Home for us is Milton Keynes. The utopian dream of left-leaning architects and city planners, the town is neatly divided within a grid system, all conveniently accessed by traffic-free roads and 124 roundabouts. It’s very efficient.
However, efficiency has its downfalls. Visit Milton Keynes and you’ll notice that one thing is missing: a town centre. It seems that somewhere amongst all the enthusiastic plans for boulevards that tracked ancient ley lines and a cinema that resembled a flashing Egyptian pyramid, someone forgot to include a high street. Uh! Whilst throughout the year this isn’t a huge problem, when it comes to the festive period, the town can feel a little lack-lustre. With no winding lanes or brightly-decorated streets to explore, Christmas in Milton Keynes takes place within one building and one building only: its infamous shopping centre. For any Milton Keyneser hoping to get a festive kick, they must dutifully join the crowds of consumers housed within this marble-inspired retail heaven. It’s a shopping centre dream that formed the backdrop to Cliff Richard’s 1981 hit, ‘Wired for Sound’. Indeed, thanks to its smooth interior, Cliff was able to realise his dream of creating a music video in which he not only sang, smiled and wore spandex, but also roller-skated. Dream big, Cliff.
Victim’s of the Milton Keynes Christmas Curse, we were figuring out how to inject some festivities into our year, when an email landed in our inbox from Trainline. Not dissimilar to Bob Cratchitt, Trainline were hoping to get people in the festive spirit, by inviting them to enjoy a painless day out by using their App and local train line. As Milton Keynes is just a 35-minute train journey from London (at a push, I sometimes refer to the town as a ‘London suburb’), we jumped at the chance to leave Cliff’s favourite retail arcade behind and head into the city for a day of Christmas shopping, mulled wine and festivities.
Rolling into Euston station after enjoying a stress-free journey thanks to Trainline’s mobile ticketing (we always lose our paper tickets!) and skipping the long ticket queues, we devised a plan of attack. Christmas in London seems to congregate around Oxford Circus and Hyde Park’s answer to the North Pole: Winter Wonderland. Having already received a healthy dose of artificial snow thanks to Milton Keynes’ own Christmas display (incidentally, also housed within the shopping centre), we hoped to start our day somewhere a little quieter and authentic: Hampstead Village.
Sat atop the famous Hampstead Heath, Hampstead is a peaceful village within an otherwise frenetic city. Although only four miles from the City itself, Hampstead feels far removed from the crowds of Oxford Street. Although this means any property here now boasts a jaw-dropping NW3 price tag, it’s still a wonderful place to visit, particularly during Christmas. It’s also fertile ground for celebrity spotting!
We began our morning with a little shopping; enjoying Hampstead’s many boutiques. Our favourites included the Village’s renowned Hampstead Bazaar and the Hampstead Antique and Craft Emporium – perfect for a dig around. Already feeling a little more festive – passing one beautifully decorated Victorian home after another – we next climbed Holly Hill in the morning sunshine, as we headed towards one of London’s more unique museums: Fenton House.
A National Trust owned home and gardens, Fenton House dates back to the 17th century. Upon entering, visitors are handed a small wax candle and a catalogue, and invited to explore the home alone (you can even buy some of the many antiques that fill the house!) Decorated as it would have been in the 1730s, when the Gee Family – wealthy London silk and linen merchants – occupied the house, the museum offers a wholly immersive experience, lit entirely by candlelight. It’s absolutely worth a visit for an alternative to the perpetually busy V&A or British Museum.
Before leaving Hampstead, we had time to visit one of our favourite London pubs: The Wells. This is an ideal place for a lazy Sunday lunch or, in our case, a quick drink and rest (it’s also where Laura once had a date and was unfortunately sat next to the actress who plays Daenerys in Game of Throne. She’s not the girl you want to be sat next to when trying to impress a guy). Decorated with bunches of holly, and featuring a roaring fire and twinkling Christmas tree, the Wells is the antidote to anyone feeling a little less than festive.
