a U.K. Christmas
Ken Hoffman takes a tour of the U.K.'s massive and magical winter wonderland
A little more than a week ago, I was in London for a day and asked a buddy with the British Tourism Office if there were any Christmas markets in the English capital. I’ve visited a few Christmas markets in Europe — in Cologne and Munich and Prague — and they’re a lot of fun, a bunch of wood huts with Christmas tree ornaments, sausages, apple strudel, and holiday souvenirs.
I was given the locations of several Christmas markets in London and told, “there’s a pretty big one in Hyde Park.” So that’s where I went, it’s the Marble Arch stop on the Central subway line. The Christmas market is part of London's annual Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.
Yeah, it’s pretty big – the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland began in 2007 and now draws 2.5 million visitors each year. And that’s despite being outdoors and cold. The Christmas festival, which runs from late-November to early-January makes the Texas State Fair look like Old MacDonald’s petting zoo on FM 1960 in Humble.
It’s one of those sights and sounds that drops your jaw, seriously worth a winter vacation visit. I wish I had more days in London just for this.
First, a word about times and admission. It’s open 10 am to 10 pm every day except Christmas and it’s free to get in (hint, hint Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo), although on the day I visited the entry lines at security moved slowly. Guards painstakingly went through every bag, tossing and turning every item inside-out, not just poking around with a chopstick like at Minute Maid Park.
Here’s a quick rundown on what you’ll find if you huff and puff and finally save enough money to take your family on a trip across the sea: in the middle of the Winter Wonderland, there’s the largest outdoor ice skating rink in Great Britain. You skate in circles around a Victorian bandstand. There’s a full-on Zippos Circus, a Cirque Du Soleil show called Berserk, Paddington on Ice, Mr. Men & Little Miss Show, a nightly comedy club, plus Santa Land for kiddies.
There are bars and restaurants and karaoke rooms and ice and snow sculpting workshops. There are 100 rides and attractions from across Europe, including Munich Looping, the world’s biggest portable roller coaster, and the largest traveling Observation (Ferris) Wheel in Europe. It’s 70 meters tall, more than 200 feet high. It's chilly up there.
My favorite spot was Bavarian Village, a mini-Okotoberfest complete with beer and roast chicken tent. I’ve been to the actual Oktoberfest in Munich, and Hyde Park’s Bavarian Village isn’t so mini. This is where the Mr. Bratwurst stand sells a hundred types of sausages, and condiments hang from bladders that look like a cow’s udders.
Next door is Thor’s Tipi Bar, a toast to Scandinavian Christmas. The Fire Pit Stage features nightly music acts and is presented by Pepsi Max, which comes in cherry and raspberry flavors in England. (Get on that, Scott McClelland and Central Market. If you can bring in Coke from Mexico, you can do me Pepsi Max from London.)
The Christmas market area of Winter Wonderland has 200 stalls. Think of the Nutcracker Market in Houston, only with heavy coats and, if you’re a humid subtropical weenie from Houston (like me), shivering.
Now for the rows and rows of “street food” available at the Winter Wonderland. If only I had skipped breakfast at Maria’s Café in Borough Market by London Bridge, I would have stopped at them all: Bad Brownie (self-explanatory), E8 Fish (fish and chips), Oh My Dog (franks a lot), Makatcha (Indonesian), Other Side Fried (greasy everything), Hanok (Korean), Truffle (on everything), Mac Factory (mac ‘n’ cheese), Ghetto Grille (Reubens and Cubans), Growlers (steak bowls), Tincan (coffee bar), Fanny’s (kabobs), and Born & Raised (wood-fired sourdough pizzas).