If Christmas shopping is getting you down, why not spend your money at a holly-bedecked plywood chalet instead? London has several festive market clusters, so I've been to six, ensuring that my Scroogier readers don't have to.
When: 30 November 2017 - 3 January 2018 Where: Along the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Scale: Elongated, like a long string of tinsel. Official description: "a wintery dreamland in an unparalleled London location" Reality: Several dozen chalets (in seven zoned clusters) selling food, drink and gifts, in approximately equal measure. Not especially Teutonic. Access: Loads of space at the City Hall end, but rather more squashed at the other. Clientele: Crowds of couples and families sweeping through like a swarm of Yuletide locusts. Quite touristy. What to buy: A woolly hat, assuming you're one of the minority of visitors not wearing one already. A small illustrated tin some unfortunate relative will be getting for Christmas. Award-winning cheese. Crystals and rotating wooden things. What to eat: A wide range of culinary options, from chocolate marshmallows to ostrich burgers, plus a Fudge Emporium and something to do with Yorkshire puddings. Cost of a mulled wine: £6 at one end of the market, £4.95 at the other (and no sign of alcohol inbetween) Cost of a bratwurst: £7.50 (they saw you coming) Bonus features: Several stalls and barrows under cover at Hays Galleria. An Eis Bar, so you can drink alcohol in colder temperatures than it is outside. An Elpless Elves Adventure Trail, for kids. Later in the month a free 'How To Propose at Christmas Workshop' with Daisy Amodio. Verdict: Plenty to explore. Not too tacky. Enough refreshment variety to satisfy the most disparate party.
When: 2 - 30 December 2017 Where: The South Bank between Waterloo Bridge and the Royal Festival Hall. Scale: Smaller than anticipated, like an over-wrapped present. Official description: "Nordic-inspired wooden chalets filled with festive food, drinks, gifts and treats for all" Reality: A set of decorated sheds selling mostly food, apart from under Hungerford Bridge where it's giftier. Access: Straightforward, although a bit squashed if approaching past the human statues near the London Eye. Clientele: All the usual people who'd normally be mulling around the South Bank, and then some. What to buy: A suspiciously high proportion of lighting-related objects, including lots of candles, those flimsy star-shaped lampshades, and a hipster stall selling artisan lightbulbs. What to eat: More a typical street-food selection than anything especially festive, from pad thai to raclette. Cost of a mulled wine: £4.95 (or rather more for a mulled cider inside the sponsored Cider Lodge). Cost of a bratwurst: £8 (that's for a Wild Boar & Apple hot dog inside Jimmy Garcia's two-storey pop-up, allegedly "the ultimate alpine foodie retreat", but I think Trades Descriptions would have a lot to say about that). Bonus features: Igloos! Assuming, that is, you're willing to believe that four geodesic frames covered in plastic are igloos, and fancy paying a minimum of £600 so that passers-by can watch your party snacking on gravlax and fondue. Verdict: Disappointingly ordinary. Over-popular.
When: 10 November 2017 - 7 January 2018 Where: Leicester Square, obvs. Scale: Squished and compact, like a pig in a blanket. Official description: "transforms the centre of bustling London into a wonderland" Reality: A couple of dozen festive-ish stalls swirled round an invisible fountain, plus a couple of entertainment venues, all rather obviously sponsored by Hilton hotels. Access: There are two entrances. Security will go through your bags. Clientele: Those emerging from the M&Ms store, and everyone else who's in the area. What to buy: Exactly the same star-shaped lampshades as on the South Bank, as if some kind of franchising is going on. What to eat: Exactly the same Mini Pancakes stall as on the South Bank, as if some kind of franchising is going on. Cost of a mulled wine: £4.50 (the cheapest I found anywhere) Cost of a bratwurst: £5 (ditto - who'd have guessed?) Bonus features: A Santa's Grotto which, from the outside, looks like a drab prefab. An alleged "tradtional 1920s spiegeltent", where you can pay £20 to watch burlesque and cabaret. A branded photo opportunity with skis and mufflers. Verdict: A brief West End diversion, but nothing to go out of your way for.
When: 13 November 2017 - 31 January 2018 Where: Round the back of Liverpool Street station. Quite a long way back. Scale: More a coppice than a forest. Official description: "A fairytale adventure of film food and drinks" Reality: A mini-experience inside a corral of fir trees covered in fake snow made from shredded paper. Access: Expect to have been observed by several security personnel before you reach the entrance. Clientele: Financial folk (and at weekends, their families). What to buy: It's not really a stocking filler kind of venue. What to eat: It's much more a food and drink venue, with log tables scattered outside a tented Bar & Grill, and private booths for bankers with a £250 minimum spend. The Yorkshire Pudding Wrap is allegedly "everyone's favourite festive dumpling". Cost of a mulled wine: £5.50 outside the fir tree perimeter, and £6 inside. Cost of a bratwurst: £6 (no frills) Bonus features: A Tipi Cinema (which yesterday was screening Frozen, somewhat on the loud side). A short tunnel of pine fronds and fairy lights, specifically for selfie and family-group-shot purposes. Verdict: More an after-work Narnia than a winter destination.
When: 23 November 2017 - 1 January 2018 Where: Not Victoria Park this year, but Clapham Common. Scale: Bulging within a protective belt, like Santa's waistline. Official description: "London's alternative festive experience" Reality: A sprawl of decking, half for intermittent food and entertainment, the other half a fairground. Access: One entrance, near the pond. Bags will be searched. Free (unless it's after 6pm on Friday or Saturday, in which case £3). Clientele: Immaculate families from Nappy Valley, and smart couples from Cla'ham. The contrast to last year in E3 is striking. What to buy: Not a lot, giftwise, but the Wasted Chic Pop-up Designer Market has a Shoreditch vibe. All cash machines charge £2.50. What to eat: Upmarket streetfood, flogged from professional-looking stalls and winnebagos. Crispy Squid. Shin Nuggets. White Men Can't Jerk. Pillowy soft Chinese buns. A free sample Pringle, dispensed by two ladies from a pretend rocket booster. Cost of a mulled wine: They call it "Warm Wine" here, and it's a fiver. Cost of a bratwurst: £6 from Winterville's most downmarket grill tent. Bonus features: Lots. A fully fledged fairground with big wheel, Wild Mouse, spinny things and little rides for littl'uns. Another spiegeltent with a variety of wacky events. Ice rink. Crazy golf. Roller disco. It's all about the upselling. Verdict: A fully-fledged social activity hub for the south London set. A touch impersonal.