“Mind the gap!”
― Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
With my departure date drawing closer and closer, I’ve started looking back at some of the wonderful places I’ve been lucky enough to live in the last few years.
Being a permanent UK resident, I’ve had a tendency to take our own cities for granted which is crazy when you think London, for example, is reportedly the most popular destination for tourists in the world. With events such as the Olympics, the birth of Prince George, and this year’s Tower of London Remembers poppy installation to commemorate the First World War, it’s understandable that our capital city has raked in the foot-traffic of late.
But there’s so much more to London than simply the Royal Family, Big Ben and afternoon tea.
London is like your big sister. It’s infinitely (and sometimes infuriatingly) cooler than you will ever be, however much you strive.
It knows all the latest trends, music, fads, and clubs, while you’re still stuck scratching your head and wondering why it’s now perfectly acceptable – and possible – to sport both a top knot and a gigantic, overly-styled beard simultaneously. Or charge £3.50 for a bowl of Cheerios. Or allow cats to roam a café while you eat (I am not knocking Cat Café – it’s the best idea anyone has ever had). Or pay silly-prices for a room that’s basically a cupboard.
But still you look up to it. You’re in awe of it. And you will forever be head over heels in love with it.
My relationship with London is complicated. Its like that boyfriend/girlfriend that you just can’t shake. The one who you could quite happily snog the face off and throttle in equal measure.
I’ve just spent a wonderful weekend visiting one of my oldest friends (another irksome thing about London is a weekend is never enough time to visit everyone that you would like). While I didn’t manage to visit my old haunts (Pimlico/Westminster was the area I lived – less cool big sis, more eccentric old uncle who likes a drink), I did get to go explore a few new places.
Because that’s the wonderful thing about London. It doesn’t matter how long you have lived there – it makes no difference if you only spent a year (like me) or if you are London born and raised – there will always be something new and exciting to do, and you will always get to play tourist.
So what did I get up to this time around?
Despite being a small mission to travel to, we decided to head to Greenwich Market rather than face the perils – and elbows – of Winter Wonderland. As much as I loved the place last year, facing the weekend crowds so close to Christmas was not something my friend and I were willing to do.
Greenwich is an area of London I am not really familiar with, having only been to Greenwich North to the O2 or that time I visited Inflatable Stonehenge (which was as weird and wonderful as it sounds) cut open my foot and lost my phone, but I soon found out it was well worth the trip.
Not only does the place look like a good old English town rather than another easily identifiable part of the great carnivorous jaws of London, but it was full to the brim with Christmas related joy.
We started off at Greenwich Market which is London’s only historic market set within a world heritage site. Surrounded by independent and boutique shops, you can easily spend a few hours weaving in and out of the market stalls which sell various antiques and handmade gifts such as intoxicating candles, pretty bars of soap and bespoke handmade jewellery.
While the market is always there, (it is open Tuesday to Sunday: 10am – 5.30pm and many market shops and pubs are open all week) there’s something magical about visiting it in the Christmas period, and during 1-24 December, the market will be now be open 7 days a week.
And while not cheap, its pretty good value for money in comparison to the monster that is Winter Wonderland (although there are no fairground rides and German inspired beer tents here). A mulled wine with an extra shot of warming brandy will set you back about £4 and a snack from one of the many eclectic food stalls will see you spending between £4 and £10 depending on what you’re after.
Be warned: there is nowhere to sit down unless you purchase your drink from one of the many nautical themed pubs nearby but the atmosphere is really chilled out – no bargy elbows or aggressive shoppers here.
Always a good place to visit for restaurants and bars – although a bit of a journey if you’re based centrally – the achingly-hip neighbourhood of Shoreditch boasts some good nightlife, especially in the form of cocktail bars. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, its certainly worth the visits. Personally, I’m a fan of the area and have had some really great nights out there. Be careful though, some of the cocktail places in particular can be a tad pricey and some clubs charge £10+ for entrance.
We ended up in Calloh Callay Bar on Rivington Street which, although not our first choice (our first choice required booking a table in advance), was a good alternative with plenty of space if you’re looking to walk in off the street. I chose a Callooh-Stock cocktail which at £8.50 was very reasonably priced for Shoreditch and made up of Bulleit bourbon, Briottet raspberry liqueur and homemade raspberry lemonade and very tasty. Their menus also come in Oyster card holders which is different (albeit a bit gimmicky for those of us who are used to old man country pubs).
It was then on to a club that I cannot remember the name of but I know I consumed many of their yummy frozen margaritas and danced away the night to excellent music until 3 in the morning.
Christmas shopping can be – and usually is – everyone’s worst nightmare: pushy crowds, people clutching shopping bags to their chests and sides like body armour – urgh! But if you’re going to do it, if you’re going to brave the repetitive Christmas tunes and the abrasive nature of the High Street, you might as well go big or go home. And that’s Oxford Street at Christmas. Big, loud, brash and utterly wonderful.
Now I no longer have to navigate my way through said crowds as a resident of the Big Smoke, (nothing is worse than wanting to pop to M&S to replace your laddered tights and running into a bunch of drunken lads singing Christmas carols – NOTHING) I can step back and enjoy it a bit more. There’s something in the air if you listen hard enough; the buzz of people chatting excitedly, and its quite liberating just to let yourself be carried away with the crowd rather than constantly looking for a way through!
As usual the lights and the atmosphere of Oxford and Regent Street at Christmas will give you the warm-fuzzies and Christmas feels. I may have even gone against my better judgement and popped into Selfridges’ Winter Emporium in all its expensive and loud glory (and I definitely paid a visit to The Disney Store which, FYI, has gone Frozen crazy this year).
I did, however, get completely lost looking for shops that stocked Osprey rucksacks so I could try a few on before I purchased online. I was so irritated by this that I ended up leaving OR completely and mooching round Soho for a while via the beautifully festive Carnaby Street which is good for shopping, drinking and eating, and removing yourself from the mania of the main strip before you completely lose your shit.
My advice? Hit Oxford Street in the early morning as it’s bound to be a bit quieter. Or if, like me, you’re more of a night owl, go there early evening, shop a little, and then head to Soho for some dinner and a few drinks.
So what do you lovely lot think of London? Did you go there on holiday and fall madly in love? Have you lived there before? Do you live there now? What are your tips for celebrating – and surviving – the Christmas season in the capital? And most importantly, does anyone know where I can get my paws on Osprey travel packs in the West Midlands?