Okay, okay. I know: Paris is the City of Light. London is, by contrast, often grim, dirty, grey. But at the time of year when night falls at 3:30, darkness trumps grimness, and London’s masterful use of the mighty twinkle light brightens the too-long nights.
When in London, go see the lights.
On a recent Friday night, we walked an ambitious loop around the central city’s festive displays. Starting at Somerset House, the old palace that now houses art galleries, co-working spaces, eateries, a university campus, and a winter skating rink, we wandered up to the famously touristy Covent Garden market. Here, performers are always to be found and in this case, so were the largest festive baubles I have ever seen. The tree outside didn’t shy in scale, either.
Following a trail of lights through Long Acre, the area’s high street, and along tiny but delightfully twinkly Slingsby Place, we found ourselves at Seven Dials. There, each of the seven streets radiating from the Dial were lit with a woodland creatures theme, a fairy tale told line-by-line on the overhead displays.
We came to Cambridge Circus and decided to weave through Soho in a bid to avoid the inevitable chaos of Oxford Street. Soho is always a delight but rarely more so than on the discovery of….snowfall! Here some thoughtful person had set up a machine in their third floor window to blow soap suds. It was magical and fun, with many stopping for a frolic and a photo. Even so, there is never want of things to do in Soho, so alive with revelers, friends chatting in the patios of the small cafes and bars which line the small street, or, like us, having a wander and taking it all in.
We came to Oxford Street at Berwick, and were surprised to find that the Christmas lights on this most major of London’s shopping streets were fairly uninspired. I don’t mind the fact that I think they were recycled from last year (and they were magical then), but somehow the streetscape seemed a bit sadder and a bit emptier this year.
Opting not to continue on Oxford, we ducked around to Carnaby Street. I was fond of last year’s glittery display, replete with sparkly garland and baubles. This year, bold signage in black, red and white dominates the streets in an almost Brutalist way. Still, it was well done and it lifts the spirit to be reminded so boldly of things like “love” and “hope” and, my favourite festive expression, “rebel.” I’m not sure if this is meant as a verb or a noun, but it pleases me regardless.
Carnaby was shockingly busy and although we were by now hungry, it was all but impossible to find dinner without a 40 minute wait. We needed something much sooner, and decided to try our luck at Regent Street.
Regent Street pays homage this year to the original 1954 displays, which reportedly debuted after the Telegraph said that London looked ‘drab’ at Christmas. Glorious, twinkling angels now spanned the width of the grand street and to our delight we managed to dodge the shops, the shoppers and the copious shopping bags, readily finding a meal off the main road, where bohemian Soho crashes into ritzy Mayfair, and few people seem to be in the streets.
Now fortified, we carried on. The map we’d consulted showed lights at Trafalgar Square, so we foraged across busy Piccadilly and the Haymarket, and – rather stupidly, on a Friday night – Leicester Square, which is gong show at the best of times. For these efforts we were rewarded with the discovery that there were no lights at Trafalgar Square. Alas, we were at the top of the Strand, and that famous West End theatre strip was cheerfully twinkling – above and beyond its usual glam and glitz.
It wasn’t much past 11pm when we returned to Somerset House. We’d had a good turn of pace in a few ambitious hours, and while the winter nights may be long and dreary, the lovely, twinkling displays provide an illuminating and satisfying tonic.
Tired and satisfied, we turned for home and bid all a good night.