Christmas in London

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Regent Street’s Christmas lights

 

Apparently, the British are the most Christmas-obsessed people in the world, according to the results of a recent research. This doesn’t seem to surprise me judging from shoppers’ behaviour before Christmas. However, there is also a large population of people here who, under different circumstances, do not have families to celebrate with. Hence, Christmas can be quite daunting for those who don’t share the festive mood or joy.

This year, a group of Network Rail workers organised an alcohol-free four-course Christmas meal for 200 homeless people at the normally commuter-packed concourse inside Euston Station. Perhaps more cities should follow suit so that the homeless could share the festive spirit for just even a day.

 

st paul's cathedral

christmas lights tate britain

christmas lights tate britain  christmas lights tate britain

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2nd & 3rd row: Playful ‘Home for Christmas’ art installations by English artist Alan Kane at Tate Britain; last row: love the Christmas decorations outside of this house in Clerkenwell!

 

Since I started the business 6 years ago, the few weeks running up to Christmas had been extremely hectic and stressful. I would either get sick or be exhausted by the time Christmas arrives, so the word ‘Christmas’ has a completely different meaning for me and those of use who work in hospitality or retail-related businesses. I have also learnt that traveling around this period is a nightmare – especially if you are taking any kind of public transport – so I try to avoid it at all costs. When I went to meet up with my mother in Paris for Christmas last year, I caught the stomach flu bug after Christmas and ended up vomiting several times on Eurostar on my way back to London. Yes, it was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Luckily, I have some friends in London who also don’t have their families around, so I spent this period catching up with those whom I haven’t seen for some time. With 5 festive meals in one week, it was probably a shock to my poor stomach, but at the same time, thoroughly enjoyable.

 

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the wells  the wells

the wells  afternoon tea 

Festive indulgence – Top: pre-Christmas Sichuan dinner at Chilli cool; 2nd & 3rd left: Boxing day lunch at Hampstead’s gastro pub The Wells; 3rd right: Festive afternoon tea with a free bottle of prosecco at the May Fair Hotel

 

And on Christmas day, I had arranged to meet up with my American friend in central London for an Indian Christmas lunch, which I considered to be quite unusual. The truth is that I couldn’t find a restaurant/pub that wasn’t overcharging on the day i.e. £75 or more for a so-called festive menu that didn’t appeal to me at all; and since there was no transport on the day, I had to find a place where we could both reach (I was on foot and she was cycling).

Days before Christmas, we were anxiously checking the weather forecast to see if it would pour or snow, but luckily, the weather turned out to be quite mild though a bit grey (unlike the blue sky on Boxing day). The walk from my home to the restaurant took about 75 mins because I opted for a scenic route via Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park; on route, I crossed paths with joggers and many independent tourists who were wandering and enjoying a much quieter London. Interestingly, I also walked past Euston station where I saw some homeless people and volunteers outside preparing for the Christmas meal event.

 

primrose hill

primrose hill

Regents park  euston

euston

euston

Walking through Primrose hill, Regent’s park and Euston

 

Both my friend and I were very satisfied and pleased with the service, value and food quality at Salaam Namaste, and we spent a pleasant few hours savouring our tasty three-course Christmas lunch. I had so much food that I didn’t even bother having dinner in the evening. Fortunately, the walk back home helped me to burn some calories…

 

Salaam Namaste  Salaam Namaste

Salaam Namaste  festive chocolate wreath

The 3-course Christmas lunch & a chocolate wreath – a gift from my friend

 

After I parted with my friend, I decided to take a different route back via Kings Cross and the canal. The roads were almost empty and there were very few people and traffic around the usually busy St Pancras Station. The city was surprisingly peaceful, and at the same time, quite surreal.

From Camley street, I crossed the Somers Town Bridge for the first time (I didn’t even know about it before the day), which was opened in the summer. This lightweight and sleek steel bridge is designed by Moxon Architects, and it links Camley Street with the Gasholder Park. In the summer, this area would be quite busy, but on Christmas day, there were only a handful of people strolling around at a leisurely pace.

 

British library  kings cross

kings cross canal

kings cross canal

somers town

somers town

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street art  street art

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After walking along the canal for about 20 mins, I finally reached Camden town, where the canal ends. And what caught my attention here was the post-modern futuristic style architecture on the opposite side of the canal. This is the Camden Sainsburys and housing designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners in the late 1980s, apparently it was influenced by car manufacturing techniques. How interesting.

 

street art camden

street art camden

street art camden

street art camden  street art camden

street art camden

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The best part of my journey was to walk through an empty Camden Town! I have never seen Camden so quiet before, and so I took the opportunity to explore the area’s vibrant street art.

Although I felt quite tired after the walk, I really enjoyed walking through London without the crowds and traffic. It enabled me to explore and see things that I might have missed normally, and best of all, it made me feel less guilty for indulging so much throughout this festive period.

