Thursday, 20 December 2007

Places to go and things to do during the holidays...

By this time next week, it’ll all be over (Christmas, I mean, not the fuss over whether or not Leon really did win X-Factor...).

The only chocs left in the box will be the hard toffees and nuts. Turkey and mince pies will be forbidden words as, yet again, the post-festive diet tops the list of New Year Resolutions. That, and joining a gym (they really must do a roaring trade in new memberships in January); giving up alcohol (yeah, right, not until after New Year's Eve); and redecorating the spare room / tidying the attic / getting a new car, or whatever it was that you inadvertently promised your better half while pleasantly sozzled on Bailey’s and liqueur chocolates.

So, what can you do to get out of the house and get the circulation going? Well, in West London you really are spoiled for choice. Number one in my book has to be a walk around Kew Gardens. Although the leaves have fallen from most of the trees, the glass-houses are as fascinating as ever (to say nothing of being cosily warm), and you really get a feel for the landscape. If you are lucky, there will be some very early spring flowers around, too, courtesy of climate change (though I have to say, it doesn’t feel like that just now). Alternatives closer to home, and free, are Holland Park and Kensington Gardens, both great for getting some fresh air and walking off some of those festive calories.

Of course, you may not want to get quite that much exercise. An excellent family alternative is the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, just over the bridge from Kew itself. From 29th December until 1st January, they are having a “Grand Christmas Steam Up”. On this exclusive week-end, all of the steam engines will be working, and there will also be model steam trains and craft workshops, including material picture making, cross stitching displays and even how to make traditional sweets (not that you’ll want any more to eat, but it is amazing what kids can put away). There will also specialised talks on the working life of the Victorian pumping station, and behind the scenes tours of the original workshops. The museum is open 11-17h each day.

If Brentford is a little out of the way, there are always the museums in South Kensington. The Natural History Museum has tons of activities on all week from 29th December to 4th January (see listings). Next door, the Science Museum has special exhibitions (all free) on climate change, a look inside a Spitfire and one exploring the first century of plastics (which looks more fun than it sounds). There are also special events on most days, but my favourite has to be the 3D IMAX show “Santa vs the Snowman”, an animated 3D feature in which Santa takes on an evil, lonely snowman who is trying to take over Christmas to become the world’s most loved festive character. Expect flying 3D snowballs, elves and jet-propelled reindeer!! OK, it’s £7.50 (£6 children), but when first shown last year it was a huge family hit.

Then again, you could always pop down to the sale at Harrods...

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Don't panic: more last-minute gift ideas...

Well, I’ve been told my last blog was a bit, well, orientated towards the nerdy end of Christmas shopping. Sci-fi, transport, and all that. S0, here’s another set of ideas for that last minute gift with a wider range of interest.

A great place for nice and very individual presents is to go to a museum gift shop. You don’t actually have to visit the museum itself, and of course most of the big museums in London are free to get in. Apart from being distinctive, the quality is usually very good, you know you are supporting a good cause, and in London, you really are spoiled for choice. And an added bonus at this time of the year is that none of these shops is anything like as busy as Hamleys or Harrods. It'll also look like you've really thought about it - it won't give away your last minute panic shopping.

Fabulous art books, prints, stationery, calendars, packs of notelets and cards are the preserve of places like The National Gallery, Tate Britain and The V&A. Perfect for that hard-to-buy-for Great Aunt. More high-brow still, and with fabulous (and expensive) coffee-table books from the current exhibition of the Terracotta Army, the British Museum shop is a very discerning and up-market choice.

For something more cutting edge for your designer-conscious friends, there’s always Tate Modern. At the moment, you have the added bonus of walking past the current work by Doris Salcedo: "Shibboleth" is described as "the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall". Salcedo has created a “subterranean chasm” (well, more of a large crack, actually) that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. Just mind your step.

For children, there’s plenty of choice, with the benefit of lots of good educational items. The Natural History Museum has lots of great stuff for budding naturalists and, of course, dinosaur fanatics (of all ages). The Science Museum has more technically orientated and educational options for children, and a fantastic alternative in Covent Garden is the re-opened London Transport Museum. The new exhibition space is wonderful in itself, but the revamped store also has a huge range of merchandise. There are books, DVDs, posters and toys, mugs and t-shirts with the iconic logos and tube maps, a whole collection based on the recent Tour de France visit, through to some quite funky items. How about a ‘fridge magnet in the shape of a tube train door opening button? Or a Routemaster bus tea-towel? The choice seems endless.

So, there. I’ve done my bit. Plenty of ideas. You've absolutely no excuse for picking up a gift on Christmas Eve at a petrol station...

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

That last little gift...

Well, only four shopping days to Christmas now, so if you haven’t got it sown up yet...

