For several years my Christmas Days have been devoted to walking around Central London and this year will be no different. Except that this year I will be working. My family generally get up and do the presents/stockings etc. at around 5am, the aim is to be out of the house by about 5.30am and we don’t return home until the early evening. We might cover 10-12 miles on foot during a typical Christmas Day.
I realise that for some people this might not seem very Christmassy but it suits us down to the ground because I think Christmas Day is by far the most magical day to explore the city. The so familiar, iconic sights, are experienced anew, as if seen through fresh eyes, when the streets are truly empty.
The idea for these early morning walks was inspired by the film 28 Days Later. In that classic Danny Boyle film London is virtually deserted. I wanted, like the character Jim, to be able to walk across Westminster Bridge and be the only person on it. I wanted to explore the eerily empty streets and luckily so did my children! The only day of the year when such an experience is possible is Christmas Day and if you want to guarantee exclusive temporary use of the bridge you need to do so before dawn.
The pre-dawn Christmas starts have enabled us to be the only people in Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. We have sauntered down the middle of Regent and Oxford Streets without seeing a soul. We have been alone in Covent Garden, Fitzrovia and Soho. Squirrels and birds in St James’s Park, look genuinely confused by the fact that there no other humans around to offer a peanut or some bread.
By around dawn it becomes possible to find the odd place for a coffee. By lunchtime several pubs are open and we tend to pop in for an aperitif. After lunch we stroll around again, the possibilities for interesting walks are infinite. The pavements are a little busier by now but the road traffic is still minimal. There are no wheely suitcases to be seen. Nobody is really going anywhere, there is nothing to buy and nothing else to do. The atmosphere is jovial all day, strangers greet and wish each other a “Happy Christmas”. By dusk the streets start to empty again and the Christmas lights come to the fore. And so we head back to the Sky+ and some decent wine.
It might not suit everyone to spend Christmas day walking around London. I am lucky, I live centrally so the lack of public transport makes no difference to me. But if you like me are somewhat obsessed with Central London in all its glory I do suggest that you try one year to see it on Christmas Day.
This year I will be walking again but for the first time in the company of visitors and London enthusiasts. A good mate of mine and an excellent guide, Colin Davey and I have teemed up to offer three unique Christmas Day walks:
Update 28th December 2011
Colin and I ran three tours during the day, the first, London at Dawn began at 6am, then another after breakfast and finally one after lunch.
Each was different but all were hugely enjoyable. We would like to thank all the wonderful local Londoners and visitors from Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Mexico and Uruguay who joined us. During the day we walked with true London experts, a professional historian, students, local workers, visitors and the indefatigable EdLondonDog.
The distances some people had walked to join us were staggering. One family had walked down from Swiss Cottage, other people came from Tower Bridge, Vauxhall, Chalk Farm and Holloway. A charming group of Canadians had only flown into Heathrow just a few hours before joining us and did the whole walk sustained by nothing more than their airline food!
All these hardy, good-humoured, interested and interesting walking companions really made the day special. It was so thoroughly enjoyable that, despite being hardly able to walk for two days afterwards, we will certainly be running more walks next Christmas!
Some of the people who joined us have been kind enough to write about the day.
Mike Paterson of London Historians (the Capital’s premier club for Londoners who’d like to learn more about their city’s history) wrote about the 6am pre-dawn walk on the London Historians Blog. Mike and Fiona were also kind enough to make enough bacon butties not ony for the entire group but also for some very grateful rough-sleepers who we encountered.
Also on the intrepid 6am walk was Matt of Londonist (The site that encompasses all you need to know to get the most out of life in London). With the assistance of Heather, acting as human tripod, he also got some great shots of a deserted Central London and wrote about the walk here.
Later in the day we were joined by Jane of Jane’s London. Jane has an exceptional eye for little details in the London street-scape which she documents with beautiful photos on her blog. Some of the many photos she took on the morning feature in this blog post and many more can be found at her Flickr photostream.
Prior to the walk we were supported by so many people who tweeted, shared and liked details of the day. Thank you to all those Twitter followers and Facebook friends. Special thanks too to Londonist, Time Out and Ian Visits for listing the walks and to Tom of Tired of London, Tired of Life for the honour of choosing us to be his “One thing to do a day in London” for the 25th. The Time Out Blog also ran a feature on the walks and we are very grateful for that as well.
After each walk we had a break with our guests. For the very early walk we had a picnic of sweets, cognac and single malt whiskey in Trafalgar Square. At lunchtime we enjoyed great hospitality at the Bear & Staff near Leicester Square and we rounded the day off with delicious cocktails at The Hampshire Hotel.
So thanks again to everyone who made the day a success and such good fun. Here’s to more of the same in 2012.
Update July 2012
Bookings have just opened for the 2012 tours, all details at my Eventbrite bookings page.