In November 2017, Mr Fletche and I headed down to London to catch a bit of festive spirit in our capital. We decided to do it all over again in December 2019. No Winter Wonderland this time. No Covent Garden. And no starring role in a photography exhibition. But instead there were old-fashioned pubs, meandering around Shoreditch and a West End show to boot. Here’s how we spent our second weekend in Festive London.
You can catch up with the first Festive London blog post here!
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Where we stayed
We like to mix it up a bit when we stay in London. Earlier in the year we stayed down in Farringdon, and on previous trips we’ve stayed in Covent Garden, and in an AirBnB out in Mile End. This time we stayed at Old Street, in the borough of Islington, bordering the cool and trendy Shoreditch on one side, and The City on the other. In fact it’s hard to tell where Shoreditch ends and Old Street begins. It’s served by its own tube station on the Northern Line. There’s a lot of construction and regeneration going on here at the moment – so it’s a bit like Brum.
We picked a Premier Inn to stay in this time. Just a five minute walk from the tube station, it was a great base. And one of the comfiest beds we’ve slept in for a while. There’s a bit of a refurb going on there at the moment, but we didn’t notice any noise.
I pre-booked our train tickets from Birmingham to London Euston using Trainline. We used a couple of days annual leave so travelled off-peak on a Thursday, returning on the Saturday before Christmas. Unlike some of my train journeys this year there were no delays, cancellations or enforced train switches. For which we were very grateful.
When staying in London, we tend to do a lot of walking. A LOT. But I’m also a big fan of the London Underground when heading for a particular place. With our empty Oyster Cards languishing somewhere in a drawer back home, we planned to use our contactless bank cards to pay for travel. Except. I had mislaid my contactless bank card. At Tesco. Buying whiskey. Hence…
The Tube Faux-Pas
The queue for the ticket machines were huge at Euston tube station. Without my debit card, I decided to put my tube journey on my credit card. Mr Fletche goes through the barrier. I follow, only to be faced with a big red cross and a “Card Not Accepted” message. I hastily try again. Same problem. I back up through the crowd, and try another barrier. Same problem. The TFL staff watch me at yet another barrier and confirm that my card is definitely not accepted. What do I do now?
Tentatively, Mr Fletche offers me his debit card. The one he has just successfully got through the barriers with. And lo and behold, it lets me through. Reunited, we continue on our way, Central Line to Northern Line to Old Street. I swipe Mr Fletche’s card to exit. Green means go. I pass the card back to Mr Fletche. Big red cross, “Card Not Accepted”. Logically, the same card cannot be used for two journeys at the same time. We make pleading noises at the TFL staff, who kindly let us through, but not without a stern warning of a potential £80 fine if we try that trick again.
I try my contactless credit card the following day. Just to see if it works. It does.
What we did in Festive London
Ate Honest Burgers
It’s 2:30pm and we haven’t eaten since breakfast. So our first mission is to find somewhere casual for a bite to eat. Our local pub is fully booked with pre-Christmas celebrations, so we wander a little bit further afield. And stumble upon Honest Burgers on Baldwin Street. It’s a small place but there are plenty of tables available; we pull up a stool and watch the world go by outside with a locally brewed beer. We both opt for classic burgers, beef for me and chicken for Mr Fletche. The burgers are perfectly cooked, but what really stands out are the rosemary salted fries. I’d go back again, just for those fries.
Drank in historic pubs in Wapping
During our Alternative Weekend in London in May 2017, we did many a mammoth walk. On the first night we walked from Mile End all the way down to the Houses of Parliament via Regents Canal, Limehouse Basin and the Thames Path. And I remember passing loads of inviting looking, old-fashioned pubs on the way. Whilst I don’t intend to walk all the way to Mile End, we decide to find some of those pubs. It’s a pleasant late afternoon, not too cold, so we decide to walk. After the earlier debacle, I’m not sure if I can bear the Underground barriers rejecting me once more. We amble down through Shoreditch, and Moorgate, before veering off into the City, under the shadow of buildings called The Gherkin and The Walkie-Talkie. I enjoyed our previous Sky Garden visit, and kick myself for not booking us a timeslot this time round.
We eventually emerge at the Tower of London, all prettily lit up with an ice rink set up against the wall. We continue alongside the Thames, past St Katharine’s Docks. I’m momentarily tempted by the flower-bedecked Dickens Inn and for a while we get stuck in the maze of apartment blocks before finally finding ourselves on Wapping High Street. It’s a much longer walk than I’d remembered, but eventually the foggy windows and festive cheer of the Town of Ramsgate appear in the distance.
It’s the Thursday before Christmas and the after-work crowd is out in force. I am studiously ignored by the bar staff, until one good-willed customer points me out before I completely lose patience. We share a table with a group of gentlemen who sound as if they may have been “socialising” all day. The next stop on our mini Wapping pub crawl is the Prospect of Whitby. Except it’s absolutely heaving. People are pressed against the frosted glass windows. Trying to get served here would be like trying to get served at an O2 Venue during a Shed Seven gig. Not an experience I’m keen to repeat. We retrace our steps to the Captain Kidd, where we partake in the local Sam Smith’s beer whilst propping up the bar and watching a particularly violent game of “throwing hoops onto a reindeer antlers hat”. Office parties are such fun.
Finally, we weave our way through a housing estate to Turner’s Old Star. This is the kind of pub where locals look at you funny. It may have a certain charm, but it’s one akin to a social club. Wine is served from warm mini bottles, and the beer selection is mostly Carling, Guiness or Strongbow. It might be a recommended historic pub, but I’d probably give this one a miss.
