It’s weird, this business of being a woman who heads off by herself. Three days alone in London, right across Christmas? People wondered whether I’d ‘be OK,’ how I would ‘manage all on my own’ and clearly thought I was a bit bonkers. When Christmas Day began before dawn under Admiralty Arch with Baileys and Quality Street, I knew I’d made the right decision.
The trick is to book your London travel and hotel well in advance, then leave lots of space for random experiences. So, in the summer heatwave, I booked three walking tours around central London, and clinched three drastically reduced nights in a Covent Garden hotel. I signed up for text alerts and, as soon as advance rail tickets went on sale, got my 400 mile return to London for just £13.
Christmas Day is the only day of the year to experience London's streets without its famous red buses. There are no tube trains either. Heading off in the dark, the only sounds were our group's footsteps and conversation, with the occasional ‘quack’ from St James’ Park. Whitehall was deserted, Oxford Street completely empty apart from the stop-starting dust cart, and in Regent Street we stood in the middle of the road taking photos.
By the time we reached coffee and croissants at Pret near Trafalgar Square, things were waking up a bit, and when the next walk started an hour or so later, London's pavements were starting to fill, even though the shops were shut.
One great thing about being on your own is that it’s easier to plead for a table when there’s technically no room at the inn. Back home in Yorkshire, we’d already celebrated Christmas ten days earlier, so I was more than happy to sit in a warm ‘beery’ little Victorian pub, with steak ‘n’ kidney pudding and half a Guinness – cheap and cheerful and no mandatory paper hat.
The third and final walk was round Soho, tracking down the Seven Noses that are meant to bring you infinite wealth. I spotted them all OK, but am still waiting for the rest of it …
On Boxing Day it was time to go it completely alone. As long as you’ve got cash, your phone, some kind of central London map and use your common sense, it can be great. Doing it all by foot is so much richer than disappearing under ground, taking the Tube and popping up somewhere else like a meerkat.
All I knew when I was setting out was that I wanted to explore the South Bank. So I walked round Lincoln Inn Fields – bright blue sky, crisp air, deserted but for dog walkers and the occasional jogger – and into Fleet Street, then down to St Paul’s Cathedral and over the Millennium Bridge, to turn left and visit The Globe Theatre.
From there I wandered on and had a coffee overlooking The Golden Hinde, where I shamelessly sat and people-watched for well over an hour, making character sketches. By the time I’d walked past Tower Bridge station and reached the old Marshalsea area, it was all suitably Dickensian (only not quite the same architecture) with the tops of skyscrapers disappearing into thick grey mist. Back by the River Thames, I went into Southwark Cathedral and paid £2 for a photography pass. Unlike St Paul’s Cathedral, they don’t charge admission, so I reckoned this was fair enough, and the glittering stars hanging from the ceiling looked gobsmackingly beautiful.
Of course, you don’t do all that walking without getting hungry. Three words here: lemon, drizzle, cake. This was in a vibrant place called Bill’s, back in Golden Hinde territory. I’d happily pay the return fare to London just to experience that cake – complete with mascarpone so thick you could slice it – all over again.
But I digress.
Doubling back the way I’d come but bypassing the Millennium Bridge, I drifted into the Royal Festival Hall, where it was clearly all happening. People everywhere, big band swing music playing loudly, and all the stairs littered with thousands of bits of white paper from the Snow Show.
In the Festival Hall's Clore Ballroom, there was some kind of crazy dance thing going on. I wandered up to the balcony so I could get a better picture – and, of course, do some more people watching. It turned out that the whole thing was free, from 4.00 to 7.00 pm, and all you had to do was go down on the dance floor and throw yourself into it. Here’s another advantage to doing this kind of thing alone – you can act as daft as you like but there’s nobody to embarrass except yourself (and who cares about that?). So, I put my coat and bag by a pillar, joined in a Charleston lesson with about 300 other people, laughed my head off, thought ‘nobody died’ and left again. On the way from the dance floor, I got chatting to a Jamaican woman who had the craziest shoes ever. She told me: ‘men invent them – so that they can watch us fall over.’
Outside, it was fully dark and you could see your breath in the air. I stopped for a while to gawp up at the London Eye and then listen to a guy playing By The Rivers of Babylon on steel drums. Right on cue, as I was walking across Westminster Bridge, Big Ben struck six. I never did quite get the hang of finding my way round Covent Garden to emerge on the right side for my hotel – must have gone round at least three times – but there are worse places to be lost, especially when it’s ablaze with Christmas red and silver.
Last Day in London
Next morning – my last day – I fitted in a visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I’d come across the day before. Not only was it completely free, it turned out to be incredible inside – like Grand Designs about 200 years ahead of its time.
Still determined to do the whole thing on foot, I trundled my case overland to St Pancras Station, which was a bit murky by then, with another storm whipping up. I had a quick lunch (more pie – oh no) and then relaxed for an hour before my bargain-priced First Class train back home to Yorkshire. If it’s St Pancras, it must be the Champagne Bar. Another thing about travelling alone – when you’re sitting by yourself, armed with a serious notebook, you can look suspiciously like a mystery shopper. Great service.
Well. One thing I’m definitely not saying about Christmas this year – “oh, you know, quiet ...”