England for the holidays sounded like the perfect idea—good friends, London shopping, and crackling fires at a Cotswolds inn. But, as Alice Gordon discovers, things have a way of not going exactly according to plan.
Jasper James Christmas in London
| Credit: Jasper James

We’re at Royal Stratford East, a typical old London theater, except it’s far from any theater district and it’s not the same size as the London theaters you know. Only the seats are similar—red plush, almost comfortable. Everything else, including the stage, has been collapsed to about half the usual size. The balcony hovers close to the stage. The red velvet curtains are downsized, as are the gilded plaster swags against the red walls, and the chandelier, in proportion to its surroundings, could have been nicked from a family dining room. All this is endearing and delightful, because it reminds you of exactly what a person wants as a kid— a kid-size but otherwise grown-up place to go. It also reminds you that what a grown-up wants at Christmas is to feel like a big kid.

’Tis the season to be jolly, and that was the plan my old friend Elizabeth and I had made: 12 days of seeing plays, window shopping, visiting friends, and walking around in flaky snowfalls. Elizabeth’s daughter, Sara, and her boyfriend, Alex, had just moved to London. On Christmas Day, we’d drive to the Cotswolds. There would be a snowman to build, goose to feast upon, and scotch to drink beside a fire.

We’ve been here over a week now. And angels we have heard on high are starting to mumble bah humbug.

On Christmas Eve Morning, Elizabeth arrives from across town to meet me at the Dorchester so we can pick up our car. We call the rental agency to tell them we’re on our way. They say that the reservation has been canceled. Since the vehicle was meant to take the four of us to the country for Christmas, this news causes us to freak out a little. And while freaking out a little, we have a big fight, which is brought to a conclusion by the brilliant idea of asking the Dorchester concierge for help. But we are glum about the prospect of his finding a rental car on Christmas Eve.

In less than half an hour the concierge calls. "Which would you prefer, a Rolls-Royce or a VW Golf?" A black Golf GTI is delivered to the hotel, and I check out, exuding gratitude. Now Christmas Eve can begin, with "Carols by Candlelight" at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m anticipating an atmospherically dim, hushed, and reverent affair. Instead we get the Mozart Festival Orchestra, well-lit and dressed in powdered wigs, 18th-century jewel-colored frockcoats, knee britches, and buckled slippers. They behave like the creatures of the present they are. Between every two or three carols, the conductor tells corny jokes (one of which is actually about cornflakes). The carols themselves are delivered merrily—there is no other word—and in quantity. Both singers and orchestra show an easy sense of ownership of the music, as if their intimacy with songs written by their forebears centuries ago gives them the liberty to move them right along as they please. The pleasure of singing "Joy to the World" with the chorus makes me feel a little chagrined, on account of my apostasy—this happens every December—and happy in spite of it. Perhaps my Puritan ancestors could have had more fun by staying Anglican and staying home.

After the concert, we walk along Kensington Gardens to the Milestone Hotel for a nightcap in a parlor with just the right amount of English fuss to its decoration. A fire burns, though the mild weather doesn’t warrant it, and a keyboardist, tucked in a window between the curtains, softly plays holiday tunes. On our way to the taxi stand, we pass a parking lot as a gray cat shoots from between the cars in pursuit of another cat. Outrun, it turns back—and proves to be a large gray fox. The animal out of place seems like a premonitory vision.

Still, I don’t see how this could have anything to do with my waking up at four in the morning on Christmas Day to be violently ill. Flattened, I try talking myself out of it for a few hours until everyone else is up, then gamely slump in a chair while presents are opened. James Brown roars "It’s a Man’s World" from the CD player. Toast and coffee do not tempt me. Only a cup of miso soup kindly provided by Sara makes possible getting dressed and creeping down to the car. For the next two hours I sip the British version of Gatorade as Elizabeth drives us through a misty morning to the soft hills and honey-colored Cotswold stone cottages of Gloucestershire and on to Bournes End, near Stroud. At the appointed meeting place, from which our host will guide us along narrow roads to his house, Charles Landry steps from his car. "Dahling!" he cries, and thrusts his entire torso through Elizabeth’s window. Kisses and introductions and hilarity and warmth ricochet around the car.

