation Ground in Barnes – affectionately known by all locals as the Train Park because of the racket – for paddling pool, swings and childhood nostalgia. Kennington Park for the win though – it’s the flower garden for me, Clive.

What are your top London 'hacks'?

1. Be nice to food-truck and market vendors and they will give you free samples. Wow, I’ve talked about free food samples a lot.

2. If you’re travelling off-peak, a bus is by far superior to the Tube. Even better: the river boat! CityMapper is the greatest invention of our times.

3. Open-air swimming in the Royal Docks beats any lido – and should be prescribed for mental health.

4. Don’t pay to go up the Shard; make friends with someone at the News UK building right next door, then go eat with them in the staff canteen on the top floor. Same view!

5. Never follow the crowd at King’s Cross. The crowd is stupid.

6. There are more museums and galleries than you can imagine in London, so don’t confine yourself to Exhibition Road.

7. Take the Hammersmith and City Line westbound and watch the sun set over White City.

8. The best bars in London can’t be seen from the street – you have to know where to find them. For example, go downstairs in the London Bridge Breakfast Club and ask for Mr Lucky.

9. The people that know the city best are in hospitality and events. Catering staff, bar staff, bouncers, musicians… either work as one, or make friends with many. They open all the doors.

10. Pubs and hotel bars can be quieter than cafes for meetings or work.

11. The website DesignMyNight is *well* worth spending time on and making bookings through – and obviously, subscribe to the Cheapskate London newsletter!

12. For the smaller-bladdered women, London Loo Codes will save your life.

Have you ever charmed your way out of a fine or free of some kind?

Countless times! For every front entrance with a ticket collector or a bouncer, there’s usually a back door you can talk your way through. That’s how I dodge the line at Mercato Metropolitano. I have a chemical aversion to queueing. I vaguely remember being threatened by a police officer with a fine when I was drunkenly paddling in St James’ Park Fountain. I must have charmed my way out of that somehow.

If you were London Mayor for the day, what would you do?

I’d put all the homeless people up in fancy hotels and then make the government sleep outside. See how fast they solve the problem then. Ban all cars from central London, except for cabs and disability vehicles. Scrap the congestion charge. Properly fund community centres. Drastically discount cinema tickets. More weapons disposal points. Set up women-only running tracks. Make all cyclists wear helmets and learn the Highway Code. Ice rinks all year round, and make them roller discos. Re-open Hammersmith Bridge, or at least replace it. The people of Barnes are marooned!

What’s the biggest London rip off?

Where do I even start? Madame Tussauds! Why are they charging people a fortune to queue for an hour, then walk around in the semi-darkness looking at wax imitations of Americans? What does it have to do with London? Abolish Madame Tussauds.

See also: all restaurants in Mayfair. And nearly every bar in Shoreditch, except for Floripa. Oh that reminds me,that stupid cat cafe, Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium – just go round a friend’s flat for a coffee? God, there are too many rip-offs in London. You’ll notice they’re all north of the river, though.  

If you were going to splurge in London, what would it be on?

I bet everyone says the Sky Garden for this, but everyone is wrong. West End tickets! Every big-name musical, every weekend, after a Chinatown pre-theatre meal of Peking duck and before a boozy night in Soho. Then a completely unnecessary rickshaw ride. Also, cinema tickets at the Olympic Studios – best sound system in the UK!

Oh, I’d definitely feed the sharks at the SEA LIFE Aquarium. Or book out the Tower of London so I could chill with the ravens and buy Chris Skaife a drink.

What are your favourite small businesses in London?

Cafes in parks are criminally overlooked. I love the Little Cat Cafe in Myatts Field park.The Lyric theatre in Hammersmith has some of the best shows going, and a rooftop bar that’s never too busy. Cable Cafe on Brixton Road for the day time (and Tuesday evenings for the live jazz) – particularly the adorable back garden – or just round the corner, Cable Bakery Bar and Pizzeria for drinks and food. Chaplins, I’ve already mentioned – the owners have all but adopted me. But by far and away the most magical small business in London is Stephen Wright’s House of Dreams in Dulwich. You’ve never seen anything like it.

In three words, what makes someone a Londoner?

An Oyster Card. No, just kidding, we all have contactless. An open mind.

Harriet's first book, Don't Lose Your Head: Life Lessons from the Six Ex-Wives of Henry VIII, can be purchased here. Follow her on Twitter here.

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