Christmas shopping, and festive markets review
Fortnum & Mason is the closest that a shop ever gets to being a 5-star hotel. The staff dresses up in red tails and shiny shoes at Christmas, with a bit of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra on the speakers -- proper chestnut tunes. When you step inside from Piccadilly it's all posh chocolates and teas, with decorated tables full of sugarcoated bon-bons, stone-sized toffee chunks, and slabs of fudge as big as bricks. Tin biscuit-caddies with shortbreads and savouries; huge wooden advent calendars with chiseled out drawers for little gifts, and fat glass jars full of nuts and jams. Downstairs is where you'll find all the booze -- the chestnut coloured whisky bottles and frosted bottles of vodka. They are shining fairy lights through the back of them, so they look like smokey potions in a wizard's bottle shop.
Don't miss their Christmas decorations display upstairs, because it's probably the prettiest one in the city -- they do it with a roaring fire and wooden library-style cabinets, overflowing with baubles and forest sticks and twigs from alpine firs. They've got wooden cribs with religious figures. Glittery tin drums and trumpets hanging off the Victorian tree, and thick woollen stockings on the mantlepiece.
Harrods is more of the same. The rooms are nicer but the prices are nicer as well (higher!), but I don't think it's quite as homely as Fortnum's. But if your partner is partial to a bit of champagne fudge instead of Quality Street, then this is the place. If she likes sherry jellies instead of wine gums, then check it out. You can tell that everything is expensive because they sell them individually. They wrap each sweet in tissue paper. You see the customers at the counter saying "I'll have two of those and three of these, please", and then take a deep breath as they reply: "That will be fifty pounds, please". It's pick 'n' mix for millionaires.
Their Christmas decorations department isn't a patch on Fortnum's, because a lot of it looks contemporary, and too much like modern art. If you're looking for a ball of partridge feathers, or a porcelain relief of an unnamed queen, then Harrods is your place. I can see a giant eye on a copper-coloured ball, and a huge glass orb with a dollop of purple paint on top. They've got silver moons and squirrels, duck's heads and dangling Dalmatians. But where are all the reindeer? Where are the snowmen?
If you want to buy some toys for your kids, then there's only one place to go: Hamleys. Hamleys is the biggest toy store in London.
The ground floor is where they keep all of their stuffed animals and teddy bears. I've never seen so many cuddly toys in my life. They are just sitting there stuffed, spilling off the shelves: cats and dogs, lions and tigers, monkeys, donkeys, snakes and snails, seals and penguins, dragons and unicorns. They've got stuff that growls, howls, owls, hand puppets, Paddington Bears... they've basically got everything, and for all ages. From toddler toys and little girl's dolls houses, to board games, spaceships, railway sets, remote-controlled cars, robotic dogs, bathtime frogs, ping pong guns and jigsaws. Downstairs is where they keep all of the boys toys -- gadgets and electronic gear (I wouldn't mind some of it myself).
Hamleys is always cheerfully chaotic because they encourage the staff to play with the toys: people blow bubbles outside the front door and chuck hovering helicopters above your head. And amongst all of that are the parents and drooling kids, running around from shelf to shelf with eyes like lightbulbs and touching everything they can see. Picking up stuff, dropping stuff, kicking stuff, crying and whining and begging their mums to buy whatever they want. I want this! I want that! To sum it up in three words... it's an bleep-bleep nightmare (excuse my French). It's the kind of place that makes you swear in French -- that's how busy it is at Christmas.
I'm not a big fan of their Christmas grotto, though. It's obvious that they don't want kids sitting on Santa's knee anymore (not after Jimmy Saville), so you have to book a breakfast or dinner with him instead, alongside fifty other kids. Then they all sit around the table for thirty minutes whilst his six-foot elves serve them bread rolls and biscuits. It doesn't seem very Christmassy to me. Do you remember the fantastic grottos that we used to have as kids? We would walk through a dimly lit cave studded with fairy lights and snow, and then step through an icy tunnel into his red velvet throne room, where Santa would be sitting with some genuine 'short persons' (I'm pretty sure that's the correct PC term to use). And then you'd tell him what you wanted, and he would look at your parents for a confirming nod, before saying something like, "Well, er... how about this instead?" And then he'd give you a wooden whistle or a Kinder Egg and tell you your two minutes is up, and point you towards the door. Those were the days! And you went home genuinely believing that he was real -- because you'd just met the fella. But what do the kids get these days? A couple of sit-down sandwiches with him. They've turned him into a glorified waiter.
Liberty is another shop worth visiting... you can find it on the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street. It's worth a visit just to stare at the front because it looks like something out of Tudor times (it's not genuine Tudor, but it still looks great).
Selfridges is another popular store, but it's a bit too posh for me. You walk through the front door and straight into their perfume counter with its forcefield of smells. Women in tight ponytails stand behind brightly lit desks wearing white lab coats, looking like scientists, and every ten steps is a demonstration desk where they can 'experiment' on you. It's always the ugly ones who sit down first, I've noticed, hoping for a Christmas miracle.
I quite like the big Whole Foods Market in Barkers (on Kensington High Street). It's just a big supermarket really, nothing very fancy, but it's bigger and better than any supermarket you've ever seen -- it's huge! It's not the kind of place where you'll buy any Christmas gifts, but you can certainly improve your Christmas dinner. I guarantee that they'll have some food in here that you never knew existed. They've got foreign foods and foreign brands, all stacked up like a farmer's market. They pile up their fruits and vegetables into giant pyramids, and how it doesn't all come tumbling down onto the floor I do not know.
When I think of a Christmas market I think of a Bavarian mountain. I think of an alpine forest with little ski chalets made out of wood, lit by a string of fairy lights round the door. We don't have many of those in London (we don't have any Bavarian mountains either).
I've decided that I'm going to try to find the cabins. It's quite nice walking along the river at Christmas but it's cold enough to snow this morning, and I have to stand next to a crepe caravan to thaw out. They've got an industrial motor rumbling round the back and we're all standing around it (the pigeons and me), warming our wings on it.
Fifteen minutes further on and I've finally found those stalls: they've decided to put them outside the Tate Modern instead. They are basically just sheds with a bit of tinsel on top, really -- not worth a detour. Not unless you're desperate for a bag of candyfloss, because it's mainly just food: mulled wine and German sauerkraut, burnt sausages, pancakes and jam. Waffles and hot dogs and chargrilled burgers.
If you're feeling energetic then you can continue walking all the way past Hay's Galleria (there are a few more stalls in there) and up to Tower Bridge and City Hall (more stalls). Maybe you can go on pub crawl (a Christmas cabin crawl!?, and have a cup of mulled wine at each location. Then you can try and stagger across Tower Bridge without falling off.
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