My parents divorced when I was an adult, some seven years ago now, and it’s meant that Christmas isn’t quite the same as it was. No more huge family gatherings in the country farmhouse where we grew up in Northamptonshire, no more hunkering down in rural bliss for a week. The house was sold, my parents moved on, and it was time to make new traditions, and to explore what else one could do over the holidays.
Because neither myself or my sister have children (if we discount the dogs), the imperative to celebrate a traditional country Christmas disappeared. In the intervening years, amongst other plans, I have been to Thailand (twice), and stayed in a hotel near my mother’s cottage (very successful as it cut down on the quotidian bickering). This past Christmas however I decided to do something revolutionary.
Reader, I stayed in London.
It was wonderful. Every minute of it. I was flip flopping before Christmas, as I wrote here, trying to work out whether I’d like to wake up in a rented remote country cottage with Lettice, or rise blinking in a gorgeous bed in smart London hotel. Or stay in my lovely own home by the park, and head to one of London’s great churches with Rach for wonderful music, and quiet contemplation, and then have lunch somewhere lovely in town.
In the end, I took the latter option. On Christmas Eve I had the most wonderful time at home, decorating my tree, just pottering around, tidying up, popping onto the High Street to buy last minute gifts and a Chromecast from my beloved Maplin so I could finally (after seven months) watch TV on my old flatscreen.
I was supposed to drive over to Muswell Hill to see Tara and her gorgeous family, but I completely lost track of time, and ended up staying put with Lettice and Maisie, drinking gin in one of my super large copas and watching University Challenge.
(Cashmere polo neck from Uniqlo)
We all went to bed early, feeling extremely virtuous.
Because of my gentle evening, I was awake early so I drove to Westminster Abbey before 9am on the empty roads. I managed to park just behind Methodist Central Hall, and was in the line for the 10:30am Morning Service by 9:15am, about twenty people back from the front.
It was very, very cold, but that was nothing that my furry Tom’s Alpine snow boots, (currently reduced to £29.99 from £85) a layer of HeatTech and my padded over ear headphones couldn’t deal with. I listed to a podcast and noodled about on my ‘phone as I watched taxis draw up one by one to deposit the most motley crew of attendees on the pavement, from smart London families over three or four generations to the lovely Polish husband and wife behind me, via elderly couples, and parents with babies and small children.
After about half an hour, around 0945hrs, the doors opened, we passed through a security check (O tempora! O mores!), and walked through the great door into the nave. And kept on going. Much to my delight we were ushered through into the West Transept and given seats just underneath the pulpit, between the chancel and the choir stalls. (Picture the royal family at a wedding and that’s pretty much where we were seated.)
I know it’s church and it doesn’t matter where one sits, but it is wonderful being so very close to the choir, to be able to see the clergy process at such close quarters, and watch the priest at such close quarters when he is preaching his (excellent) sermon.
After Morning Service we wandered out into the cloisters in search of a loo.
We had debated for days over WhatsApp about what we should do for Christmas lunch. Everywhere we checked out was either fully booked or, if they had tables, were charging upwards of £150 for long, convoluted set menus. I’m sure it’s wonderful if one eats meat, and drinks like a fish, but both Rach and I aren’t big eaters, and I am loathe to spend that kind of money on risotto and other mundane vegetarian offerings.
Then on Christmas Eve I had my Bright Idea – Chinatown! Whilst it’s perfectly normal for all sorts in New York to eat delicious Chinese food on Christmas Day, (especially if you are Jewish), it’s still not a widespread custom in the UK beyond the Chinese community.
And, yes, Chinatown was open for business. In fact it was packed, mainly with Chinese families queuing to get into their favourite places, with a few dazed-looking tourists milling about. We soon discovered two things: the places that were open were cash only, and everywhere had put their prices up to £20 plus for a main course. Which is fair enough – I’d happily pay per dish for things I actually want to eat, rather than wads of cash for a dubious vegetarian fine dining set menu in the West End.
We hasn’t booked, figuring that somewhere would be open, so we did a circuit of Chinatown twice to scope out our options. Darting into Macclesfield Street I spotted Le Hanoi, a place that looked a little less frantic. And score! An immediate table for two (everyone in line wanted a table for four or more) and, even better, just a moderate 25% bounty on menu prices. We both love Vietnamese food and it all looked delicious.
We ordered crispy tofu, and summer rolls, along with a big plate of pak choi and crushed garlic, steaming bowls of pho, and umpteen pots of jasmine tea. I had a single celebratory Tsing Tao, and we were stuffed by the end. I think it cost £75 for the two of us.
We scooted off around 1300hrs to our respective homes, and I took the Tiny Terrors out for a long walk in Regent’s Park before giving them their Christmas bones in my garden. (I had Maisie over the holidays as my sister was holed up in a hotel in Suffolk with my mama.)
For supper I indulged myself with a mini Christmas lunch – roast potatoes, my homemade bread sauce, and petit pois, along with a big wedge of the vegetarian Pithivier I recommended from Iceland (the story is here).
[As a side bar, yes, I really, truly meant it when I said last December that I thought the current Iceland offer is fantastic. My father ended up buying the raspberry tart for Christmas, and I loved seeing everyone’s receipts on Instastories when they tagged me to show they were shopping there after my blogpost.]
My mother gave me this beautiful Victorian tureen (with a matching lid) for Christmas.
I do think I make the best roast potatoes. I’m afraid that I sluttishly ate my supper in bed, and watched a movie on Netlfix.
The dogs were unimpressed that there was no turkey on offer.
I did absolutely bugger all, bar read, read and read some more on Boxing Day, and it was splendid. I eventually hauled my ass out of the flat mid-afternoon to drive the Terrors up to Hampstead Heath, where we had the most glorious tramp over Parliament Hill, and watched the sun set over London.
The Terrors were not quite so amused when I put their filthy little bodies in the bath the moment that we arrived home.
And that was my three days of Christmas. A lovely, wholly self-indulgent period of my absolute favourite things to eat and drink, no polite conversation, lunch with one of my dearest friends, and lots of lovely dog walks. Perfect.
Next year, however, will be quite, quite different – I am hosting Christmas for my nearest and dearest here in London…