At the Landrys’ 17th-century stone cottage, Susie, Charles’s wife, opens the front door, "I’m thrilled to see you" on her face. "Merry Christmas. I’m so sorry, but I am really ill," I say, and surprise everyone, myself included, by bursting into tears.

In the next five minutes Susie administers homeopathic drops, performs Reiki over my stomach, and lights a jasmine candle for the table in my room. It’s about two in the afternoon. Five or six hours later, I wake up and venture downstairs to the dinner table for a few minutes, where an archetypal holiday scene of joviality, roast goose, and wine is unfolding by unscented candlelight. I pick up a few clues about these friends Elizabeth is so crazy about: Susie is a witty ex-model and serious student of the healing arts; Charles, a world-traveling livable-cities expert and author; their dashing son, Max, an online stationery entrepreneur; and their tall, dark daughter, Nancy, a student of physical theater in Paris, at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. Lecoq is one of my heroes. Cheered by affinity, I head back to bed for 12 more hours.

The Cotswolds are walking country, and there are a zillion guidebooks to prove it. The next day, Boxing Day, the Landrys supply us with wellingtons and outerwear, and coax everyone outdoors. It’s still raining a bit, but the air is fresh—reviving Jane Austen air. We tramp along through pastures that have held sheep for centuries. The region was long known for its wool towns before royalty and celebrities discovered its hideaway merits in the 1960’s and 70’s. "Stroud was famous for its sturdy blue and red fabrics," Charles says. "There used to be acres of scarlet stroud cloth drying on racks outdoors. It’s still worn by the Queen’s guards." Speaking of red, we draw closer to a bit of it in the distance, which materializes into Santa Claus. He is, disconcertingly, sitting alone on a stump in the middle of the woods, smoking. Farther along we pass an old tunnel, the stone dark with age. Mere miles away is the source of the River Thames, Charles explains; on the canal that once connected to the river at Thames Head, bargemen would pass through this low tunnel, walking their hands on the ceiling to pull their boats along.

The hike ends suddenly at the Kings Head Pub, in the village of France Lynch, where the whole neighborhood is already gathered, along with their many, mostly well-behaved dogs. Exactly which British novel we have entered eludes me—perhaps a Mitford one; the sisters lived in the Cotswolds—as everyone piles onto benches at picnic tables and says hello and orders pints and unconsciously shows off pink cheeks.

Barnsley House, the estate of the internationally renowned English gardener Rosemary Verey in nearby Barnsley, has been turned into a hotel of the same name with a promising restaurant, run by chef Graham Grafton, late of Bibendum in London. I’ve booked a room and invited the Landrys and Elizabeth for dinner that night. My room has its own wee Christmas tree and an iced bottle of champagne, and big, deep-set windows overlooking the front lawn. Sleeping in it is a bit difficult; the stone walls are a foot thick, but plumes of cigarette smoke and loud conversation shoot straight up through the wide-plank floors. The good news is that there are other, quiet rooms in new outbuildings edging the garden.

Dinner is wonderful, and much of it comes from the garden: creamy squash soup and vegetarian strudel; nouvelle beef and chips, and vincisgrassi maceratsese, the chef’s take on a traditional baked pasta dish. The next morning, after a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs with jumpers, I visit the garden.

Despite its fame, it’s smaller than I expected, a 10-minute, unhurried walkabout. I’m partial to the ornamental vegetable garden, for its espaliered Laxton’s Fortune trees, splashy cabbages, and profusion of appealingly trimmed boxwoods. Curved bushes nestling into each other look like so many green sheep huddling in pens against a storm.

The ambitious Cotswolds itinerary Charles and Susie devised on a dinner napkin the previous night leads me over hills and dales and through village after village. As they predicted, the monotony of the yellow stone soon becomes soothing. One highlight is a stop at Daylesford Organic, near Kingsford—a wonderful farm with low-slung, airy retail buildings selling local foods, tea, and lunch. But the real thrill is the portable GPS device that came with the Golf. It’s not a talking but a mute GPS, which I am sure I prefer without any basis for comparison. I am a GPS virgin, and GPS steals my heart. After a few hours of lovely landscapes, mapless confidence, and not enough to eat, giddiness sets in. "Let’s get lost!" I think, and turn randomly just to see how GPS will take it. The reward is a two-lane road bound by lush fields and picturesque cottages, then a one-lane road that does not widen as it passes through the village of Condicote. The stern brown that GPS paints the road to signify uncharted territory changes back into a cheerful yellow and green. Planetary coordinates have drawn a line to London.