NW3 complete, we decided to head south towards Mayfair. This part of London needs no introduction, being forever synonymous with luxury brands, high-end shopping and of course, the coveted dark blue squares of the Monopoly board. Whilst Hampstead’s Christmas is one of pretty wreathes and an icy duck pond, Mayfair’s Christmas bathes in Tiffany diamonds and Italian leather handbags. Liz Hurley turned on its Christmas lights. Despite not having the bank balances for such a Christmas, each December we visit Mayfair to take a picture of the Ede and Ravenscroft doorway, which is always beautifully decorated with a giant door wreath. After taking a few hundred photos of our favourite doorway, we headed to a quieter part of Mayfair – Shepherd Market – to explore the lovely little shops that are hidden here. Although not technically Mayfair, this part of London also sits alongside Piccadilly and one of our favourite stores: Fortnum and Mason. We made a mad dash across to here, desperate to see the beautiful window displays that the store curates every year. They are intricate, colourful and incredibly well-crafted; bringing a real Christmas magic to this corner of London.
Although vowing stoically to avoid London’s crowd-pleasing hotspots, we couldn’t resist a quick dash across to Covent Garden. Its giant sparkling baubles and 40 bunches of mistletoe proved too much. Teaming with people, music (festive, of course) and street entertainment, Covent Garden does Christmas on a big scale. The market is home to independent stalls selling Christmas gifts and trinkets (brilliant for those last minute buys), alongside more familiar mainstream stores. Our favourite is The Moomin Shop. Our least favourite is the ice-cream parlour where Laura accidentally sampled ice-cream derived from human breast milk (confusingly creamy and delicious, if you’re wondering.)
On the cobbled square on the west side of Covent Garden is a resident giant tree; lighting up the winter’s sky with red twinkling lights. There is also a huge silver reindeer on the east side of the Piazza and a Lego Santa Train on the north-east corner; perfect for those mini travellers amongst us. That said, aged 30, we loved it all.
An 8 minute walk (yes, that precise) from Covent Garden is our favourite London spot: Neal’s Yard. A crayola coloured dream, this London hidey-hole channels an alternative Christmas of bright lights, amazingly tasty vegan restaurants, and of course, the ever-fragrant Neal’s Yard store. We ate at the very cool, yet very delicious, Native Restaurant: a favourite amongst Instagrammers looking to capture the perfect avo-on-toast.
Now beginning to flag a little, we made one last festive push onwards, across to Soho and Carnaby Street. Overlooked by London’s royalty of department stores – Liberty – Carnaby offers alternative and distinctive Christmas displays. This year, its inspiration has come from the V & A’s latest exhibition concerning revolutions and rebels: ‘You Say You Want a Revolution?’ Filled with glittering ‘Love’ signs and shimmering Union Jacks, Carnaby Street is perhaps Mayfair’s worst nightmare: its punkish and loud next door neighbour. We love it.
After gawping at the glittering lights of Carnaby Street, we decided we had filled our quota of all things festive. After covering North and Central London; walking 35,000 steps (I own a new FitBit and the statistics excite me), we were both shattered but finally full of Christmas cheer. London offers not just one Christmas, but a dizzying array of them: from the ’round-the-fire-cosy- Christmas’ offered in Hampstead, to the shimmering Christmas party hosted on Carnaby Street, London offers endless festive versions of our favourite time of year. Our favourite version? The ‘getting-on-the-train-home-for-Christmas’ one.
Checking our Trainline app, which provides live updates on any delays and a handy Busybot service to help you find the best seats on the train, we made our way back to Euston station. Although a festive day trip is always exciting, offering a break from the norm (in our case, that shopping centre), there’s probably no better feeling than looking out of the window as your train pulls out of the station, knowing you’re heading back to the place you know best: home.
We love you really MK.
This blog post is in partnership with Trainline – all experiences (and photos!) are our own.