Where to feel festive in Britain
The snow may have arrived a little early, but over the next three weeks there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the season.
Deep-fried Christmas cake, anyone? It's one of the more bizarre dishes sizzling away at the Padstow Christmas Festival this weekend (01841 533449;
padstowchristmasfestival.co.uk). Stalls stacked high with more-ish morsels will be scattered along the winding lanes. There's a Christmas market on the quayside, while local musicians are carolling around the Christmas tree and in historic St Petroc's church. To top it all, Santa will sail out to sea on the RNLI lifeboat at 4pm tomorrow. And, of course, Rick Stein will be there - signing books in Stein's Deli from 11am-noon this morning and demonstrating his favourite festive dishes tonight in the Seafood School (pre-booking required 01841 533466; £45).
At the other end of Britain, Scotland – the king of bah humbug for 500 years, after banning the "Popish" festival in the 16th century (Christmas Day was declared a national holiday only in the 1950s) – is in overdrive. The Glasgow Loves Christmas campaign kicked off at the end of November, celebrating the city's festive credentials – there's a programme of yuletide events plus a "pop-up" Harvey Nichols to tempt shoppers in the St Enoch centre ( glasgowloveschristmas.com). Across in Edinburgh, meanwhile, Princes Street has once again been turned into a winter wonderland, complete with a giant Ferris wheel, ice-skating rink and Christmas market (edinburghschristmas.com).
In fact, many British towns now seem to have a "traditional German Christmas Market". The Meisters are to be found in Birmingham, which has a successful Frankfurt Christmas Market ( birmingham.gov.uk/frankfurtmarket), with 180 stalls offering bratwurst, stollen, gingerbread and marzipan sweets. A new arrival to the scene, Chester ( chestermagic.co.uk) is going down the Victorian route, with roast chestnuts, a skating rink in front of the grand County Court (adult £8.50, 4-16 £6.50, family of four £28; wheelchair users free – with assisting skater) and a big wheel. As you rise above the historic city you can gaze out over the Welsh hills, the Cheshire Plain and the River Dee (adults £6, children £4, VIP gondola with champagne £55).
National Trust ( nationaltrust.org.uk) and English Heritage ( english-heritage.org.uk) properties, as well as independent stately homes, have plenty of activities on offer. These range from carols in the great halls to learning to make a traditional Tudor Christmas headdress at Trerice Manor in Cornwall (01637 875404; nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-trerice; 17-19 December noon-3pm).
In London, Greenwich ( visitgreenwich.org.uk) is turning itself into a 3D advent calendar: shops, homes, schools and pubs are using installations, models and paintings to create their own festive window designs. A different one will be revealed each day until 24 December.
Not to be outdone, Winchester has declared itself "England's Christmas Capital" ( christmasinwinchester.co.uk). The story of St Nicholas is carved on the 12th-century font in the cathedral while the Christmas market is expected to attract 350,000 people. There's also an outdoor ice rink, plus Winchester's Christmas Past Tours led by Blue Badge Guides in the bustling medieval streets, who'll explain how Christmas was celebrated through the ages (01962 840500; winchestertouristguides.com; adult £4, child £1; 2.30-3.30pm).
Kent has Lapland, in the shape of LaplandUK in Lamberhurst (0871 620 7063; laplanduk.co.uk). This multi-million pound interactive theatrical production recreates Father Christmas' Arctic homeland – in the Garden of England. Children can decorate gingerbread in Mother Christmas' kitchen, ice skate, meet huskies and reindeer, send a postcard from Father Christmas' North Pole Post Office, and work with the elves making puppets in the toy factory. It's not a cheap day out, although prices are around 30 per cent cheaper than last year because they've taken food out of the equation – you buy your own in the Nordic-style café. Tickets start at £44.50 rising to £62.50. However, that's a lot less than the price of a flight to Lapland.
Alternatively, what about a trip to the Scottish Highlands? Here you'll find Britain's only herd of wild reindeer. Reindeer were re-introduced to the Highlands in 1952 by a Swedish herder, Mikel Utsi. Today, there are around 150 roaming across the Cairngorms.
At Christmas there's a charmingly old-fashioned Blue Peter-style Santa's Grotto in the rustic Cairngorm Reindeer Centre (01479 861228; cairngormreindeer.co.uk; £3.50 adult, £2.50 child, under-4s free) and you can crunch up through the snow to feed the animals on the hillside. Some of the reindeer will be on the road, however. They work hard at this time of year taking part in parades around the country. Today, you can see them in Bideford, Bowness and Windsor.
Alternatively, meet London Zoo's festive animals at the Christmas Journeys event, which launches today (members only) and is open to the public on selected dates this month (020-7722 3333; zsl.org; £10 for £20 non-members).
Another place with bags of rustic charm – and an emphasis on sustainability – is Wilderness Wood in Sussex (01825 830509; wildernesswood.co.uk). This is an award-winning 61-acre woodland criss-crossed by walking trails. There's a small Christmas tree plantation where you can choose and cut down your own before heading to the barn café for homemade soup and mince pies.
But if you want a bit more bling, sneak into the lobby of the Sofitel St James Hotel at 6 Waterloo Place in central London (020-7747 2200; sofitelstjames.com). Check out the five-metre wooden Christmas tree: strung with a whopping £35,000 worth of 200 miniature crystal bottles of Louis XIII cognac, each finished with 24-carat gold.
And if all that's not enough to get you in celebratory mood – Happy Mistletoe Day! Today in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire the Mistletoe Queen will be crowned at the Mistletoe Festival (01584 810136; tenbury-mistletoe-festival.co.uk).