Arriving at the Covent Garden Hotel immediately inspires some scheming. How might I arrange for Kit Kemp—whose outsize design talent has made this the most sophisticated, comfortable, and otherwise completely pleasurable hotel I have ever set foot in—to make my apartment in New York feel just the same?Rather than join Elizabeth, Sara, and Alex for Indian food in the East End, my stomach and I choose to stay here and eat in the Brasserie Max.

In the Cotswolds, I had put aside Lawrence Wright’s 500-page tome about Al Qaeda to read a borrowed Regency romance novel by Georgette Heyer and now feel a strong desire to return to its text-as–Yorkshire pudding comforts. Dion the concierge says he’ll try to track it down at a neighborhood bookshop. He delivers it just as a very good risotto with winter truffles and wild mushrooms, spinach, and crispy "crackers" of pure Parmesan arrives. I’ve been admiring the little framed artwork close by, a "Hey, let me draw you a picture" moment under glass, in which a small brown bird looks out from a canopy of rounded moss-green leaves. It is not cute but touching, in a hotel that feels like home, with Georgette Heyer to read, and fresh lemongrass tea before bed….

Being alone has been a blessing, but a mixed one. Now might be the time to confess that the stresses of this holiday have been intense. During the past few days, Elizabeth and I had become trapped in a dispiriting accumulation of repeated mutual misunderstandings. The truism is exasperating: not just family but friends who are like family are vulnerable to the anxiety that rears up around the annual pressure to find joy and peace. We bickered about the stupidest things: whether to take a taxi or the tube; where the matches were; who had the key—in general, who knew best about what mattered least.

But the faith of the nonbeliever amounts to sticking it out. It has to get better.

Around noon one day, on our way back from the nearby National Gallery, we wander across Trafalagar Square to the St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A flier advertises the year’s last lunchtime holiday concert, which is just about to start. We go in.

Little boys dressed in white shirts with green bow ties and cummerbunds file out, gleeful but orderly. They stand close together and vary in height, like the pipes of a church organ. The large altar window shimmers behind them: pale, pearly blue-green panes of stained glass surrounding deeper blue panes that form an exquisitely simple cross. The boys suddenly yank us out of contemplation with a Broadway beginning ("Let There Be Music!"), then keep us guessing as they careen—always adorably—from "Cantate Domino" to Gershwin’s "Lullaby" to a reggae "Angels Rejoicin’ " to an uneasy vocal medley of "The First Noël" and "Pachelbel’s Canon," their final number. An encore of Fats Waller’s "The Joint Is Jumpin’ " leaves Christmas in the dust. I think I liked it a little better than Elizabeth did.

Friends have said the Dennis Severs’ House in the East End is not to be missed. It was derelict when an American (Severs) bought it in the 1970’s and eventually appointed it with antiques and tableaux. We make an evening appointment for the standard self-guided tour. Once inside, you are asked not to speak. Tours are spaced so visitors don’t run into each other. The idea is that you enter a place just moments after someone from the days of yore has stepped out. In dim rooms, lit only by candles, oil lamps, and firelight, you smell half-finished meals; see mussed bedclothes; hear recorded dishes clanking and servants whispering. On the third floor is a small sitting room with low stools half-circling a fire; a voice is reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It reminds you that Christmas was about great stories long before it was about anything else.

This, of course, is the story that makes Britain, and especially London, such a potent destination at Christmastime. The Cratchit family is at the heart of the matter: what’s so striking about them is not that Scrooge rescues them with a giant turkey and gives Bob a raise and promises continual goodwill. It’s that the family, even without the raise and the cure for a dying child, is already full to the brim with goodwill.

As are Elizabeth and I—finally—at Harrods.

Everything good here happens underground. It’s enough just to see the food hall, with its famous Art Nouveau tile work by W. J. Neatby of Royal Doulton. An astonishing hunting scene shows wild and domestic edible animals before the slaughter, in pastoral portraits under Tree of Life canopies. The founding priests at this temple of food were far from squeamish about sacrifice. At the butcher’s counter, despite a lifelong familiarity with lamb—chops, shanks, rack of, and leg o’—I learn that in Britain the beast also gives up chump, carré, and scrag. All around is every kind of meat, sausages, fruits and vegetables, chocolates and teas and seafood. A freestanding bronze pig holds a maple leaf in its mouth. Two mermaids, like twin Atlases holding up the world, shoulder the weight of a giant clam.

