London - A winter’s feast for the senses
Written by Oliver Barter
December is a time when Londoners relish the past and embrace the quintessentially British winter traditions that people the world over flock to see.
The chestnuts are roasting, the sleigh bells are ringing, and the shop windows are dressed to impress. Harrods has never looked more tempting ... It all combines into a glittering festive treat for the senses, so prepare to be dazzled; it’ll almost be bright enough to blast away the infamously dreary December weather.
Natives and visitors alike love the pageantry of December. Every borough, every venue, and every organisation has some way of announcing its festivities. One of the most celebrated is the switching on of the lights. As the darkest depths of winter set in, the symbolism of filling the streets with multi-coloured lights won’t be lost on anyone watching. The twinkling strands of fairy lights, looking quite literally like their namesake, adorn London’s streets and buildings.
The seasonal ritual of switching on the lights is celebrated many times over, though few ceremonies are as illustrious or steeped in tradition as the tree-lighting ceremony at Trafalgar Square.
On the first Thursday in December a beautiful Norwegian Spruce is delivered, erected, and decorated in Trafalgar Square. The city of Oslo has gifted London the trees since 1947, as thanks for the United Kingdom’s assistance during the Second World War. This dark time in history is commemorated by the heart-warming gesture as 500 glowing white lights are switched on, turning the tree into a beacon of remembrance.
Thousands arrive to view the spectacle, which is accompanied by choirs performing traditional Christmas carols and specially commissioned poems, most recently performed by local school children. These performances raise both festive cheer and money for charity, so you can often find groups of singers and actors using the tree as a base for further shows throughout December. Hurry though; the tree is always pulled down and recycled on the 12th day of Christmas (January 6).
Crisp air, thick scarves, and people falling over can only mean one thing: it’s ice skating season. It has been a popular pastime for hundreds of years, and this year is no different. Many locations around the city offer seasonal outdoor ice rinks, though none are as grand as the huge rink outside the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road.
The 950 sqm rink is perfectly positioned in central London, just a short walk from Hyde Park, and is great fun for anyone brave enough to pull on a pair of skates and rise to the challenge. There’s nothing quite like the energising appeal of a frosty December day, so enjoy the scene during your time on the ice. Take a moment to breathe in the chilly air, feel the buzz of cold on your cheeks, and watch as the winter sun turns the ice to crushed diamonds under your feet.
As a reward for your heroism on the ice, or perhaps just to catch your breath, the café bar on the balcony overlooking the rink should be your next stop. Whether you have a classic mulled wine, with its unmistakeable scent that invokes the essence of the festive period, or a frothy hot chocolate, you’ll have a new appreciation of the cold outside from your bird’s-eye balcony view.
The ice rink also plays host to a number of other attractions, including live music, a central Christmas tree, and fairground carousel. Booking ahead is always recommended. Other ice skating rinks are open around the city: at the beautiful Somerset House, the dry moat at the Tower of London, or for a more unique experience try Eyeskate. This open-air rink is hosted in Jubilee Gardens, just below the unforgettable landmark of the London Eye.
One of the best parts of visiting another country is discovering new, and potentially unusual, dishes. Whether they make your mouth water or your eyes water, exploring a new location through taste is a fantastic experience. How does a hearty dish of roast loin of rabbit with parsnip and celeriac purée sound? Followed by a portion of bramble pancakes with caramelised apple? Exotic, restaurant-quality street food and ingredients are available for those with an adventurous palate who happen to find themselves in Borough Market on Borough High Street.
In the bustle and honesty of the markets, the true face of London appears; rustic Italian bread stalls sit side by side with seasonal British fare and traditional Polish delicacies. Modern Britain is condensed and shown in all its glory on this global gastronomy tour. Get involved; speak to the chefs and the bakers, the wine makers and olive stuffers, the chocolatiers and the organic farmers.
You’ll see the passion that goes into every ounce of their produce and taste it in every mouthful. What could be better than taking a delicious souvenir home knowing the name of the person who made it and the name of the farm where it grew? The traders’ knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious, and while attending the special, seasonal displays and demonstrations on how to cook world cuisine you’ll take home recipes and memories to keep. London in December offers visitors a world of colours, tastes, and smells in a winter’s feast for the senses.
By the numbers
The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is sometimes selected years in advance, and is 20 metres tall and up to 60 years old.
With 82 million passengers a year, London Waterloo is London’s busiest tube station.
Regent Street’s Hamleys – which first opened in 1881 – is the largest toy shop in the world, taking up 5,000 m2 across seven floors.
Covent Garden Piazza, location of the famous Covent Garden Market, hosts one of the greatest sporting events since the Olympics every December. The Christmas Pudding Race, raising money for Cancer Research, sees 150 contestants in teams of six put on fancy dress and then tackle an obstacle course of foam jets, flour-filled balloons, and other horrors, while attempting to balance a Christmas pudding. The winning team will receive a special Pudding Trophy for their efforts, as has been tradition since the race was first staged in 1980.
Visitors to London over the New Year should consider going to the 2013 London Ice Sculpting Festival. Happening over three days from January 11 at Jubilee Park, Montgomery Square, and Wood Wharf, it promises to be the biggest yet. International teams will compete to see who can create the best sculpture using tools from chisels to chainsaws. If you want to get involved, then check out the special graffiti wall, which organisers suggest you release your inner ‘Banksy’ onto. Alternatively, test your strategic skills with a game of large, outdoor ice chess.