The season of giving
There will be a flurry of red and white in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh next Sunday 12 December at 11am as fund-raising Santas dash around a 1.5km circuit in the Great Scottish Santa Run (0115 979 1720; thesantarun.org.uk). On the other side of the country the 5km Santa Dash starts in George Square, Glasgow at 9.30am ( glasgow.gov.uk/santadash).
On Christmas Day you can run screeching into the sea in Suffolk in aid of the St Elizabeth Hospice. The Christmas Day Dip in Felixstowe kicks off at 10am ( stelizabethhospice.org.uk).
Heading up the coast, at Seaburn beach in Sunderland the Boxing Day Dip attracts around 1,000 dippers who plunge into the icy North Sea ( sunderlandevents.co.uk).
I'm dreaming of a green Christmas
There are more outdoor ice-skating rinks in the UK than ever this year with five in central London (choose between Somerset House, Canary Wharf, the Natural History Museum, the Tower of London and Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland). For an environmentally friendly ice rink, skate over to Bristol's historic Quakers Friars district ( cabotcircus.com). In the piazza a 360sq m rink has been created from synthetic ice, which requires less power to produce than running a conventional ice rink. The artificial surface, which has been engineered to match the density of frozen water, is non-toxic and 100 per cent recyclable while at its centre is a polar bear lit by 1,900 low-power LED lights. Adults £6, family £17.
There will be electricity savings in Dunster in Somerset and Arundel in West Sussex as well this Christmas. "Dunster by Candlelight" is an annual event and from 4 to 9pm tonight the medieval village will light its streets with lanterns. Carol singers, Morris dancers, hand bell ringers, a brass band and a large fairground organ plus concerts in the Parish Church will entertain Christmas shoppers ( dunsterbycandlelight.co.uk).
Next Saturday, 11 December, "Arundel by Candlelight" starts at 1pm, when the historic streets will close to traffic to accommodate the thousands who flock here every year. During the day you can make lanterns from recycled glass jars at workshops before joining the evening lantern-lit Nativity procession ( arundel.org.uk).
A Dickens of a Christmas
The Dickensian Christmas Festival in Rochester, Kent ( rochesterdickensfestival.org.uk) this weekend gets an extra push with the first Dickens Christmas Market ( dickenschristmasmarket.com; 3-19 Dec; 10am-7pm daily; to 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays, free) in the grounds of Rochester Castle. Trees are strung with twinkling fairy lights and Dickens' characters mingle with the crowds. Dickens lived nearby for many years: descriptions of Rochester appear in Great Expectations and The Pickwick Papers, while Miss Haversham's home, Satis House was based on Restoration House.
Shrewsbury was the setting for the 1984 film of A Christmas Carol . You can take a £4 guided tour of the movie locations (01743 281200: visitshrewsbury.org) at 11am or 2pm on Saturday 18 December, visiting the grand frontage of The Parade and St Chad's churchyard where the "prop" gravestone of Ebenezer Scrooge was left behind after filming.
For some escapism, guests and day spa visitors to The Berkeley hotel in London (020-7235 6000; the-berkeley.co.uk) can snuggle up among fluffy cushions, warm Mulberry blankets and furry hot water bottles in the open-air rooftop cinema. The terrace has been turned into a pine-filled forest cinema with performances of winter classics on the big screen such as It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and, of course, A Christmas Carol. Hot chocolate and home-made mince pies and down feather jackets are on hand to keep you warm.
Food, glorious food
There's more to Christmas than mince pies and turkey. Foodie events to whet your appetite include tomorrow's Abergavenny Christmas Food and Drinks Fair ( abergavennyfoodfestival.com; 10am-5pm; £3.50). Masterclasses (at extra cost) include Keralan Christmas fare, the perfect Christmas cheeseboard and tasting fortified wine.
In Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms this weekend you can watch Michelin-starred chefs preparing seasonal dishes at the Foodies Festival at Christmas (0871 230 5573; foodiesfestival.com/Christmas; £10 weekend).
To have a go yourself, the Yorkshire Wolds Cookery School– which opened last month –is holding a Festive Treats workshop on 8 December, with the chance to create sloe gin truffles and mincemeat Christmas crackers (01377 227723; www.tinyurl.com/WoldsFood; £50; 6-9pm). Or book into The Food Room and Library in London's Pimlico (020-7630 6036: thefoodroomandlibrary.co.uk) for a contemporary take on Christmas canapés: turkey and beetroot on a bread sauce trencher and Christmas pudding chocolates. Jane Lunzer Gifford was trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine and offers lessons in her relaxed kitchen. Her library, which can be browsed by students or subscribers, has more than 700 food-themed tomes. Classes cost £25: 7 December beginners, 8 December intermediate, 9 December advanced.
Finally, Audley End House in Essex (01799 522842; english-heritage.org.uk; £8.30; members free) will be in full swing in the lead-up to Christmas. Each Saturday and Sunday "Mrs Crocombe Prepares Christmas" will take place 11am-2pm. The stately home's cook will be making Victorian treats including proper mincemeat, Christmas puddings and the pièce de resistance: a stuffed boar's head.
Deck the halls
Kirstie Allsopp's Homemade Christmas last year sparked a wave of interest in festive craft.
The Medicine Garden is a restored 19th-century walled kitchen garden at Cobham in Surrey. Here, Make Me Workshops (07711 392 228; makemeworkshops.com) offers a course in how to make your own Christmas tree decorations or bespoke Christmas wreathes. It takes place on 10 December, 9.30am-12 noon, £56.
Other places to make your own wreath include Holker Hall (015395 58328; holker.co.uk) in Cumbria this Tuesday (workshops cost £28) or Falkland Palace in Fife next weekend (01337 857918; 0844 4932186 nts.org.uk; 1-5.30pm; £15).
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