Somerset House In London At Christmas

Christmastime In London

Friends and Correspondents Vivian and Paul Lewis are off to London this week for the holidays. Vivian writes:

Somerset House in London used to be where birth and death records were accessible to the public. In the computer age, its musty documents have been scanned, and nobody wants to view the originals. So Somerset House has become a lovely museum overlooking the Thames.

“The front lawn (the side without the views, except for the Christmas tree right in front of the house) in the Christmas season becomes an ice-skating rink complete with Zamboni machines to scrape the snow off the ice and keep it sleek and fast. Tiffany’s, the New York jeweler, is the sponsor of the event, and early birds can even have a ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ before they skate.

“The rink is considerably smaller than the Rockefeller Center rink in New York, to say nothing of Wollman Memorial in Central Park. Thus, to control crowds, you have to book in advance with Ticketmaster (tel. 844-847-1520 from London) for a specified time. The price is 7.50 pounds sterling per person for families or 12.50 pounds sterling for adults, and already Dec. 23 and 24 are fully booked. There are also limits on how many tickets a single person may buy.

“Somerset House offers skate rentals days and nights through mid-January, as well as a skating school for new skaters. You reach it via the Strand Underground station. For more information, call 44-20-7845-4600.

“When I was a kid, my German-born mother took me and lots of other children to learn how to skate in Central Park; it was the only sport she practiced well. My own kids learned to skate on a now defunct rink off the Rond Point des Champs Elysees in Paris, but it was closed eons ago and now the French have ghastly gleaming athletic centers where speed skaters from the HLMs swoop along scaring the children instead…”

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. “My other favorite thing about Christmastime in London,” Vivian continues, “is Pantomime. This is a kiddy’s feast, involving a staged version of some old favorite like Jack and Beanstalk or Dick Whittington.

Panto features audience participation. You answer questions, learn silly jingles or songs, lie to the villain, etc. A cross-dressed man plays an older lady (called the Dame), but there’s no profanity or sex except for a few double-entendres for the parents.

“I was not brought up with panto, being a New Yorker, and I love it, even without the grandkids.

“Pantomime is performed all around London and in other large cities in local theaters. In general, you are better off not traveling a great distance for a performance, even one featuring a major actor or TV personality. Children don’t respond to the build up, and traveling over an hour each way makes everyone testy.

“Come on time, and do check your coats (for a fee), because the joint will be crowded. Get a program, for which there is also a fee. If you want the tradition to continue, it helps to pay for it.

“Most important, if your child gets out of control with excitement, try to keep a stiff upper lip British style while hushing him. But if junior continues to interfere with others’ enjoyment of the show, you have to remove him (or her). So it is a good idea to go to panto with another adult if there is more than one child, so as not to make an innocent sibling suffer. In general, you should not take under 3’s or even under 4’s. A good baby might put up with the shrieking kiddies, but a good babysitter would be better. Bigger kids will love it.”

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