A Dickens of a Christmas
The spirit of the beloved author surrounds holiday activities and traditions in merry old England.

AAA Home & Away


An unending joy pervades London during the holidays. Trafalgar Square’s decorated tree, strolling carolers, the illuminated River Thames, 13th-century holiday festivities at the Tower of London’s Medieval Palace, and bright lights along the mega-shopping avenues of Regent and Oxford streets all sing out Christmas. Where else could I have a more authentic English Christmas than in this grand city steeped in centuries of history and celebrated as the hometown of famed author Charles Dickens?

 

The Holidays, British-style
I began my holiday celebration in Victorian times at 48 Doughty St., Dickens’ only surviving London home and now the Charles Dickens Museum. This Georgian, terraced house can be reached by a short walk from Russell Square Station. Dickens lived here from 1837 until 1839 and wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby in the first-floor study. Also on the first floor is the drawing room, overpowered by a large tree decked with the ornaments mentioned in Dickens’ The Christmas Tree.

The museum hosts holiday events Dec. 24–26, with readings from A Christmas Carol and walking tours of London through the eyes of the author’s colorful characters Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

On Christmas Day in London, almost everything comes to a standstill, including all public bus and underground transportation. Taxis are double their normal fare, and the only other way to get around the city, other than by private vehicle, is via The Original Tour sight­seeing buses, which run from Piccadilly, Victoria and Trafalgar Square every 15 minutes.

The holiday is also a great time to take tour company London Walks’ most popular two-hour Dickens Stroll, which meets at Trafalgar Square’s massive Christmas tree. Hundreds of people partake of these tours through Dickens’ past on Christmas.

This was where I discovered the more mysterious corners of London, which served as fodder for Dickens’ creations. Dickens loved to meander through the city in the wee hours of the morning and visit graveyards. Our animated tour guide, David, was well-versed, boasting a doctorate in Dickens history. One intriguing turn was through a narrow alleyway to a door with a brass lion’s-head knocker, supposedly inspiration for the author’s ghost creations in A Christmas Carol.

  The tour explored the darker side of Dickens and London—the real scrooges, poverty and the child labor plight. Dickens’ characters came not just from his imagination but from his childhood experiences, such as when he was 12 and worked at a boot-blacking factory to help support his father, who was imprisoned for debt. This dark time in his life made an indelible imprint.

The Tower of London, also mentioned in Dickens’ novels, yields the crown jewels and the newly restored Medieval Palace, where visitors will find a costumed reenactment of Christmas festivities at the 1284 court of King Edward I. There is also an ice-­skating rink at the tower’s entrance.

 

One of the tower’s highlights is the new permanent memorial, created by artist Brian Catling, for 10 noted individuals beheaded at the execution site. The contemporary sculpture consists of a glass pillow on two polished disks revealing the names of the executed, including Anne Boleyn, the infamous Henry VIII’s second wife, whose remains are buried in the Chapel Royal here.

Legend states Boleyn’s ghost has been sighted drifting aimlessly through the tower amid the six ravens flying above. The ravens are an important part of the tale—if the birds leave, the tower supposedly would fall, ending the kingdom. Consequently, one of each of the raven’s wings is clipped by the on-site ravenmaster to prevent them from flying away.

Surprisingly, I had one of the best gastronomical experiences at the tower’s New Armouries restaurant. My succulent salmon Wellington, with mouthwatering roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables, was well worth $16.

 

London-town Temptations
A 20-minute walk from the tower across the Millen­nium Footbridge stands the third Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. A faithful reproduction of the 1599 original, this homage to the Bard was built in 1993 and is open for tours. At the outset, visitors are warmed by mulled nonalcoholic wine. The open-air theater includes a thatched roof, the only one built in London since 1566.

Across the Millennium Footbridge opposite the Globe sits St. Paul’s Cathedral, the backdrop for many of Dickens’ works. This baroque cathedral built between 1675 and 1710 has been the venue for many an important event, including the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and the funeral of Winston Churchill. Because all the museums are free, I was surprised to be charged an entrance fee to the church.

 

My holiday dinners definitely filled me for the next day’s trek through town. On Christmas Eve, I feasted on a four-course dinner at Knightsbridge’s regal Milestone Hotel, near the famed Harrods Department Store. The tender, braised fillet of Welsh lamb, garlic-scented spinach and hazelnut ravioli were a treat to my palate.

My four-course Christmas dinner at the handsomely appointed Blue Door Bistro in the Bloomsbury district was also quite sensational. The restaurant is housed in The Montague on the Gardens Hotel, and its dark-wood, candlelit ambience is elegant, warm and intimate. I delighted in some mulled wine before my pumpkin-and-cinnamon soup, cured Scottish salmon, and Dorset goose with figs and chestnut stuffing—all punctuated by a plum pudding with brandy sauce.

 

Arts, Music and a Spot of Tea
The colorful Covent Gardens is just a 10-minute stroll from the theater district at Leicester Square. The Christmas spirit sparkles here with vendors selling holiday wares galore amid dec­orated stores and music flowing from a painted carousel.

For classical and jazz sounds, I visited the St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, which offers an array of concerts. Located at Trafalgar Square, the church has held midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and played host to great composers, such as Handel and Mozart, since 1726. Some 350 concerts are performed here yearly, and tickets should be reserved.

For the quintessential high tea experience, the original London teahouse at Fortnum and Mason, an elaborate food emporium, is noted for more than 100 blends of green and black tea. The elegant surroundings of its St James Restaurant feature piano tunes along with tasty tea sandwiches and scones.

A two-and-a-half-hour evening cruise along the Thames on the upscale Bateaux London capped my holiday stay. For approximately $80, I savored a three-course meal while watching the amber-lit London skyline and listening to a talented jazz trio. The boat glided past an illuminated Parliament Building and Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and the giant, moving London Eye—a dramatic and enchanting ending to any Dickens’ story.

 

Plan Your Trip
For more information on London, go to www.visitbritain.us. For travel-planning assistance, visit your AAA Travel agent or AAA.com/travel.

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