It’s almost that time of year again, and plenty of us have already started looking for gifts to send to Santa for December 25th even though November has barely begun but in only a couple of weeks from now, Christmas Markets will start to appear all over the UK in major towns, cities, and even in the grounds of country houses and stately homes. Pretty much all of them resemble the traditional markets of central Europe held around Christmas time for over 500 years now, which all retain a rather romantic air, often frequented by carol singers, stalls selling mulled this-and-that (not just wine!), and of course shelves and shelves of gifts to make the pile under your christmas tree look spectacular no matter how humble it may or may not be. Stalls are often wooden, chalet style structures which are built each year to generate an alpine atmosphere and stallholders are a mix of locals and those who come from far and wide to sell their wares, many of whom are entirely independent retailers. One of the oldest Christmas markets is in Dresden, Germany, dating from the early 1400s, and it’s markets like Dresden’s and those across Germany, Switzerland, Austria which have inspired the markets across the UK in more recent years.
I have three Christmas markets which are my special favourites, so here’s a run down of the details…
Bath Christmas Market
Dates: 22nd November to 9th December
Opening times: Mon-Weds 10am to 7pm; Thurs-Sat 10am to 9pm; Sun 11am to 6pm
Each year, this market seems to get bigger and more popular, and with 140 stalls concentrated in the shadows of Bath Abbey (but this year spilling into the courtyards of Milsom Place) it is set to be the busiest time of year for the city. The market kicks off with a torch lit procession by local children starting at the Holburne Museum at 5pm on the 22nd, and there’s entertainment in various spots around the market on most evenings. There are also special, short ‘shoppers services’ in Bath Abbey providing the sound of carols to echo around the market stalls and creating that extra special atmosphere. Entertainment includes various choirs, children’s entertainers, guitarists and a performance of ‘sweet soul sounds’ by The Bath Blues Brothers! With many of the city’s shops open until 8pm, Monday to Saturday from 12th November, this destination could be the place where you get everything on your list ticked so you can get home with only the gift wrapping to do!
St Nicholas Fayre
Dates: 29th November to 2nd December
Opening times: 9am to 6pm daily
York Festive Fayre
Dates: 8th to 23rd December
Opening times: Mon-Weds 9:30am to 6:30pm; Thurs-Sat 9:30am to 7:30pm; Sun 9:30am to approx. 6:30pm
York has two Christmas markets! The St Nicholas Fayre is a major event in the city’s calendar, and over the years it has grown into a big attraction, magnetizing visitors from all over the world. There are stalls not only offering traditional Christmas gifts, but locally produced craftwork, and farm produce. The main grouping of stalls are in Parliament Street, but there is also a ‘Made in Yorkshire’ arts and crafts market in the medieval Guildhall which is near to Betty’s tea room just off St Helen’s Square. You’ll also find activities going on in Barley Hall (a reconstructed medieval townhouse off Stonegate) including a medieval market with costumed traders, arts & crafts stalls, and mulled wine, and a chance to meet Santa himself! And if that wasn’t enough, St William’s College in the shadows of York Minster has a fine arts and crafts market offering gifts you won’t find in the shops. Add to that the many buskers and musicians who travel from around the world to perform in York during this period, and you’ll be sure of a festive treat visiting the city at this special time.
The York Festive Fayre is a continuation of the market in Parliament Street with similar stallholders, and a ‘Festive Inne ‘where you’ll find a cup of something hot to warm your cockles while you peruse the stalls. There’s also going to be a special ‘Made in Yorkshire’ marquee at the top of Parliament Street in St Sampson’s Square this year, between 13-16th December offering locally produced arts and crafts.
York’s many museums also put on festive displays and special activities, throughout December and there’s an ice skating rink (http://www.theicefactor.co.uk) at the Eye of York, between the Castle Museum and Cliffords Tower from 24th November to 6th January. With all of this and more throughout late November, and December, perhaps York will be where you’ll get into the Christmas spirit in 2012!
Cologne Christmas Market at the South Bank Centre
Dates: 16th November to 24th December
Opening times: Mon-Fri 11am to 10pm; Sat-Sun 10am to 10pm
Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park
Dates: 23rd November to 6th January (daily, except closed on Christmas Day)
Opening times: 5pm to 10pm on 23rd November; thereafter 10am to 10pm
There are many markets in the nation’s capital over the Christmas period but these are my two favourite ones, and they also happen to be the biggest and most spectacular.
Set between Waterloo Bridge and the London Eye on the South Bank of the River Thames, London’s Southbank complex hosts the Cologne Christmas Market, made up of around 70 wooden chalets selling all sorts of traditional Christmas gifts from hand crafted trinkets, jewelry, candles, ceramics, wooden toys, glass ornaments and Christmas decorations, to winter clothing and a huge array of food and drink inspired by various Christmas cuisines from around the world. There’s the usual Christmas carousel at the centre of it all and if it gets too much for you then you could always warm up inside the Royal Festival Hall at one of their many shops or cafes and restaurants. This year there’s also a Christmas Chocolate Festival from 7th to 9th December; a Designer/Makers Christmas Market from 14th to 16th December; and a Christmas Real Food market on 14-16 and 20-23 December. There are also many free events at the South Bank Centre so check out their website (http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/winter-festival/winter-for-free) for more details to find plenty of activities which would easily fill a day here!
Hyde Park is transformed each year into a huge Winter Wonderland incorporating a large fun fair with walk-through attractions as well as rides and roller coasters, plus 2 Christmas markets! The Angels Market is a collection of over 100 wooden chalets selling a large selection of unique and handmade gifts, while the Yuletide Fair (new for 2012!) extends the shopping experience by offering yuletide gifts, wooden toys, Christmas decorations, and winter wear. Santa is also on hand here to entertain younger visitors and the rides include a double decker carousel, a miniature steam train, and various other traditional fairground rounds, plus a Magical Ice Kingdom full of ice sculptures where the temperature is kept at -8C so you have to wrap up warm to ride down an ice slide, or sit in a fairy tale unicorn-pulled carriage! I only discovered the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland for the first time last year but was actually really disappointed with myself for having missed it for so many years previously!… I had a great night out there with my group at the time, and definitely hope to go back this year!
The UK’s Christmas markets are a great way to not only get your Christmas shopping sorted, but also to get into the spirit of it all. However, be aware that they’re also really popular!… that means big crowds (more so at weekends) so weekdays are the best time to visit, and it also means that hotels and transportation can be expensive. Fly into London Heathrow, then you can easily take the train from Paddington (use the Heathrow Express) to reach Bath; or take the Piccadilly Line on the London Underground to get to King’s Cross station for the train to York, but try to book train tickets in advance you can normally get them a little cheaper (www.nationalrail.co.uk). You should also ensure you book accommodation in advance as finding somewhere to stay when you get there will be tough. Be prepared to wrap up warm too, with gloves, hats and scarves as temperature gets to the low 30s (in farenheit) or less, especially in the evenings when it’s the most atmospheric and romantic time to visit. But however, you choose to do the Christmas markets, make sure you don’t miss them as these events are truly special and really get you in the festive mood!