London sporting spectacles that won’t cost you a penny

As one of the best-known and most influential cities on the planet, London plays host to iconic sporting events at legendary venues every year. Just last month, Lord’s cricket ground was the scene of yet another engrossing Ashes test match; the month before, it was tennis-fever as the nation and world went Wimbledon crazy; just a few weeks ago, the new football season was ushered in by the Community Shield at – where else – Wembley Stadium. 

Attending these kinds of events is a dream for any sports fan. But it’s fair to say that unless you’ve got a seven figure bank balance or friends in high places, it’s not the sort of thing you can do every week. Tickets can be eye-wateringly expensive, assuming you can get them at all, especially if you want a prime seat with a great view of the action. 

But here’s the thing. Sport is something that anyone can enjoy, whether from a participatory or spectating perspective, regardless of wealth or connections. That’s even true in London. The city might not be renowned for offering something for nothing, but there are plenty of sporting experiences in and around the capital that you can enjoy absolutely free. 

Non-league football

Sure, you could spend a fortune to sit miles away from the action watching overpaid prima donnas falling over and clasping their ankles in mock-pain at a choice of stadia around the city. But why do that when you can stand right on the sidelines and see talented footballers playing the game with just as much passion, maybe more, without having to pay a penny?

Non-league football comprises those feeder teams that you sometimes hear about making it through to the third or fourth round of the FA Cup and dreaming of giant-killing. They typically contain a blend of local talent, promising youngsters and sometimes a few former professionals with Premier League experience who play on because it is what they love to do. 

There are literally dozens of non-league teams dotted across the capital. Typically, they are based at free-to-enter London sports parks – the sort of places where you could go along with the kids and have a kick-around yourself when the game has finished, or even have an impromptu game of cricket, rugby or tennis. Try doing that at Wembley or Tottenham and you’ll soon be ejected by security, but free parks like these are the bedrock of grass roots sport. 

The London Marathon

There’s something quintessentially English about the way London completely shuts down every year and transforms itself into a running track. The London Marathon is a surreal event. On the one hand, it is seen as one of the most important races to win for long distance running pros, who want their names alongside those of such legends as Dick Beardsley, Charlie Spedding, Eliud Kipchoge, Paula Radcliffe and Ingrid Kristiansen.

Yet it is also one of the biggest festival-style fun runs on the planet. Everyone knows someone who’s run the London Marathon, and the 40,000 entrants raise millions for worthy causes every year.

For those who can’t quite face the 26 mile run, this is still one of the best events in London to attend as a spectator. If you have a friend or loved one running, it’s a fun challenge to try and intercept them at different points along the route, but even if you haven’t, you can’t help but get caught up in the carnival atmosphere. Many runners have their names written on their shirts specifically so that people along the way can shout encouragement to them as they pound their way through the miles. 

The most popular places for spectators are close to the beginning, the end and around the Tower Bridge area. If you’re planning on attending, it’s worth studying the route and perhaps standing in an area that will be less densely populated and where your moral support will count for more. Anywhere near Canary Wharf and South Quay is a good idea, as it is easy to reach by public transport. Alternatively, the streets around Charlton are usually relatively quiet. 

The Boat Race

It’s an event so famous that nobody even has to ask which boat race. The students from Oxford and Cambridge have been meeting every year since 1829 to duke it out on the Thames. It is contested along a four mile stretch of the river known as The Championship Course, which runs between Putney and Mortlake.

You can watch the action from anywhere along the river bank, of course, but the Boat Race website helpfully provides a list of spots where you will get a particularly good view. Naturally enough, Hammersmith Bridge is considered a prime location from which to literally oversee the action. That means it can get crowded, so if you want to battle for the best view, be prepared to arrive early. 

RideLondon FreeCycle

Finally, a feel-good sporting event in which the whole family can get involved. It’s an all-day event in which, once again, London shuts up shop as far as motor vehicles are concerned. This time, it is to give everyone the opportunity to get on their bikes and have a great time while exploring the city along a set route.

It’s all about participating, so you will see people of all ages, and of course the inevitable eccentrics in their fancy dress or riding bizarre types of bicycles. The route is essentially open all day, with an official start time of 9AM and the barriers remaining in place till 4PM. Participants are guided along some of London’s best-known thoroughfares, including The Strand, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Victoria Embankment. They pass all the famous landmarks, including Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and The Bank of England. The final part of the route is on the city’s new East-West Cycle Superhighway.

The event is getting bigger with every passing year, and organisers have already announced the date for next year, which will be Saturday 15 August.