If there was ever a Christmas to embrace with gusto, it is surely 2021. After last year's festive damp squib – which saw us forgoing the delights of traditional markets, illuminated trails and good cheer in decorated pubs – we’re primed to mop up every last dreg of winter celebrations this time around.
Now that a number of European countries are either tightening restrictions (the Netherlands), shutting down events (Germany) or returning to lockdown (Austria), England’s restriction-free approach surely promises the best hope of a little Yuletide downtime unencumbered by the pandemic-related miseries of 2020. Indeed, should you have unvaccinated children over a certain age, a handful of EU nations are tricky, or impossible, for a holiday this December anyway.
Of course, the UK as a whole has its own particular challenges. The Continental-style markets in some of our town squares have shrunk, thanks both to a lockdown-induced exodus of stall holders and a shortage of imported goods and traders (a result of post-Brexit red tape). Should a visit to a fulsome market be top of your festive wishlist, be sure to check for details on this year’s turnout ahead of booking a trip.
That said, here is a mix of events and displays, in some of Britain’s most festive corners, that will ensure a suitably Christmassy break in the coming weeks.
Go to market in Winchester
If you’d planned a tour of Germany’s most storied festive markets, only to have your itinerary thwarted by the country’s shutdown of many Christmas events, then Winchester’s offering is a suitable alternative – in a typical year, it attracts 400,000 visitors. Expect more than 100 stalls (housed in mini wooden chalets) selling games, toys, decorations, jewellery, seasonal food and drink, and plenty more. The ice rink doesn’t feature for 2021, instead you’ll find a larger food court plus a main stage hosting local musicians. Tucked in the shadow of the cathedral, a few laps around the market should be accompanied by a visit to the building itself. Step into its history of 900-plus years and maybe even join a seasonal service.
Among Hampshire’s other Yuletide treats is the Watercress Line’s Steam Illuminations. Trains depart from Alresford or Alton, with the traditional carriages lit up with a flashing LED light show, both inside and out (a table for four is £96; watercressline.co.uk). Reserve a night or few at Canalside Cottage, which is a mere 10-minute stroll from Winchester’s city centre.
How to do it: Sawdays (0117 204 7810; sawdays.co.uk) offers Canalside Cottage, which sleeps six, for £140 per night.
Add some glitz in Gloucestershire
For many, the magic of Christmas endures into adulthood – and for a particularly English setting (picture reams of fairy lights stretched across honey-stone villages), the Cotswolds delivers plenty of grown-up sparkle. Take winter drives and strolls through the delights of Chipping Campden and Burford, pick up trinkets at Cheltenham’s Christmas market, and taking a turn on its new ice rink.
Should you fancy keeping it just the two of you this year, then Ellenborough Park Hotel is offering a three-night package for couples. Ease into the weekend as you’re greeted with mulled wine and mince pies on Christmas Eve, tuck into three festive meals on December 25, then walk it off in the estate grounds come Boxing Day. You might even fancy a Christmas dip in the outdoor pool.
How to do it: The Ellenborough Park Hotel (0124 254 5454; ellenboroughpark.com) offers a three-night Christmas package for two from £819 per night, including breakfast.
Sink into tradition in Northumberland
Head for the coastal delights of Northumberland with a stay near Bamburgh Castle, which is hosting the North East’s largest indoor festive event this year – Saints and Angels. To mark the occasion, the staterooms have been transformed into a heavenly scene, including Christmas trees, theatrical sets and towering florals, created by theatre designer Charlotte Lloyd Webber. Beyond the castle, the ground’s resident reindeer graze on the West Ward and visitors can feed them their preferred snack, moss from Scandinavia, while finding out a little more about the creatures (tickets for £14.10; bamburghcastle.com). Stay at The Bamburgh Castle Inn, which sits above a small harbour at Seahouses – its harbourside setting offers views across to the Farne Islands.
Should your visit to Northumberland take place around New Year, then be sure to visit the inland village of Allendale for its Tar Bar’l. Some 45 men dress up in colourful dress and carry whisky barrels filled with burning hot tar through the town, arriving in the centre at midnight to light the ceremonial bonfire. The ceremony has been taking place for at least 160 years.
How to do it: The Bamburgh Castle Inn (0166 572 0283; inncollectiongroup.com) offers rooms from £117 per night.
Get wintery in Windsor
If you have children (or grandchildren) who are still enamoured of Father Christmas – and stomach-churning rides – then a trip to Legoland Windsor should be on your festive menu. Book them in for a meeting with St Nick; they can expect a Lego gift and perhaps a sighting of him taking a sleigh ride around the park. The site is already fit for the season, with twinkling lights and snow-covered pine trees adding to the cheer. Tickets for non-pass holders start from £36 per person for adults and children over two (legoland.co.uk). After the adrenaline of theme park rides, why not take time to wander up to Windsor Castle? The property has undergone a Christmas makeover, complete with a 20ft tree, light projections and even has a special pantomime display showing costumes worn by the Queen and Princess Margaret as teenagers. Each Saturday in December, you’ll find storytelling sessions taking place in the State Apartments. Inspired by the pantomime costumes, children can design their own festive outfits and seasonal decorations.
Come evening, indulge with a festive dinner at Leaf, the new restaurant at Castle Hotel Windsor. You might also squeeze in a visit to Windsor Illuminated, a new light trail at Windsor Great Park (tickets from £21.45 for adults, and £13.20 for children; windsorilluminated.com).
How to do it: Stays at Castle Hotel Windsor (0175 385 1577; castlehotelwindsor.com) from £199 per night from Sunday to Thursday, and from £249 per night from Friday to Saturday; both for a family of four, including breakfast.
Celebrate with Cornish cheer
Cornwall’s biggest Christmas lights display – Mousehole Harbour Lights – is returning for 2021 after last year’s cancellation. The tradition began in 1963, launched by a Mousehole-based artist: at first, a string of coloured lights were strung up along both quays to brighten up the village at Christmas. These days, preparations begin as early as September, with a team fitting around 10,000 bulbs all around the harbour. Among the long-standing additions to the display are designs by resident carpenters, offered during the event's early days. They include a sea serpent, which was created for the display in 1973, and has been remade several times.
Enjoy a taste of community camaraderie in what Dylan Thomas described in 1930 as “the loveliest village in England”. And, after you’ve thoroughly taken in the display, try out one of the local pubs. The Old Coastguard is a Victorian maritime inn perched on the rocks on the edge of Mousehole. Park yourself next to a fire, a warming drink in hand, before resting up for the night at Harbour Moon, a stylish one-bed cottage overlooking the harbour.
How to do it: Sawdays (0117 204 7810; sawdays.co.uk) offers stays at Harbor Moon from £118 per night, sleeps two.