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Trip Report Christmas in London

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I've had a lot of great advice in planning this trip, where our family met in London for Christmas. We don't live near each other, and usually meet at a home of one or the other in Italy or the USA, with an occasional Christmas planned in a place where none of us lives. (The last such trip was to Mexico for Christmas about four years ago.)

We were six people: my husband and I, my two daughters, my son-in-law and my eight-year-old granddaughter. I rented an apartment near Victoria Station, which worked out well. We could walk to many places, and there were excellent bus and underground connections to wherever we wanted to go.

I had planned a rather relaxed week, with only three fixed appointments, and one major suggested activitiy each day. Even this relaxed plan had to be curtailed, though. Both of my daughters are academics and arrived with their laptops and unfinished end-of-the-semester grading to do. After that, they wanted to sleep late every day, and one of them learned just before the trip that she was expecting twins! I ended up taking my granddaughter on several trips alone, which was a lot of fun for me, and I hope also for her.

I had hoped to see some of the Christmas decorations of London, and to shop in one of the markets, preferably Borough Market. None of this came to pass, although we saw some nicely decorated streets as we passed them on the bus, en route to somewhere or other. I had also thought of visiting the Imperial War Museum's Duxford air field, which I was sure my son-in-law, a pilot, would enjoy. This ended up getting vetoed as being too long a trip by train and bus; I'm sure my son-in-law would have been willing to take the time if anyone else had shown some enthusiasm, but he wasn't interested in going alone.

The only museum we visited was the Victoria & Albert, which was certainly very interesting, especially to my granddaughter, who loved the historical fashions exhibit. (My husband and I also visited the British Library's Exhibition Hall before the others arrived, and this was one of the highlights of the trip for us.)

My granddaughter had read some books about Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and other aspects of British history. The Tower of London was one of the places she most wanted to see, and she also wanted to ride on a double decker bus. She's also a big Harry Potter fan, having read all his books, including some of the them several times, and she's seen several of the films. I found on the internet an excellent suggestion for a self-guided Harry Potter tour:

I downloaded the pdf version of this, and put it on my Kindle (with a little editing and reformatting). I didn't plan to do the whole tour, but thought we could visit Track 9 3/4 in KIng's Cross station, and do the part of the walk near Covent Gardens.

One morning, my son-in-law, with one of my daughters and me, took my granddaughter to Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard. Of course, you're very lucky if you see anything at all, considering the crowd, but my son-in-law held my granddaughter up in the air long enough for her to snap some photos and a short video.

One of the peculiar things about Christmas in London is that things shut down completely on Christmas Day: there is no public transportation at all. In most cities I know, including all major Italian cities, and the larger US cities, there is at least some limited transportation on Christmas. Furthermore, every museum I considered visiting, as well as the Tower of London and any other sites open to tourists, was closed for three full days, from the 24th to the 26th. (In Italy, almost all museums are closed for the 25th only.) There are some walking tours on those days, but these wouldn't be ideal for our group, with one daughter who wasn't able to walk very far, and my husband, whose English, except for the written language, is rudimentary.

There are also some very expensive bus tours available for those three days, but the cost for six people would have been prohibitive for us. We considered a morning tour to Stonehenge, but my son-in-law was the only one of the adults who had never been there, and the only day we could have gone was Boxing Day, when there were other things planned. Other than these, the only thing I could find which was open was the Winter Wonderland (an amusement park) in Hyde Park. I decided to take my granddaughter there on the 24th, and to do part of the Harry Potter walk on Boxing Day.

Winter Wonderland is a sort of ersatz German Christmas market cum amusement park, featuring lots of beer and cotton candy. My granddaughter loved it, and managed to run through quite a lot of money in a very short time. (For the benefit of small children, there are ATM machines everywhere you turn.) She had plans to spend even more, but a sudden tempest, with fierce winds, sent us scurrying to the underground. This tempest lasted for less than ten minutes and then the sun returned; it seemed heaven-sent for the salvation of my wallet. I myself wasn't terribly impressed with Winter Wonderland, but I'm sure most children would love it. I had considered reserving a very expensive hour on the ice rink, but hesitated because tickets were totally nonrefundable, even if the skating had to be canceled because of the weather. Since ice skating is something my granddaughter could do easily back home, I decide to forgo that.

