From the Winter Olympics to celebrating Harry Potter Day, here’s our pick of the best free events, activities and things to do around the UK this month
Chinese New Year, giant treasure hunts and a brilliant Valentine’s Day gift idea for free: there’s something for everyone in our monthly bumper round-up
Shrove Tuesday is on 13 February
1. Chinese New Year celebrations
London's Chinese New Year celebrations, this year marking the Year of the Dog, are the largest outside China. The parade starts at Charing Cross Road at 10am on Sunday 18, before trailing through Chinatown. There’s a range of entertainment on the stage in Trafalgar Square, and a family zone in Leicester Square where you can try out calligraphy and dressing up in traditional costumes.
Celebrations will also be taking place over the weekend of 17-18 February in Manchester, with a range of free family activities, as well as the centrepiece Dragon parade. The three-day Chinese New Year celebrations in Liverpool form part of a celebration of the city’s ties to China (and in particular Shanghai), running from February to October, while Newcastle also promises a bigger Chinese New Year parade than ever after a successful crowdfunding campaign.
2. Watch the 23rd Winter Olympics
Your sofa (or select bars across the country), 8-25 February
You may not have considered the 102 events at the Winter Olympics at all since you were last hooked by the bobsleigh or curling or cross-country skiing four years ago. But here they are again, this time live from South Korea, with 24-hour coverage on the BBC on tv and digital platforms. Team GB has sunk a mighty £32m into a hoped-for, best-ever haul of five medals.
3. Harry Potter Book Day/Night
Waterstones nationwide, 1 February
An afternoon and evening of events at Waterstones bookshops across the country, including dressing-up, readings and quizzes, this year themed around Fantastic Beasts. The events are mostly free, though some of the evening events (for example at the London Piccadilly store, with JK Rowling illustrators Jim Kay and Olivia Lemenech Gill) have a small admission charge.
4. Pancake Day
The best way to make your own pancakes? Everyone has their own recipe, but here’s the method used by Paul Hollywood when The Great British Bake-Off had pancake-making as a technical challenge in 2016.
If you're a really serious fan of pancakes, head to Derbyshire for the most spectacular celebration of Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday: the biggest football game in the world, Ashbourne’s Shrovetide. The game is played over two eight-hour days, the goals are three miles apart (and placed across a river) and, with hundreds playing on each side, there are few rules.
Alternatively, check out the Parliamentary Pancake Race, next to the Houses of Parliament, in which MPs and Lords take on the media to raise money for charity in a series of races. There’s also pancake racing next to London’s City Hall at The Scoop.
5. Give the gift of free cinema on Valentine’s Day
Big film companies like to build word of mouth publicity about new movies by showing them for free to preview audiences they think will like them. Want to get on the list? Register yourself (and/or a prospective loved one) with Show Film First to find out what’s coming up.
LONDON AND SOUTH EAST
Broken String Band (South Bank Centre, 16 February). Photo by Pawel Gawroski
6. Illuminating India
Science Museum, until 31 March
Illuminating India, celebrating 70 years of Indian independence, centres on two free exhibitions, one exploring the history of photography in India and the other the long history of science and innovation there. There’s a series of (paid-for) tied-in events, too.
7. Free Friday lunchtime gigs
Southbank Centre, Fridays, 1pm
Liven up the middle of the day with this series of diverse shows at the Southbank Centre. Which sounds the most appealing: The Broken String Band’s swinging re-creations of the sounds of the 1920s, 30s and 40s? Family sing-alongs with Amelia Robinson and her electric ukulele? Or Italian pianist Maria Chiara Argiro, with her jazz inspired by dreams?
8. Fat Tuesday
Venues across Hastings, 9-13 February
Think of Mardi Gras and you think of New Orleans but, closer to home, you should be thinking of Hastings. The South Coast town stages the UK’s largest Mardi Gras with hundreds of gigs taking place across over 20 venues, over five days.
Saturday 10 February alone sees more than 200 gigs, with 40 diverse bands (from choral to acoustic rock) zig-zagging round town playing short sets at participating venues. Most events are free entry.
9. Jon Snow’s ties
Design Museum, until 25 February
An exhibition devoted to the Channel 4 newsreader’s ties? Yes, seriously: it’s a celebration of the neckwear of Britain’s most famous wearer of ties (arguably), taking in the story of the silk trade, manufacturing and design. And if that’s a little niche for you the terrific permanent collections at the Design Museum are all free, too, and the great paid-for Ferrari exhibition runs until April.
SOUTH WEST ENGLAND AND WALES
Big Pit Coal Museum
10. Go down a mine
Big Pit National Coal Museum NP4 9XP, all year round
Former miners are the guides on this authentic underground tour (not for small children nor those with limited mobility). This free museum in between Abergavenny and Pontypool is devoted to all things mining-related, with plenty to see and do, both above and below ground.
11. Classic car rally
Haynes International Motor Museum, Yeovil, 5 February
The Haynes International Motor Museum houses the UK’s largest collection of great old cars, with more than 400 vehicles and an imaginative programme of events: it’s a great day out but it costs £14.50. However, on the first Sunday of every month, you can turn up and see some classic vehicles for free, as members of the public bring their own classics for an informal rally outside the Museum.