We go upstairs to buy some tights, and Elizabeth discovers that she has lost her credit card. A clerk tells us crisply, "We have been trained to immediately take credit cards to Lost Property." In the basement, down a dreary hall, a dour-seeming clerk searches for the card and hands it over. "Thank you for shopping at Lost Property," he says, not dour at all but deadpan. Such wit, Elizabeth and I decide, defines "merry" in the Queen’s English, that British sense of measured fun, which can’t be too much fun, since, after all, one must always be prepared for one’s fortunes to change. At this point we have gone back to the food hall and settled at the oyster bar for a perfect dozen, and champagne, and toasting.

And now, we are in the diminutive theater with its dining room chandelier. Two of the three plays we have already seen in our 12 days of Christmas have nothing to do with the holiday but everything to do with unexpected gifts: the actors Rhys Ifans and Stephen Wight at the Donmar Warehouse in Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho; the revelation of playwright Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll, in every way about revolution, and the survival of music and love and humanity through ignorance, horrors, and betrayal. Now the curtain is about to go up on The Snow Queen. It’s my first Christmas pantomime, which, as everyone in Britain, if not everyone in the United States, has long been aware, has nothing to do with mime and everything to do with fairy tales made into very silly musical melodramas, audience participation required.

The Snow Queen wears a glittery white dress with a tentlike skirt, under which she is making her feet appear to roll across the stage. She is very beautiful, and very cruel. (When traveling, she wears a polar bear–skin cape.) Suddenly two fat trolls costumed in cool-aqua Smurf fur rush onto the stage. The Snow Queen growls an order and the trolls hop to. "Yes, your iciness!" they say.

Fa la la la la, la la, la la.

Alice Gordon is Travel + Leisure’s features director.


Where to Stay

Covent Garden Hotel 10 Monmouth St.; 800/553-6674 or 44-20/7806-1000; coventgarden hotel.co.uk; doubles from $460.

The Dorchester Park Lane; 44-20/7629-8888; thedorchester.com; doubles from $948.

Milestone Hotel 1 Kensington Court; 800/223-6800 or 44-20/7917-1000; milestonehotel.com; doubles from $601.

Where to Eat

Brasserie Max 10 Monmouth St; 44-20/7806-1000; dinner for two $163.

Cigala Cozy and contemporary spot for good Spanish fare. 54 Lamb’s Conduit St.; 44-20/7405-1717; dinner for two $102.

St. Alban Updated European dishes. 4–12 Regent St.; 44-20/7499-8558; dinner for two $126.

Story Deli Excellent organic café. 3 Dray Walk; 44-20/7247-3137; lunch for two $40.

Zaika Central London’s best Indian food. 1 Kensington High St.; 44-20/7795-6533; dinner for two $122.

What to do

Dennis Severs’ House 18 Folgate St.; 44-20/7247-4013; dennissevershouse.co.uk.

Geffrye Museum British living room depictions from 1600 to the present. Kingsland Rd.; 44-20/7739-9893; geffrye-museum.org.uk.

Harrods The holiday window displays alone are worth the trip. 87–135 Brompton Rd.; 44-20/7730-1234; harrods.com.

Royal Albert Hall Kensington Grove; 44-20/7589-8212; royalalberthall.com.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields Catch evening concerts throughout December. Trafalgar Square; 44-20/7766-1100; stmartin-in-the-fields.org.

Theatre Royal Stratford East Gerry Raffles Square; 44-20/8534-0310; theatreroyalstratfordeast.com.

The Cotswolds

Where to Stay and Eat

The Cotswolds region is about two hours from London by car or train. For house rental information, see homeaway.com.

Barnsley House Barnsley, Cirencester, Gloucestershire; 44-1285/740-000; doubles from $592.

Daylesford Organic Farmshop Dalesford, near Kingham, Gloucestershire; 44-1608/731-700; daylesfordorganic.com.

The Village Pub Cozy bedrooms and specialties including roast partridge and sticky toffee pudding. Barnsley, Cirencester, Gloucestershire; 44-1285/740-421; dinner for two $114.