 

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hampstead

hampstead  dog

Boxing day lunch and walking in Hampstead heath

 

After years of constantly aiming to spend Christmas elsewhere, I found staying in London for Christmas this year to be a pleasant and restful. Sometimes, the grass is not always greener on the other side, and maybe this is something I finally got to understand lately.

 

waterloo place

southbank

southbank

southbank

Live tango performance and dancing at the Southbank centre during the festive period

 

 

A very special Christmas retreat

Recently a few people have asked me this question: “Why do you continue to go to these meditation retreats?” My answer is simple: I need to get away from the city, work, stress and reconnect with nature and myself. Retreats help me to detox my body and mind, when you are cut off from the outside world and external distractions, you naturally become more in tune with what is going on internally.

I nor my family have ever been bothered about Christmas and New Year, but since the business started 2 years ago, the month of December has turned into the busiest and most stressful time for me. Hence this year I decided to go on my first Christmas meditation retreat ( though I have previously been on New Year ones) to get away from the excess consumption during this period, and the location is Devon at the Sharpham estate run by the Sharpham Trust.

 

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Like many other retreaters, I originally wanted to go to the Barn retreat, which is also within the estate; but due to the limited numbers, it was already fully booked when I looked in September. And so I turned to the Sharpham house, a new location that is used for the first time to host Christmas and New Year retreats.

This retreat was special largely due to the stunning house and spectacular location overlooking river Dart. Designed in 1770 by the famous architect, Sir Robert Taylor ( who designed the Bank of England), the Palladian-style house is not only rich in history, it is also full of wonderful art works including 2 sculptures by Barbara Hepworth in the entrance hall and sculptures by Jacob Lane.

 

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Top left: the front door; top middle: the back door; top right: a ‘secret’ safe in the bathroom wall’; second row left: entrance hall with a compass on the floor; second row right: Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture in the entrance hall; third and last row: the magnificent staircase; Fourth row left: The Octagonal room; fourth row right: The music room; Fifth row left: my bedroom (!); fifth row right: books about the trust/ house.

 

I was slightly gobsmacked when the taxi drove into the estate as I had no idea of the how much land ( 550 acres) the estate occupies! And this includes a farm used for educational outdoors project and a diary farm and vineyard that produce a range of award-winning cheeses and wine!

Upon arrival, I was asked to pick a folder on the table and in it contained the name of my bedroom… so by some fortunate luck, I was assigned to one of the best rooms in the house. Walking up one of the most beautiful staircase that I have ever come across, I was rather astonished when I saw my very high four poster bed ( which reminded me of the Princess and the pea story) and the river view from the bedroom window. It felt so surreal to be doing a retreat in this grand/ Downton Abbey-style setting, but then again, why not? To be honest, I can’t think of a better location to spend Christmas than this place!

 

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Top middle: a brronze sculpture in the garden; Top right: the bathing house; Main: A view of the house and Jacob Lane’s Seven stones/ Temple to pan sculptures; Third row middle and right: the Quarry; Fourth row right: the boat house

 

I have been to more intensive mediation retreats before, but being completely exhausted mentally and physically before I even arrived, a more relaxing and flexible meditation retreat was what I needed. Apart from three short meditation and a sharing sessions each day, we were also offered optional qi gong, yoga and walks. The timetable was flexible with plenty of free time, and so I took the opportunity to go for walks, read or just take naps ( which turned out to be what my body needed)! With the stunning view from my room, I was able to watch the storm ( we were lucky to be safe inside this villa during the storm), the rain, dawn and sunrise. Living in the city, it is hard to see the sun rising from the horizon, so I will always cherish the moments sitting by the window and observing the beauty of nature.

 

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At retreats, you are put into a confined space with a group of strangers from all walks of life for a short period of time, so you will meet people you are likely to bond with and people who you don’t get along or have difficulties with. In situations like this (which we often encounter in real life as well), we have nowhere to run but to confront our feelings and deal with the situation. This is also part of the challenge of a retreat, but I think it is a small test for us to try and cope with the situation in a positive manner, which subsequently will help us to deal with similar situations in real life.

 

nature nature leaf nature naturefunghi nature

 

After almost a week of no contact with the outside world, no calendars nor clocks to check the time and dates, I completely lost track of time and date when I left. It actually felt good to be slightly disorientated because I am so used to checking my schedules and planning my timetable most of the time. Suddenly, all the so-called ‘important matters’ didn’t seem so important anymore, and I didn’t feel like I needed to get things done asap. Instead, I felt calm, content, healthy ( thanks to all the delicious organic food and no alcohol) and best of all, I slowed down and I started to change my old habits.

 

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The retreat was a wonderful way to end the year for me, and now I am feeling positive about the coming year. If you can’t afford the time or money to do a retreat, then a walk in the countryside or even in a park may help you to wind down, but most importantly, we need to ‘unplug’ from technology now and again to stop ourselves being constantly distracted from the external world. The older I get, the more I believe that “Mother nature has all the answers”, and all we have to do is to protect and observe it.

I wish everyone will have a stress-free and healthy year ahead. Happy New Year to you all!