It’s no secret that I’m absolutely crazy about Christmas lights. Actually, I love Christmas in general but light displays are a particular favorite of mine. We normally don’t travel at that time of year, since both Bill and I prefer to tour during the off seasons to avoid crowds and the inevitable price hikes. We enjoy spending the holidays at home surrounded by decorations, trees, and of course lights! This last Christmas was a departure for us. We decided to spend the holiday in London—land of roast goose, plum pudding, and Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It is also known for pulling out all the stops where Christmas light displays are concerned and we had to see it for ourselves.
This city is not exactly an economical place to stay, particularly in the high season. But with a little advance preparation and homework, we were able to enjoy the delights of the metropolis without breaking the bank. First, we made our plane and lodging reservations months ahead of time. We secured a great one-bedroom flat in the Fitzrovia neighborhood on Airbnb.com. We were familiar with the area, and the Goodge Street tube station and bus stops were a short walk from the flat. With a pair of comfortable shoes, a scarf, and a jacket there were many areas we could just walk to and not have to rely on public transport at all. London is best seen on foot so you don’t miss anything. There’s something about strolling through the city and really getting a chance to stop and look up. We both love to spot architectural details and this is problematic when riding the Tube. Buses are better but the scenery whizzes by. Walking is also a great way to discover an interesting pub and duck in for a pint.
It was nice to have a full-sized one-bedroom flat—well, full-sized for London anyway. On our last trip we waited too long to make room reservations and ended up in a private hotel on Gower Street. The room consisted of a small bathroom and no real closets, just some pegs to hang your coat or purse. There was a bed with two small end tables and a TV mounted to the wall. You had to sidestep and hug the wall to get in the bed. That room ran us approximately $160 a night. It did include an outstanding full English breakfast though.
The Fitzrovia flat on the other hand, was great for us. It had a full kitchen, complete with large refrigerator/freezer, range, and washing machine. The living room came complete with sofa, TV (with about a million satellite channels), and a table with two chairs for dining. The bedroom held a comfortable queen-sized bed and plenty of closet space. No sidestepping here! The neighborhood was perfect for us and close to lots of pubs, grocery stores, shops, and our favorite fish and chips place. The bathroom, with its nice shower/tub, completed the very comfortable arrangements. The whole thing cost less than $70 a night when all was said and done, which is ridiculously cheap in London. Be aware though, that recent changes to the law will have an effect on Airbnb.com, and it’s not clear yet what that effect will be.
We’ve been to London many times so we’ve seen most of the “big ticket” attractions. We wanted to indulge in a few of the lesser known gems. One of these was Charles Dickens’ home and museum (48 Doughty Street, WC1) where it was all decked out for a Victorian Christmas. You can pay extra for an audio tour, but we opted for the small booklet that described each room and its significance. It was a delightful experience. We are both fans of Dickens’ works and it was wonderful to see the desk where he wrote and the dining table set with custom china plates adorned with characters from The Pickwick Papers. If you are a literary fan visiting London it’s worth a visit.
One annual attraction during the holiday season is the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. It was actually a bit disappointing, although that’s mostly owing to the fact that we live in Germany and in the words of that famous Carly Simon song, “nobody does it better.” It was mostly an amusement park with many rides that looked like they were from Oktoberfest. In fact, we found out that several of the rides were from Oktoberfest. They had a Bavarian village selling bratwursts, and dry pretzels at London prices. If you read my last post about the Christmas season in Germany, you’ll know that we’ve gotten a little spoiled by the Christmas markets of Germany (and France). But we soon ventured out into Hyde Park, clutching some pretzels that we intended to feed to the birds. Bill spent some quality time feeding some very greedy swans, several of which ate right out of his hands. We had more fun spending time with the swans than at the faux German Christmas park.
One thing that most definitely did not disappoint was the city of London all dressed up in Christmas finery. As seems to be usual for us, the weather was lovely for nearly our entire stay, so we did a lot of wandering. We spent several evenings strolling down the streets where the light displays were the most spectacular. Our vote for the most magnificent presentation was Regent Street. Glorious angels spanned the width of the thoroughfare with wings that shimmered and twinkled. It was splendid and a sight that I will always cherish.
The retailers all seemed to be in competition with their lights and window displays as well as their interior decorations that were occasionally breathtaking. Everyone hails “Harrod’s” as THE store to go to. I say it should be “Fortnum and Mason.” F & M is the epitome of everything that is wonderful in a store. High quality goods, lush decorations, and personnel all dressed in black and looking like they just stepped out of the pages of Vogue Magazine. I always feel slightly underdressed when I cross the threshold. Of course, high quality means high prices but we always leave with a little something such as rose and violet chocolates, or the queen’s favorite ginger biscuits in a decorative tin.
Speaking of some of the best places, if you’re looking for cheese, you must stop at Paxton & Whitfield (93 Jermyn Street, SW1). This wonderful cheesemonger has been in business since the mid-1700s and at the same storefront since 1835. They received the Royal Warrant of Appointment to HM Queen Victoria in 1850 and they still hold several royal warrants to this day. Winston Churchill once observed “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield” so of course we had to as well. They are known for having the best quality English Stilton in the country along with some of the finest artisan cheeses anywhere. We ventured into the packed shop a couple of days before Christmas where we stood in a long line that snaked around throughout the back of the store to make it to the cheese counter. It’s normally much more sedate. Everyone took the craziness in good humor (or more properly good humour) because they knew that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without some cheese from Paxton and
Whitfield. Our patience was rewarded with a lovely porcelain crock filled with their finest Stilton for us to take home to the flat and enjoy with water crackers. If it was good enough for Queen Victoria, it was certainly good enough for us!
I could go on about our Christmas holiday in London, but I will save some for later posts. I haven’t even started on Bill’s quest for the best ale and pies at some wonderful traditional pubs. So until then we’ll just say, “Cheers!”