OK, I’ve got a confession. I’m one of those people who has Christmas shopping finished a week before the event. I hate the last minute rush, with lengthy queues and over-worked, bad-tempered store staff. After all, I am spending my money, and I expect some service for that. Who mentioned retail therapy? It’s just not supposed to be this stressful.

Mind you, it helps that my nephews, God-children and others have all now grown to the stage where all they want is a cheque. And that everyone who wants a calendar or something similar can be catered for by shopping, armchair-style, from a charity catalogue in October. So that just leaves the immediate family to cater for. A cinch.

Or so I might think. One of the main problems is that men – and besides my Mum and Sister-in-Law, that means all my close family – are notoriously more difficult to buy for than women. Women are happy with perfume, cosmetics, toiletries, scarves, and anything containing gorgeously wrapped chocolate. But us men. Oh dear. Socks, ties, handkerchiefs, even whisky have become a clichéd joke. We only need one scarf and one woolly hat. Men in my family don’t wear jewellery. Period.

So, in my book, that narrows the choice down to leaves sports equipment and, well, books. Sports stuff can be bought on the web, but anything beyond golf balls involves a nightmare of delivery. One of the issues not yet satisfactorily solved by on-line shopping is the problem of how to deliver outsized parcels at a convenient time, without resorting to one of those dreaded delivery notes.

“You were not in when we called (ie, it’s your fault). Please telephone this 25 pence-a-minute recorded message, to find several irritating push-button menus and listen to ten minutes of ‘Ray Conniff Sings Festive Family Favourites’ before we cut you off. Alternatively, please visit our depot. The address is an obscure trading estate in a slightly dodgy area. Should your Sat-Nav be stolen while queuing in our office, we will not accept liability. Our address isn't on it, anyway. Customer service is our priority. Merry Christmas.”

So, it looks like books again this year. I admit you can buy those easily on-line, but it is often cheaper, easier and nicer just to go and browse in your local bookshop, and these days, we’re really spoiled for choice. An added bonus is that the shops are festive without being packed full. For me, the National Map Centre is an excellent choice for transport, walking and cycling enthusiasts (which actually just about covers my family). Forbidden Planet is perfect for anyone into sci-fi or fantasy, and Gay's The Word covers pink friends both male and female. Anything else can be covered by Borders or Waterstone's lovely shop in Piccadilly.

So: Christmas made easy. And last – but not least – books are so easy to wrap...

Monday, 17 December 2007

Torvill and Dean, eat your heart out...

One of the relatively new festive traditions in West London has become the annual Christmas Fair and Ice Rink, established in front of the Natural History Museum in Kensington. Situated on the corner of Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road, this has become a hugely popular seasonal attraction with families, office parties, students and tourists alike.

It’s busy throughout the day, but is especially popular in the evenings, when it is impressively floodlit. Ticketing ensures that the numbers are always manageable; skate hire, changing areas and a cloakroom are all included, and there are plenty of staff on hand to help out on the rink. Those skating range from budding Torvill and Deans to absolute beginners, mixing looks of terrified concentration with fun and laughter.

You don’t have to go skating, of course. There’s a viewing platform all the way around, which means that those, like me, for whom the prospect of ice skating is about attractive as colonic irrigation, can instead watch others enjoying themselves risking life and limb, all while drinking a lovely rum punch, thick hot chocolate or mulled wine. Yes, there’s an open-air bar (as well as one indoors) to bring life back into frost-bitten fingers.

As you might gather, I don’t skate. I fear it with a loathing verging on phobia. Not that I haven’t tried: Two eager friends dragged me onto the rink in Cardiff years ago - and then left me to it. After my fifth pathetic stagger around the edge, I was finally persuaded to let go and push for the other side. Uncontrolled, I headed instead for a roped off area. The rope quickly got the upper hand, sending me crashing to the ice and under the skates of a couple, sending them flying and receiving a small cut on my hand, which happened to sever a small artery.

Boy, does a small quantity of blood go a long, long way on ice. Literally. The rink soon began to resemble a huge raspberry ripple as other skaters spread the stuff around. Screams of delight? Not in my case. More like the Winter Olympics meets the Texas Chain Saw Massacre...

Matters were not helped by the hysterical giggles of a group of eight years old girls, who were happily viewing my plight while skating backwards – yes, backwards – around the rink. In great contrast, the panicking staff didn't know whether to whisk me to casualty or clean up the rapidly spreading island of blood first, since it was clearly beginning to deter other would-be punters. Fortunately, the ice rink happened to be close to the old Royal Infirmary, so I managed to get there under my own steam, appropriately bandaged.

