In the second part of his Yuletide blog, Mr Londoner, aka broadcaster, writer and guide, Antony Robbins explores some of the last-minute options for those seeking an alternative take on the festive season in the capital city.
Light of the world
In my previous blog I described some of the city’s Christmas lights. All are sparkling, jolly and full of the Christmas spirit. The dark, however, may your delight. So, if you seek to explore your inner Ebenezer Scrooge, you might want to skip Oxford Street and head to Pimlico’s Tate Britain art gallery.
Find a Constable
Overlooking the River Thames, this gallery is one of the largest in the country. Home to British art from Tudor times to the present day, it also houses the bequest of one of the country’s most celebrated artists, JWM Turner. Other notable works include those by William Blake and there’s a stunning exhibition of Blake’s work currently on show. The wonders continue with a selection of bucolic English landscapes from John Constable, whose artistic technique (if not his political and social message) marked a radical and bold new approach to painting.
But is it art?
But times are a-changing and art doesn’t stand still. Contemporary artist Anne Hardy has been commissioned to respond to the festive season. She follows in the footsteps of other leading creative giants from Tracey Emin to Cornelia Parker. Hardy has been drawn to the winter solstice. She offers us up an apocalyptic vision of the ghost of Christmas future with mud, ice, decay and a 21-minute quadrophonic sound installation. Seeing is believing. And one journalist described the work as making the art gallery feel ‘possessed’. Talking of illuminating art, you can also catch the new show Shape of Light: 100 years of photography and abstract art.
Pull the other one
Crackers are a London tradition with a Victorian origin. Nineteenth-century City of London confectioner Tom Smith sold sugary bonbons in twisted paper wrappers. Changing tastes forced him to re-purpose the concept. He invented the Christmas cracker in the 1890s, when his once-popular bonbons fell out of fashion and he couldn’t shift them from the shelves.
Dad jokes and love letters
The first crackers didn’t contain corny Dad jokes. Instead they held tender messages of love. The cracker element came later when Smith’s imagination was fired by the sound of burning logs crackling away on an open hearth. It doesn’t come more Christmassy than that. Tom Smith hasn’t been entirely forgotten. He built a splendid drinking fountain in Finsbury Square to remember his late mother. It somehow survives and is a short walk from Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, mentioned in my first Christmas blog.
In the swim
On the other side of the city, while children rip open presents on Christmas morning, hardy members of Hyde Park’s Serpentine Swimming Club take the plunge in their 100-yard race – an icy tradition dating back to 1864.
Ice in that?
Those swimmers are a tough bunch. No wetsuits are worn here – the only concession to the cold being perhaps a1950s-style rubber swimming hat. Don’t be tempted to take the plunge yourself. This is strictly a spectator sport for all except club members. Their bodies have been acclimatised to the cold over many months-worth of immersion in the waters, which remain quite cool even in the height of summer.
The boy who never grew up
Participants compete for the Peter Pan cup, donated by author and local resident J.M. Barrie. Check out the writer’s English heritage glazed ceramic ‘blue plaque’ on the wall of his former home, in nearby Bayswater Road. Barrie created the story of Peter Pan – the boy who never grew up. He created children’s characters like Tinkerbell and Captain Hook, who have charmed us for many decades. Peter Pan’s statue is in nearby Kensington Gardens.
Fit for a Prince
The Victorians invented not just the Christmas cracker but the whole concept of how we celebrate the season today. At the heart of this story was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the German-born consort of Queen Victoria. This year we celebrated the 1819 bi-centenary of both of their births. Albert re-wrote Christmas and helped us to adopt the Christmas fir tree. This usurped the traditional yew tree, which is now more traditionally associated with country graveyards.
Windsor Castle, some thirty miles west of London, is the official residence of the monarch. Albert and his Queen loved it; as do Prince Harry and Meghan, choosing to live on the estate’s Frogmore Hall with their baby son, Archie. You will love it too and it’s the perfect place to visit at Christmas. There are two enormous fir trees, in the Castle’s St George’s Hall and in the Crimson Drawing Room in its semi-state apartments.
Trusted to decorate the tree
The trees at Windsor Castle are expertly decorated by staff from the Royal Collections Trust. This charity was launched by the Queen in the 1990s to care for the Royal Collection: the largest art collection on the world. Prince Albert would be proud.
Shop til’ you drop
If none of that appeals we could do what so many Londoners enjoy best about Christmas – and go shopping. From Fortnum’s food hall in Piccadilly; to the childhood wonders of Hamley’s toy shop; via Soho’s tucked-away tailors and jewellers: there’s so much to explore.
London’s a great place for antique watches if you want to treat someone really special at Christmas (yourself, for example). We all know about Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe. They are all great brands but I can help you track down something a little more unusual, like, perhaps, a London-made JW Benson pocket or wristwatch.
Time to head to Clerkenwell
The area around Bond Street and Burlington Arcade is famous for its antique watches. My favourite specialist, however, is the Antique Watch Co in historic Clerkenwell. You get better value here. The rents are lower than the West End. This is a real enthusiasts’ shop. It often seems to have genuine vintage timepieces from the 20s and 30s, many incorporating beautiful modernist designs.
That last-minute present
If you still haven’t pinned down that unique gift, over the road is the beautiful Wyvern Bindery Here they will repair a precious leather-bound book or perhaps bind your own hand-written cookbook or treasured Christmas album.
The write stuff
Almost next door is Stuart Stevenson. This family-run business supplies fountain, ball-point and roller pens, propelling pencils, gilding and a wealth of classy craft materials. Pens range in price from about £1.50 to over £1,000. The range of quality goods on offer here is truly impressive.
Seeking out the secret city
Whether you’re a Londoner seeking a more enjoyable shopping experience, or a visitor wishing to uncover the hidden wonders of this historic city, Christmas is perfect time to explore the metropolis.
Dreaming of a Blue Badge Christmas
London’s Blue Badge guides will lead walks and tours across the city over the festive season. Some of them will even be working on Christmas Day. So, whether you fancy immersing yourself into Victorian London or tripping the light fantastic, December in our great metropolis is sure to leave you with a lifetime of rich and festive memories.
Blue Badge guide Antony Robbins is a communications specialist, broadcaster and former Museum of London director @meetmrlondoner.