A few rules for visiting London at Christmas

For some, Christmas is a time to share their faith with loved ones. For others, it is an opportunity to bring the family together. For me, Christmas means crowds, maddening jingles, and the disgruntled mood that comes with them. We often take the opportunity to confine ourselves to a plane as people around the world sit in their lounge room fiddling with their baubles in front of the in laws. (I should note that when I’m at home at Christmas, our celebratory tradition includes a submerged table, a pool, and a bucket of spiked punch – and yes, it is a family thing).

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This year we found ourselves spending the Christmas weekend (December 23 – 26) in London – one of the places most often associated with the Christmas spirit thanks (largely) to Mr. Dickens and his frugal friend, Mr. Scrooge.  We travelled to Europe for the Christmas-appropriate purpose of visiting Linh’s family and friends (her first time back to The Netherlands since we met), although the prospect of snow in December also featured as a motivation.  Since we arrived during one of the warmest winters on record, we felt that taking the family to the UK was a sound idea. We spent a day in Cardiff so I could see the Doctor Who Experience (a trip I made alone as I could not convince anyone else that it would be a rewarding experience), a day in Oxford before spending December 23, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day in the British Capital. This was all part of a 32 day jaunt through The Netherlands (our base, and Linh’s family’s home is in Heerhugowaard, about 40 minutes from Amsterdam), Austria, Berlin and France. The British leg of the tour was well worth the flight across the channel (we flew from Amsterdam to Bristol and then utilised Mr. Brunel’s Great Western Railway for the remainder of the trip), however if you are planning a Yuletide journey to the United Kingdom,  there are some things you should keep in mind.

Get used to standing in front of locked gates

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London might be one of the world’s busiest, most famous and festive cities, but if you’re visiting over the Christmas period, you will find almost every major attraction closed. On the rainy Christmas Eve we spent wandering about we were able to see the outside of The Tower of London, The British Museum, The Natural History Museum and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We also missed out on the Universal Studio Harry Potter Tour, Oxford’s Blenheim Palace as well as a number of smaller restaurants and attractions. Many of these were closed from late December right through to the start of January. While I do not begrudge the closing of these attractions, I was surprised that the power of the Christmas holiday still holds so much sway – more so even than Australia I might wager. The lesson here is to check opening times before stepping out to see the sights. Even the Louvre closes occasionally (Tuesdays as we found once we got to France).

Ride on Christmas Day

A spot we found while others were closed

A spot we found while others were closed

The entire London Metro system shuts down late on Christmas Eve as the city seemingly grinds to a glittery, fairy-lit halt, but that doesn’t mean there is a scarcity of things to see. The Satanta Cycle hire system means that with a bit of bicycle juggling you can ride across the whole city for as little as 2 pound. The bikes are stored in racks every 500 metres or so around the city so as long as you return a bike to any stall in under 30 minutes (and then take a 5 minute break) you should not be charged any more than the initial 2 quid for your 24 hour ride period. At lunch time a few places started to open for business to serve Grinchy heathens like myself and we were even able to be underwhelmed by Ripley’s Believe it or not!!

Don’t dream of a white Christmas

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If you have visions of a Bing Crosby (or Irving Berlin if you want to credit the composer) inspired snowy season, you’re better off to head further north. While the weather outside was frightful (at times) thanks to the biting wind chill and rain, the week’s forecast looked more like an Australian winter than a snowy northern hemisphere December. Temperatures sat between 8 and 12 degrees for the duration (although this year did turn out to be one of the warmest European winters on record – apart from a trip snowboarding in the Alps, the places we visited saw no snow until after we returned home on January 16).

Don’t let the sun go down on me

Cardiff's afternoon sun

Cardiff’s afternoon sun

Most of our trip to the UK was damp – as one might have expected, and the BBC assured us that Cumbria was doing its best impression of Atlantis with widespread flooding and devastation, but we enjoyed two afternoons of winter sun which were almost pleasant enough for me to consider a temporary European relocation (almost). The first time we saw the yellow orb was in Cardiff after a miserably wet walk through town to find our accommodation. As we headed towards Cardiff Castle the skies cleared and I thought that with these conditions I could live in the Welsh Capital. The next shining moment was on our first afternoon in London as we walked from our room in Paddington, across Hyde Park, past Buckingham Palace, and on to Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament. The weather held into the night as we wandered Leicester Square and the Waterloo Christmas markets. When the sun shines in London, it is a glorious place to be – on the other hand – when it rains as it did on Christmas Eve (when everything was closed) my rapture with the city was less pronounced.

IMG_3712If a child waves at you while you are at the theatre – wave back!

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The theatres were also closed after the Christmas Eve matinees, so we caught a show on the evening of the 23rd after wandering around town for the afternoon. We watched The Lion King at a packed Lyceum Theatre which was well worth the admission (If perhaps not as brilliant as some shows I’ve seen). Part of seeing a Disney show of course (aside from selling ones soul to the corporation) is children. We shared the theatre with a number of families, but as I looked around the hall, I spied one family in particular. They were seated in one of the boxes, one of the more pricy and private ways to see a show. The two children could not have been older than 9 or 10, and even from our seats in the stratosphere of row P, I could see the excitement in their eyes. As the theatre filled, my second G&T emptied and the excitement built, the boy and his little sister stood between their parents and waved to the rest of the theatre goers. Now if the parents had tried this from a box seat it would have seemed elitist and arrogant (and just the kind of thing I would do – which is why I can’t have nice things), but when a child who would usually be found sitting in front of their Playstation shows this kind of joy at a visit to the theatre, there is only one thing to do – wave back.

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So I did, and in doing so I realised that perhaps there is a place for the maddening jingles, the men in jolly red suits and the chance to spend some time with the family. Still, don’t ask me to sing any damn carols!

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