I planned the Harry Potter walk for Boxing Day, which was not a brilliant idea, since one of the main attractions, Track 9 3/4 and the luggage cart partially embedded in a wall, was off limits because King's Cross Station was totally closed that day; I had made sure that trains were running on Boxing Day, but it hadn't dawned on me that one major train station might be completely closed. There were lots of other families, including English families, there, peering through the doors of the station, hoping to get a glimpse of the luggage cart and the famous track from which a train departs for Hogwarts. In addition, except for one, all of the shops recommended on the walk were closed. Also some of the charming streets that were featured in the films were full of trash, beer bottles, piss, vomit, and even human excrement, the last of which I was fortunately able to keep my granddaughter from noticing. We ran into an organized Harry Potter tour while we were out, and I was just glad I hadn't paid anything for one of those on that particular day. My granddaughter was happy with the walk, all things considered, and that's what counts; she bought some All.Flavour Beans at Hardy's candy shop, which gave her great amusement for the rest of the day, especially the earthworm and earwax flavours. We also found a wonderful shop which was open, the T. Alena Brett Antiques shop, in Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road, with an extensive collection of old prints. My granddaughter bought a print for her father there. However, the walk would have been much better planned for a different day, maybe the 24th, which is the day we went to Winter Wonderland; we could have visited Winter Wonderland on Boxing Day.

Weeks before the trip, I had reserved tickets for Wind in the Willows, which is a wonderful show of dance and narration based on the book. We all enjoyed it very much. I had been a little skeptical of trying to present this children's literature masterpiece as a ballet, but the result was really magical. The ballet will close on February 1st, so I urge anyone who will be in London in the next month, especially with children, to see it.

I also reserved spots at the Lessons and Carols Service on Christmas Eve in Westminster Abbey as soon as the reservations were opened. This is always completely "sold" out. The tickets are free, so "sold" is not exactly appropriate. People line up long before the service to get good seats; we didn't arrive terribly early, because my expectant daughter can't stand long, and my impatient husband wouldn't have stood for it, either. In fact, my husband nearly turned back when he saw the length of the queue to get in, but it moved quickly and our seats were not bad at all. Both of my daughters spent many years of their youth singing in choirs, and one of them had actually sung in Westminster Abbey with a visiting choir when she was a teenager, so this was a special treat for them, and also for the rest of us.

While we were waiting in line at Westminster Abbey, a man came along and asked us whether we knew whether it would be possible to get in without a ticket. There was already a long line of people waiting to take the place of no-shows, and we pointed him to it. Later, he walked past us inside the abbey, so obviously quite a few of these people managed to get in, so I would encourage people who can't reserve places to show up and wait for possible openings.

On our last night in London, we attended a concert at the church of St. Martin in the Fields, with the Belmont Ensemble playing a selection of Baroque favorites. There were four selections by three different Italian composers on the program, including the inevitable Vivaldi, with two of the Four Seasons. My Italian husband was gratified by the programming. There were several other old chestnuts on the program, but, after all, there's a reason these are so popular, and the ensemble did them justice. My granddaughter was very enthusiastic about the music, which made it special for me, too.

Anyone visiting London in December has to be at least a little concerned about the weather. Fortunately, it was mostly good, although one day there was heavy rain and gale-force winds; this was the day we went to the Tower of London, and the weather was pretty much the same the last time we were there. Oddly enough, for most of the time we were there, it was warmer in England than in Le Marche, where we live.

On Christmas Day, we mostly stayed inside. I prepared a simple meal of roast chicken, mixed greens, and sweet potatoes. I had brought along from home some Christmas treats, including my mother's plum pudding and a traditional Italian Christmas sweet found only in our region. I bought some Christmas crackers from Sainsburys, and we had fun with a new Christmas tradition.

I had hoped to do a little shopping in London, but I did almost none, except for groceries. I was too busy organizing everything, cooking everything, and cleaning up everything. This is one of the big disadvantages, from my point of view, of staying in an apartment rather than in a hotel, although with a group of six, an apartment is much more practical.

My granddaughter absolutely loved London and wants to live there when she grows up. Since London is one of my favorite cities in the world, I was very happy to share this experience with her.

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