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.