Ugh. It’s definitely winter again! The streets of London are paved with gold, they say, but at this time of year it’s only rain on tarmac reflecting the street lights.
But if the weather is rarely a delight, London offers many winter consolations to make up for it. The Oxford Street and Regent Street lights make Christmas shopping much more fun, particularly with late opening (don’t bother going in the daytime when the lights make no impact at all). Even better, there are traffic-free shopping days including on Boxing Day.
The Christmas Tree for Trafalgar Square doesn’t get quite such an early start – the lights are turned on in early December. In the evening, there’s carol singing in the square, something that never fails to bring a sentimental tear to my eye (of course there are also carol concerts in many London churches – St Martin in the Fields is always a good choice).
The Christmas market at the Southbank Centre is modelled on the German Christmas markets, with tiny chalets or cabins; gluhwein may not be an authentic London tradition but it jolly well should be, if you ask me – it really puts heart into you on a cold winter’s day. There’s also the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, with free entry to the stalls (though some of the attractions charge a fee).
Whether or not it freezes, London offers the chance to go ice skating, and many of the rinks let you savour the capital’s history at the same time. For instance, you can go skating in the moat at the Tower of London, or under the London Eye, or at the Tudor palace of Hampton Court, or in the great courtyard of Somerset House. The Natural History Museum and Canary Wharf also have rinks; it might quite quite fun to try to fit trips to all of them into the holiday period!
Then there are the pantos. Pantomime has been a great London tradition since the great clown Joseph Grimaldi starred in it in Dickens’s day, but having started as an Italian import, it’s changed and become a completely native amusement. There are traditional pantos like Cinderella at the Shaw Theatre, Aladdin in Wimbledon, Jack and the Beanstalk at the Southwark Playhouse, or Puss in Boots in Greenwich; or you could catch more offbeat shows such as the reality-TV-themed “Cinderella Boom or Bust” at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, or Potted Panto – two chaps, seven pantos, and utter madness at the Vaudeville theatre.
But I think the most appropriate panto for London has to be the tale of rags-to-Lord-Mayor-of-London Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal, Stratford.
Now I’ve already talked about the Christmas illuminations, but personally I derive much greater joy from Christmas window-shopping. All the major department stores compete to have the best displays, and some of them are truly wonderful.
- Harvey Nichols, usually one of the greats, disappointed me a bit this year. The rainbow-coloured giant snowflakes and black backgrounds look very 1970s, and not in a good way (the shop itself is as good as ever though).
- Harrods has gone for a luxury steam train – think Orient Express with a bit more bling, each window being a separate compartment. Really a nice idea. Each window is surrounded by a little ‘hedgerow’ twinkling with fairy lights, which reflects the all-year-round architectural lighting of the store façade but gives it a fresh, Christmassy feeling. And remember that we’re giving our hotel guests a free £50 Harrods voucher with our January sales offer (terms and conditions apply)!
- But the winner, for me, is Selfridges, with its playful designs that spin fantasies of what snowmen do on their days off, penguins who wear bow ties and go off fishing, or practice toboganning, and a wonderful vision that mixes White Christmas with the Day of the Dead to show skeletons in the snow. All this, and most amazing of the lot, a fantasy London cityscape that includes iconic lost buildings such as Old London Bridge together with some that were never built, like Thomas Willson’s Pyramid of Primrose Hill. All the buildings are made of gingerbread, the snow is made of icing sugar, and the River Thames is made of golden syrup, so it flows slightly more slowly than usual.
Some of the smaller shops along Sloane Street and Bond Street also have fine window displays; Tiffany’s was particularly beautiful last year. (If you can’t get to London to see the windows, you can still visit The Window Display Blog which has a whole category given over to Christmas displays.)
Finally, make sure you visit the Geffrye Museum this Yuletide. Each of its rooms will be decorated in the way most appropriate to its historical period, so you can see an Elizabethan Yuletide or a Victorian Christmas, or even a Sixties Christmas; there are open evenings to welcome Christmas in, and to see it out, as well as workshops for making Christmas decorations and talks about Christmas traditions. Really worthwhile, and (apart from the workshops) all free!
Talking of free (cosy) things to do this winter, Beaufort hotel guests get a free luxury cream tea served every afternoon in our lounge…for those days when it just doesn’t make any appeal whatsoever to venture out!
This is a guest post by Andrea Kirkby.