Happily, the scene at South Kensington is rather jollier. The children are expert, there are plenty of foreigners (and staff) who know what they are doing, and only the office parties look out of place, wobbling around in their party finery and heavy overcoats. No carnage here, but shrieks of laughter. It’s not cheap, mind – family tickets start at £30, children at £7.50 and adults at £10.50, depending on what time of day you go, but then again, it’s only once a year.

For those who want something less energetic, the Christmas fair offers over thirty stalls, selling a range of Christmas decorations, jewellery, ceramics, toys and other items. This year, for the first time, there is also a food court. Although prices are a little high, the quality on offer is pretty good, and you could always just browse, and sample some food and mulled wine instead.

The museum also offers innovative packages for school children, combining trips to the ice rink with a visit to selected galleries, where they can learn about animals that live in polar conditions. Clever, eh? And tuition is also available for those who want to learn to skate. Just don’t expect me to try...

Now, who’s for a mulled wine?

The Christmas Fair runs until January 6th and the Rink until January 20th.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Wrapped up in West London

You know that the British winter has well and truly arrived when you go down with your first cold. This year, mine has arrived with a vengeance, probably because my other half went down with a nasty shivery ‘flu-like bug, which I didn’t catch. I was feeling very smug, assuming my good health reflected my healthy lifestyle (?!) and robust immune system.


How are the mighty fallen. I’m now several days and an industrial quantity of tissues into a real humdinger of a cold, with a chesty cough, runny nose, achy limbs, blocked sinuses and red eyes. I’m surrounded by the paraphernalia of disease: a jug of squash ("drink lots of fluid"), boxes of tissues (man-sized, of course), and enough sachets and bottles of selected cold remedies to keep pharmaceutical companies’ shares buoyant for weeks.

Apparently, we Brits have the worst record of ear, nose and throat infections on the planet, thanks to our variable, damp climate, high population density (a crowded, stuffy tube is the perfect infection vessel for the cold virus, especially for those who seem oblivious to the convention of covering their face when they sneeze), under-heated homes and lousy diet. Of course, we like to think that it’s just another of those things that contributes to the superior moral fibre that helped build an Empire: a literally phlegmatic approach to life, coasting though adversity, and all that.

The reality, of course, is that we’re just as pathetic as the next nation. We take weeks off work (or, worse still, play the martyr, go in and infect everyone else). We try every half-baked alternative therapy available. Everyone talks it up ("Oh, I had the 'flu yesterday"). But there’s also a difference between the sexes: “man flu” sees beefy rugby players taking to their beds like slighted five-year-olds, while women just carry on, clocking up overtime at the office, managing the family home, doing the shopping, writing the Christmas cards – and all with a temperature of 102.

On the brighter side, there are, of course, great compensations to having a cold. There’s something incredibly indulgent about being wrapped up in bed, all snug and cosy, in the middle of the day. Your other half has to show you sympathy – you’re poorly, remember? And it’s a great excuse for wonderful comfort food – wounded soldiers, mashed potato, shepherd’s pie, puddings with custard.

Then there are those traditional remedies: rum, honey and hot water for the sore throat, hot toddies for the cold, ginger wine to clear the sinuses. Fabulous. Sup enough and even daytime television becomes palatable. You’ve got a headache anyway, so what’s another hangover?

There are, apparently, many recipes for the perfect hot toddy. Some use Scotch, others bourbon, and still others, rum. All can be enlivened by a splash of lemon, or spiced up with cloves, and there’s the obligatory dash of hot water. The beauty is that you can play around with the recipe, supping one after the other, all in a good cause. (But not, I can hear my doctor say, while taking paracetamol. No matter – ibuprofen works well enough).

So, as you rush around preparing for Christmas, think of all those of us, wrapped up, hot toddy in hand, watching Countdown this afternoon. Perhaps it’s not so bad after all...

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

A Christmas Carol (or two)

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and for many people that includes attending a nativity play and a carol service (or two).

School nativity plays are, of course, legendary in the bringing out the best and worst in children (and sometimes their parents), whether it is a grumpy Inn-Keeper telling Mary and Joseph to go away (and not come back), the Shepherds fighting amongst each other in the background, or the little Angel who steals the show fiddling with her wings. I pity those poor little mites with pushy parents, chastising them for not landing a leading role this year (“What? You’re not a sheep again?”). My own experience in Primary school was no different, as the Three Kings (of whom I was one) nearly came to blows over who was going to give their gift first...

A safer bet is to attend a Carol service or Midnight Mass, and Churches are only too aware that this is one of the key opportunities of the year to attract the not-quite-so-faithful through their doors. But – being less cynical for a moment – a good Carol service can really help you get Christmas on its way, combining some good hymn singing (and, let’s face it, those tunes are fabulous) with a touch of nostalgia, personal reflection and a reconnection with what Christmas, in theory, should be all about.