Ate street food at the foot of the Shard
By now, we definitely need food. Regular readers will know that we seek out street food on our travels, so we cross over the Thames via Tower Bridge and head towards Vinegar Yard. Located just behind London Bridge station, and under the watchful eye of the Shard, it’s a vintage-market-by-day, street-food-by-night, art-gallery-and-sculptures kinda place. Primarily an outdoor space, the owners have kindly provided a roof for the chilly festive season. The local beer is considerably more expensive than those Wapping pubs.
I go off in search of food, taking photos of various menus for Mr Fletche’s consideration. We eventually opt for the lamb kofta rice bowl from Nik’s Kitchen, a perfect sharing option. Although my feet are not happy, we decide to walk back to the hotel. Yes, despite it being a straight shot on the Northern Line from London Bridge to Old Street. We’ve walked about 8 mile. Just to have a few drinks and food.
Ate brunch in a record shop
After a good night’s sleep in those comfy Premier Inn beds, we head out for the day. It’s drizzling. We seek shelter and brunch. In either order. An apparently empty Breakfast Club in Hoxton requires a reservation, so instead we find ourselves at Old Street Records Cafe. This turns out to be a great choice. We are surrounded by vinyl and trailing house plants (a staple of all good brunch establishments). Mr Fletche has the Bronx breakfast sandwich, positively oozing sausage, bacon, egg, cheese and chipotle. I go all hipster and have the smashed avocado on sourdough. With added bacon of course. The hazelnuts are a pleasurable addition. We’re set up for a day exploring.
Meandered around Shoreditch. And Spitalfields. And The City.
We spend the morning meandering around the back streets of Hoxton and Shoreditch. Every so often we’ll come across an interesting storefront or piece of street art, but mainly it’s just piled up rubbish and industrial units. I’m not sure we’re really seeing the best of the area. I’ve pondered booking a street art tour around the area before, and perhaps this is something to do in the future as I always feel that I’m missing something epic. I even miss the Banksy. Although we have one now in Brum. It’s also raining. So for once, I don’t feel any enthusiasm about posing in front of a brightly-coloured wall. My feet are hurting. And I need a wee. We pop into the Owl & Pussycat for a much needed beer and a sit-down. And a wee.
From Shoreditch we head through various markets, Spitalfields, Petticoat Lane and Leadenhall included. By the time we head back into The City – mainly to indulge Mr Fletche’s love of the Lloyd’s Building – I’m growing a little tired and moody. And I need another wee. I battle the finished-for-Christmas-at-lunchtime crowds outside a Leadenhall Market pub. I manage to slip in one door and out another, using the facilities on the way.
Visited a Christmas market on the banks of the Thames
We planned to re-visit Winter Wonderland on this trip but were rapidly running out of time. Instead, we headed to the South Bank, and to the “Christmas By The River” market located between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Traditional wooden cabins line the waterside, and there’s a good mix of food and drink stalls, handcrafted gifts, and souvenirs. We hunker down at the bar just as the heavens open. A mug of mulled wine goes down very nicely, with a soundtrack of festive hits to get us into the Christmas spirit. The sudden emergence of the sun means a pretty rainbow over the Tower of London. I refuse to walk all the way back, and this time I successfully negotiate the barriers at London Bridge station.
Hit the West End for a show, Chinese Food and the Christmas lights
We throw on a few sequins, a bit of lippie and head back out. Well, I do. No more long hikes planned, we take the Underground from Old Street to Tottenham Court Road. No matter how many times I walk around London, I always feel like the West End is a separate city all of its own. The busyness, the vibrancy, the blinking neon lights. We locate the Phoenix Theatre and head off to grab a pre-show drink nearby. We end up in The Cambridge. Again. This seems to be our go-to pub in the West End.
I’ve written about Come From Away here – it doesn’t take a genius to work out that I absolutely loved the show. Still buzzing afterwards, we head for Chinatown for post-show grub. Gerrard’s Corner may not offer the best or most authentic Chinese in town but the set menu is considerably cheaper than others around, the food is plentiful, and the service is quick.
Finally, we take a stroll along Regent Street to catch the angels keeping their watchful eye on the London traffic, before peeling off towards Carnaby Street. Their festive lights are always a sight to behold, and this year they depict an ocean scene, with recycled materials and sustainability at the heart of the theme.
Stayed out drinking past midnight in a craft beer bar
We leave the blinking West End behind. We’re familiar with the area around Old Street Station so we decide to pop into The Craft Beer Co for a final drink of the night. There’s an impressive number of taps, and a great selection of keg and cask ales, as well as a fridge full of bottles and cans. It may be a gaudy red outside but inside is industrial minimalism. Of course, it’s pricey. It’s craft beer. In Shoreditch. We sensibly just have the one. After all, it’s well past midnight and the Fletches can’t party like they used to.
Is Festive London worth a visit?
London is always worth a visit. But Christmas in London is always a little bit special. The storefronts are beautifully decked out, the christmas markets are aplenty and there’s always somewhere great to eat and drink. Some areas are busy and crowded and crazy, so it’s always worth doing a bit of research to try and find a spot a little off the beaten track. I love festive London, and hopefully we’ll book another trip in the diary for Christmas 2020.
Well that was an unexpectedly long post! I hope I’ve given you some ideas about your next visit – a trip to London doesn’t have to be about the big tourist attraction sights. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw Buckingham Palace, or Trafalgar Square, and this was my first time exploring the Tower Bridge area for a long time. What are your favourite London spots that might be off the tourist radar?