A guide to Christmas in London


Matthew Bourne’s The Nutcracker

Shake it baby – Tony Conigliaro from 69 Colebrooke Row

Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland

If you are in London this Christmas, and are already feeling the oppressive force of Christmas deals screaming at you from every increasingly desperate retailer, accompanied by carols and Christmas ‘favourites’ on repeat, I’d like to take you on a journey through an alternative London Christmas, one that is soaked in London’s Dickensian atmosphere and is alive with music, dance, food, drink and singing.

Now more than ever, the city’s cultural, religious and civic institutions – as well as its retailers of course – are ramping up their engagement with the people of London in a bid to get them through the door, so you can be assured that you need not look long before you stumble on your own personal formula for a great time.

The key to Christmas is to not let it happen to you, but to conduct it, like an orchestra. Spending some time thinking about how you would actually like to experience Christmas before it comes jangling to your door, will help to achieve the holy grail of Christmases: one that actually feels like a celebration, and one from which we emerge unscathed.

Take five

This year, start off by sitting back in your chair and imagining what your ideal London Christmas break feels like. Take five minutes to summon from within what you would actually like to do. What elements will make you feel cosy, treated, relaxed and happy? Have a look at the time off you actually have and balance this against all the things would like to do, or like not to do.

If your list is incredibly over-populated and yet you only have a week or a few days, choose one or two items only, the ones which are likely to make you feel the most relaxed and treated. It’s your holiday, after all. In addition, you may like to release yourself from sending a single Christmas card this year. No one will notice.

Plan your social calendar now, marking off days where you are going to see people, and cordon off a section of time where you will not do anything. This is spontaneous Christmas time, for you alone or with company, to do nothing, read, stare at the fire or TV, or wonder over to the park and end up with a brandy coffee once the cold starts to bite.

Here are some ideas to help you make the most of London this Christmas.

Cracking night out

Matthew Bourne brings his kitsch candy kingdom take on The Nutcracker to London’s dance theatre, Sadler’s Wells, for its 20th anniversary year. A perennially popular Christmas ballet, Bourne’s production is highly accessible and riotously good fun. A trip to Sadler’s Wells is a must at Christmas, as Rosebery Avenue sparkles beneath its tree lights and the Angel area offers a host of pre-theatre drinking and dining.

The best of these is 69 Colebrooke Row, Tony Conigliaro’s cosy, jazz-infused cocktail bar just off the Essex Road. One of London’s best cocktail impresario’s, Conigliaro was once asked to make a cocktail version of Naomi Campbell’s signature perfume for its launch party and has an eccentric Heath Robinson-style laboratory in a low-slung room above the bar. If you manage to make friends, you may even get a tour.

For complete Christmas immersion, and especially good for filling kids with Christmas fervour and candyfloss, head to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland fair, which includes traditional funfair rides complete with a helter skelter, carousel, coconut shy, Santa’s workshop, Alice in Wonderland Tea Cup ride, a London Bus carousel (a rare opportunity to ride a routemaster these days) and a Hansel and Gretel sweet shop.

Harvey St Nick’s

A trip to Hyde Park also takes you dangerously near to Harvey Nichols, one of the key shops to aim for on one of your ideally no more than two Christmas shopping days. Among the others is Fortnum & Mason, for their theatrical window display, Gentlemen’s Relish and other fabulously packaged delicacies. Keep an eye out for your timing, as you will need to hang around outside to catch sight of their landmark clock. Added to the front of the store in 1964, and with bells from the same foundry as Big Ben, the clock springs alarmingly into action every 15 minutes playing a selection of airs on 18 bells, and once an hour Messrs F&M themselves appear for a fussy shuffle around the facia to check that their high standards are being maintained.

