A Seattle family spent a memorable Christmas 2007 in London. Here are tips on what to see and do on a holiday visit.
Where in the world would you spend Christmas if you could deck the halls anywhere you darn well chose?
“London, hands down,” my family said.
Where better to get in the spirit than in the city of Marley’s ghost and figgy pudding, firelit pubs and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”?
We’d saved up a suitcase-full of bonus miles, so last year we committed. My wife, our teenage daughter and I rented an apartment — excuse me, a flat — near Hyde Park, and spent Dec. 18-27, 2007, in London.
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For my Seattle family, it was — do forgive me — a Dickens of a Christmas.
“Wow!” I blurted, jaded as I was after many hours of travel, when we emerged like squinting gophers — luggage-toting gophers, direct from Heathrow Airport — out of the Knightsbridge tube station into London’s toniest shopping district on a darkening December afternoon.
Twinkling lights dripped from every Victorian cornice on the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, just across from the flashy holiday windows at Harvey Nichols department store. A block down Brompton Road, Harrods was lit up like a Christmas pudding before the brandy burns off.
The dazzle suddenly made worthwhile the grueling trip amid holiday travel crowds. And just steps away, in the middle of a bustling rush hour, beyond whizzing black taxis and sidewalk tabloid hawkers, was our home for the next nine nights: the flatiron-shaped Park Mansions building, looking like a place fictional bon vivant Bertie Wooster might live, with apartments upstairs and glittering stores on the street.
We lugged our bags to the entry and buzzed the porter, Mr. Rushdie (“Like Salman, but without the books!”), who remembered a surprise our flat’s owner had arranged. “Mr. Doncaster had a Christmas tree delivered for you!” He pointed to a beautiful little live fir tree in the stairwell.
It fit perfectly on a tabletop in the flat’s parlor, just opposite the orange-glowing “electric fire.” Daughter Lillian gave a delighted squeal of approval to the compact suite with its high ceilings, elaborate moldings, walls full of pen-and-ink Hirschfeld caricatures and fox-hunting artwork.
Hungry and tired, we stumbled down the street to Harrods food halls to pick up some takeout — a tub of Indian dal and a poached salmon fillet.
We wouldn’t eat from Harrods every night. But it was nearby. And there was no Denny’s in sight. Pity.
Having a kitchen saved much on food costs in expensive London. It turned out that cheese was one of our staples, after we attended the annual Cheesemongers’ Night at Borough Market.
From London Bridge tube station on the South Bank of the Thames we strolled past a lighted tree in the dark, echoing churchyard of Southwark Cathedral, where William Shakespeare’s brother is buried, to the open-air stalls, the site of a food market dating to the 13th century.
Cheesemakers from around Britain and elsewhere in Europe were offering tastes (special cheeses are a fixture of the English yuletide larder). Along with the rest of the crowd, we kept warm by sipping Snake-Catcher Scrumpy, “the cider with bite,” an earthy counterpoint to one of our favorite samples, Redesdale sheep’s cheese.
“That’s a world award-winning cheese named after a place in Northumberland,” said cheesemonger Jackie Harper, fur-capped against the cold.
We had already bought some Dunsyre Blue from Scotland, a packet of oat cakes and a slab of velvety Caerphilly, a traditional Welsh cheese, and we were low on cash. We asked Harper’s partner how much Redesdale we could get with the money we had left. He sawed off a much larger piece than our 4 pounds would normally buy, wrapped it and handed it over.
“That’ll be your Christmas treat!” he told my wife, drawing a delighted smile.
Skating in the moat
We couldn’t resist when we heard that you could ice skate in the Tower of London’s moat.
The main problem with skating in a moat is that you’re surrounded on both sides by high walls, which provide a perfect vantage point for other people to look down on you. That was, quite literally, the situation as we joined skaters on the first day of school holidays. Atop one wall perched a gaggle of black-garbed street toughs ready to cackle whenever one of us skaters took a pratfall. Our own personal Jeering Section.
As we skated past the weathered rock of the 900-year-old fortification with its grisly history of beheadings — OK, a curious location for cherry-cheeked holiday fun — I looked up and suggested that it was easy to imagine the Taunting Frenchman from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” sticking his head up over the wall.
My daughter pointed to the hecklers and muttered, “We’ve got them over there!”
Mostly, though, it was a fun scene, popular with crowds of family and friends.
“It’s sort of a Christmas thing you do — injure yourself just in time for the holidays!” giggled Tee Watson, a local from nearby Seven Oaks, who came with a group of 14.