12. Stories from the British Empire
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, until 31 August
Selections of images and films from the gallery archive, chosen by groups and individuals each with their own unique perspective on Empire.
13. Free taster at Bath’s Rock Choir
5, 19, 26 February
There’s no audition or, they say, any need to be a good singer. Try out a session at Bath’s Rock Choir and see whether you are ready to join the 20,000-plus people nationwide who already sing pop and rock classics en masse every week.
MIDLANDS AND EAST
E-luminate Cambridge Festival of Light
14. Nottingham Light Night
Nottingham City Centre, 23 February
Nottingham lights up for the evening with a series of illuminations and light shows, as well as a chance to enjoy free events at venues across the city.
15. E-luminate Cambridge Festival of Light
Across Cambridge city centre, 9-15 February
Light installations, sound and light projections on iconic buildings, and the chance to play Glow Table Tennis (seriously) bring magic to the city for the six evenings of this light festival.
And an accompanying series of (generally paid-for) events and workshops, curated by TV art historian Dr James Fox, explores the science behind this year’s theme: colour. For instance: a wine-tasting session at Hotel du Vin asks: does colour change our perception of taste?
16. Free Nordic Walking taster session
Stanwick Lakes, Wellingborough NN9 6GY, 19 February
Developed in the 1930s as a way for skiers to keep fit in the summer, Nordic walking (walking with poles, simply put) is a whole body workout. It gets you fit, it gets you toned and you don’t have to live in Finland to do it, where it originated.
You can even do it round 750 acres of re-imagined gravel quarries in Northamptonshire: Stanwick Lakes has monthly taster sessions to get you in the swing. Nordic Walking UK has full info on Nordic walking instructors – and even festivals – across the rest of the country, too.
17. Read the news
BBC Birmingham Visitor Centre B1 1RF. Daily 10am-5pm. Sunday 11am-5pm
If you reckon that you can do better than Huw Edwards, have a go at reading the news at the BBC’s Birmingham Visitor Centre. There’s also a new permanent exhibition about Radio 4 drama The Archers, as well as a chance to sample some of the new technology the BBC is currently working on (Red Button-plus, for example.) Full, paid-for tours of the studios are also available.
NORTH OF ENGLAND
The M&S story
18. The Beautiful Frame exhibition
National Football Museum, Manchester M4 3BG, until 18 February
Seer more than 200 films, objects and artworks celebrating the way animators have illustrated different sports at this exhibition. This trailer gives a taste.
19. The story of Marks & Spencer
University of Leeds LS2 9JT, Mondays to Fridays
In 1894, Polish refugee Michael Marks teamed up with Yorkshire book-keeper Thomas Spencer to open a stall in Leeds’ covered market. Now, Marks & Spencer has over 1,400 stores worldwide. This intriguing exhibition tells the story of what happened in between, reflecting the changing habits and tastes of the UK over the last 130 years.
What the retail visionaries would make of the museum being closed at weekends, we can only imagine.
20. Free tours of Tate Liverpool
Albert Dock L3 4BB, daily until 1 April
Hear the stories behind some of the great artworks in the Tate Collection with one of Tate Liverpool’s free daily tours.
21. After the Coal Dust photo exhibition
Bradford Industrial Museum, Eccleshill BD2 3HP, Tuesdays to Sundays, until 29 April
In 1984, there were 56 collieries in Yorkshire. Now there are none. After the Coal Dust is a poignant and thought-provoking photo exhibition by John, Bridget and Freya Gill, capturing life in the mining towns after the mining has stopped.
Housed in an old spinning mill, Bradford Industrial Museum includes three terraced houses styled to show the life of 19th-century mill-workers, and a range of steam engines, motor vehicles and printing presses that feature in live demonstrations.
SCOTLAND AND NORTHERN IRELANDEdinburgh is home to a giant treasure hunt with its new 101 Objects walking trail
22. A giant treasure hunt through Edinburgh
101 Objects is a walking trail taking in 47 different locations and 101 objects around the Scottish capital, each of which is an intriguing part of the city’s story. Launched last summer, the app also works as a mobile city guide, taking you to little-noticed parts of well-known tourist magnets, secret pubs and all points between.
23. Snowsports Championships
Snowfactor, Glasgow PA4 8XQ, 7 February, 10am-10pm
Up-and-coming skiers and snowboarders showcase their talents at Scotland’s only indoor ski slope with real snow to get you in the mood for the Winter Olympics. Watch from the Bavarian-themed bar, Bar Varia.
24. Fort William Mountain Festival
This celebration of all things adventurous and outdoors, in the UK’s (self-styled) Outdoor Capital, has a rich, diverse and sensibly priced programme. Free events include “author talks at the Highland Bookshop by landscape photographer Dougie Cunningham (22 February) and Alfred Wainwright’s BBC collaborator Richard Else (24 February).
25. Free mindfulness taster sessions
Libraries across Northern Ireland
Mindfulness enthusiasts claim it can reduce stress and improve your mental and physical health. Caroline Stewart, the founder of Mindfulness NI, shows you how at a series of free introductions, this month in Kilkeel, Newcastle, Dungiven and Lisburn.