Harrods is a fun destination for Christmas shopping for its wild mixture of influences which filter down from its famous former proprietor Mohamed Al Fayed and worthwhile for its superlative in-house opera singer Marika Rauscher belting out aria’s on the Egyptian stairwell since 2008. Head to Selfridges for their decadent Christmas decorations which take over the basement, Liberty’s for their couture-inspired window dressings and bespoke perfumery, and Partridges off the King’s Road or any forward looking booze emporia for purchasing Prucia.

This delicious new Plum Liqueur de France is a traditional Japanese plum liqueur made with plums from the Moissac plum-growing region in France. Add champagne and you have a lip-smacking seasonally-adjusted Kir to offer at your Christmas gathering of friends or neighbours instead of the heavy and predictable rounds of mulled wine.

Bavaria on Thames

A wander along the Southbank will take you to their busy and atmospheric Christmas fair which wends its way all the way along from the NFT to the London Eye. It has a distinctly Bavarian feel this year and plenty of food and drinks. The Southbank is laying on an extensive Christmas Festival programme including a multi-award-winning international show, Slava’s Snowshow. Described as a “joyous, dream-like world that will touch both your heart and funny bone” it also includes being covered in an actual snow blizzard and is therefore an unforgettable experience for kids of 8 and over.

A key advantage of heading to the Southbank in search of seasonal entertainment for visiting family or friends is that you can just turn up with no planning and be guaranteed to find something going on. The Thames adds its drama and obligatory bleak edge so essential for setting off the Christmas colour and reminding us of the darker side to the cold season. Find a way to offset your own holiday celebrations this year, from buying a Christmas Big Issue (just make sure you actually take a copy of the magazine, otherwise their audited circulation figures suffer, bringing advertising revenue down), to serving up at one of the city’s many free Christmas meals (just google ‘soup kitchens at Christmas London’), or donating to Shelter.

Those in search of the purest Christmas spirit diffused directly into the soul and out through the ends of the neck hairs, will enjoy the choirboy-led carol services laid on by St Paul’s, Westminster and Southwark Cathedrals. Attendance at these services is a moving and enriching experience if you enjoy song at this time of year, but will take precision planning. Turn up at least an hour early to guarantee a place at these popular services, and check out this excellent list to select the service for you.

Oxford Street – enter at own risk

If you must venture onto Oxford Street this Christmas, mix it up with some seasonal treats to self, including buying a small white paper bag of warming and delicious roast chestnuts. And if you have small children with you, make sure you pop them atop a London post box to gaze at the Christmas lights aloft from the madding crowds.

Head to Chinatown for some interesting and cheap gifts in the food and gift shops, as most of it is imported from Japan and China and is kitsch, colourful and unusual. Great for bulking out stockings. Take time to have a break and some fantastically priced, highly authentic Japanese food at the Tokyo Diner, who do not accept tips and are making a stand against the immense over-fishing of tuna in Japanese cuisine and who also get all their energy from sustainable sources. Or visit Jen café to taste the dumplings made in the window, washed down with a taro bubble drink. Find both on Newport Street, W1.

Make the most of what the city has to offer and partake of some open air iceskating at the Broadgate, Tower of London and Somerset House ice rinks. Especially fun with colleagues post Christmas drinks imbibing.

Markets are a good way of hand selecting – and crucially, sampling – the food and wine which is a healthy focus over this particular holiday. Head to Borough Market in the south east for serious-minded suppliers and clientele with a focus on quality, or Broadway Market in the east end, for the most buzzing, electric market experience you are ever likey to have.

And of course, if food and the sofa is your idea of an ideal Christmas, you may feel the occassional seasonal walk is in order. Lucikly, London is awash with a range of parks from the royal to the woebegone. If you are anywhere near Hampstead Heath, and even if you are not, make a special trip to explore its vast, foresty landscape, with the aim of getting as lost as possible. If it’s snowing, expect skiers and tobogganists. Have tea and cakes at Kenwood, or a brandy at the Flask in pictureque Highgate Village.

First published in the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development internal staff magazine, Blueprint.

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