More naughty than nice
It’s a guilty-pleasure thing to admit, but I’ve rarely enjoyed a night of theater more than the Christmas panto at London’s Old Vic Theatre. Or laughed harder, mostly at overly hairy men wearing really trampy frocks.
A “panto,” for the uninitiated, is what the British call a pantomime, a big Christmas tradition. At Christmas in Seattle, you take the family to “The Nutcracker.” In Britain, the whole family goes to a panto.
Before you tune out, know this: British pantomime has nothing to do with guys in white face who pretend to wash windows.
It is, rather, a form of humorous, audience-participation-heavy vaudeville-like theater loosely adapted from a traditional children’s tale, with some (always bendable) rules: No matter the original story (whether it be “Cinderella,” which we saw, or “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Peter Pan”) there’s always at least one lead character in drag; a pantomime horse or cow (two guys in a four-legged costume); double-entendre jokes; something akin to a pie-throwing fight; an audience singalong and more.
Unlike what you might see at Seattle Children’s Theater, the humor here was often more naughty than nice.
“The good thing is, it’s written on two levels,” said Sophie Tuckwell, a London mother and regular panto-goer next to us. “So much goes over their heads,” she said, nodding to her young sons, George and Sam, next to her, “but it’s entertaining for the whole family!”
A special treat for George, 9, and Sam, 7: They got tagged to help onstage in Cinderella’s kitchen in Act 2.
“I did that when I was little!” their mother told them with glee.
Jolly old shopping
Joining London throngs to shop for family gifts and for our own Christmas feast made us feel more like locals than tourists.
A stop in the Holland Park district at C. Lidgate, London’s most famous butcher, drained our wallet after we got beef for Beef Wellington. Even paying about $50 U.S. per pound, we had to “settle” for Angus from the late Queen Mum’s ranch at Castle Mey; we’d have had to special-order the same cut from Prince Charles’ Highgrove farm.
“And we sort of have to ration out that particular beef, I’m sure you understand,” said the aproned man in the straw bowler behind the counter of this 158-year-old family-run business. Three days to Christmas, London holidaymakers were carrying out booty by the boxful.
The market that takes over nearby Portobello Road on Saturdays was a source of gifts (flea-market stuff ranging from old silver to musky-smelling rugby balls), as well as London’s best selection of fresh produce.
The people-watching there on a brisk sunny day included the Cockney-voiced kid selling holly wreaths, the black Santa busker playing “Jingle Bell Rock” on steel drums, and the old man in an earflap hat whose Christmas-caped terrier straddled his shoulders as he sat peeling onions.
We took a bagful of leeks, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, parsnips, carrots and onions back to our flat, along with a holly wreath to hang over the hearth.
The big day goes swimmingly
Why the heck do you do this, I asked 76-year-old Londoner Ron Whitten, one of three dozen or so swimmers who competed in the annual Peter Pan Cup in Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake on a dark and drizzly Christmas morning.
“Cause I’m nuts!” he cackled, tugging at his red neck-to-knee swimwear and slurping at the glass of port handed out to every swimmer after the race, possibly a necessary restorative since the lake water was only 37 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Of course, last Saturday the lake was actually frozen and we had to break the ice,” Whitten said. He and others in the Serpentine Swimming Club go for Saturday dips year-round.
The cup awarded the winner was originally donated in the 1860s by “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie, who met the family of boys on whom the story was based in nearby Kensington Gardens (where a statue of Peter Pan stands).
A real English Christmas
Perhaps it was when the English Chamber Choir launched into “Ding Dong Merrily on High” as we sat in the first row at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with candles burning at the windows and glinting off the restored church’s freshly gilded cherubs, that Christmas in London became real for me. We sang along heartily and bonded with our British pew-mates.
Or maybe it was when we climbed the stairs in Charles Dickens’ Bloomsbury row house — now a museum — to see the parlor decorated for Christmas precisely as he had described in an 1850 story.
Or maybe it was on the Christmas Eve walking tour that took us past the George and Vulture chophouse, thought to be Dickens’ model for where Ebenezer Scrooge dined in “A Christmas Carol.”
Then again, it might have been as we watched, sipping hot mulled wine, as Queen Elizabeth gave her annual televised Christmas Address to her people at 3 p.m. Christmas Day (“Wher-evah these words find you and in what-evah circumstances, I want to wish you all a blessed Christmas!”).
The queen spoke straight to us, we could tell.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com