West London has a plethora Carol services to choose from, depending on your preferred style of worship and where you live. For classical music lovers, St Mary’s, Bourne Street, has a Carols by Candlelight service at 23:30 on Christmas Eve, followed by Midnight Mass with music by Haydn, Handel and Darke. St Luke’s, Sydney Street has a variety of carol Services, with Carols on Chelsea Green at 18:00 on Wednesday 19th. St Mary in the Boltons, Earl’s Court, has a traditional service of nine readings and Carols at 19:00 on Sunday 16th December. Also on 16th, in the heart of Hammersmith, St Paul’s, Queen Caroline St, has a Family Carol Service at 10.30 and Candlelight services at 17:00 and 19:30 (tickets required for the latter from the church office). But wherever you are, there’s bound to be service nearby in the coming week.

So, forget shopping for a moment, put down Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen, and go down to your local church for some real Christmas spirit.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

It's behind you!

No, this is not about West Londoners’ fear of crime.

It’s that great British Christmas tradition of Pantomime. (And bad rhymes).

There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else. Foreigners are often bemused to discover British theatres, with their reputation for solid drama and famous thespians suddenly turning themselves over, en masse, to this bawdy seasonal tradition. All that reserve and stiff upper lip gives way as adults and children alike shriek, ‘It’s behind you’ or engage in the to-and-fro chorus of, ‘Oh yes it is! – Oh no it isn’t!’ It’s an age-old example of audience participation (alongside that other very British tradition of outrageous (and bad) cross-dressing featuring as family entertainment).

But there’s something very reassuring about Panto too. It really is entertainment for the whole family: slapstick for the children, risqué jokes for Mums and Dads. Something which, despite the media’s worries about the shrinking attention spans of to-day’s children, can hold them in rapt wonder for an hour and a half. And there’s something very refreshing about the willingness of serious thespians to drop their dignity and take on such wonderfully ridiculous roles – I wish I had seen Sir Ian McKellen playing Widow Twanky at the Old Vic!

Of course, some things have to change with the times. Dance sequences and music owe more to Madonna and Girls Aloud than traditional music hall, and high-tech lighting and special effects are de rigueur, alongside impressive sets. But other elements are timeless: the thin plots, these weedy heroes and heroines (let’s face it, Cinderella is such a drip compared with the Ugly Sisters), constant asides to the audience and the inevitably cheesy happy ending.

On a more serious note, the guaranteed box-office over the winter months is a godsend to provincial theatres, to say nothing of the wage packets of many an actor and actress. Without it, many would not survive and the UK’s cultural life would be that much the poorer. And the audience is growing: organised trips are increasingly common, with many workplaces and schools joining in. (Well, offered the choice of Panto against some tedious team-building Awayday, which would you choose?) And there’s a distinctly pink-edged tinge to many of the audiences, these days, too. Fun for all, indeed.

So, get yourself down to the New Wimbledon Theatre (Snow White) or the Lyric Hammersmith (Beauty & the Beast), and start practising now. ‘Oh yes it is!’

Friday, 7 December 2007

Ahoy there, Earl's Court!

We're in the run up to Christmas now, which must mean it's time for - yes - the International Boat Show in Earl's Court!

It's always amazed me that that the Boat Show is held here. After all, it's nowhere near the sea. It's a couple of miles from the Thames, I suppose, but that's hardly sailing territory either. They have to create a marina within the exhibition centre, and then - with huge effort and a fair amount of traffic disruption - get all those gorgeous yachts up the Warwick Road and into the main arena. We had no water on two mornings this week. Is that a coincidence, I ask myself, or were they topping up the tanks?

The visitors are an incredible mix, which I reckon can be divided roughly into three categories: the general public coming for a day out, ogling the yachts and other assorted goodies that they'll never afford; existing boat owners, keen to see the latest kit and maybe bag a bargain or two at one of the trade stands; and the super-rich, out to do some window shopping before they buy. (Apparently, a huge number of luxury yachts and boats are bought during the show).

The main draw, of course, are the boats themselves: yachts, speed-boats, motor-cruisers, and not forgetting narrow boats (yes, inland waterways are covered as well as the sea). Then there are the trade stands, selling everything from sailing holidays to outboard motors. You can find out about sailing for people with disabilities, get kitted out in the latest hi-tech gear or even find ways of off-setting the carbon footprint from your diesel engines (or you could just buy a yacht, I suppose?).

There are plenty of other water-based activities going on as well, including a huge diving tank, windsurfing simulators, rowing machines (there's even a rowing contest) - and, it being Advent, there's a Father Christmas for the children.

I wonder how many will ask him for that boat - a snip at £200,000 - in their stocking, this year?

Further details of the show can be found at: The show runs until Sunday 9th December, and tickets can be purchased at