With only one month to go until Christmas, the thoughts of many Londoners have already turned to the vexing question of "where can I buy a Bratwurst, some Lebkuchen and a wooden puppet theatre?" Time was when you'd have to travel abroad to a European Christmas market to acquire these seasonal treats. But now they come to us. I've been to three of the capital's faux-German festive fairs to investigate.
Cologne Christmas Market Along the South Bank, roughly from Coin Street to the Eye, a fresh wooden shanty town has sprung up. Scores of shed-type booths masquerading as chalets, most with fairy lights and plastic evergreens draped across the front, now line the river's edge. Approaching from the east the first hut advertises the sale of "fake snow", which sort of sums the whole thing up. But there was a willing crowd thronging the Cologne Christmas Market at the weekend, not just for the chemical white stuff but also for the wide variety of gifts and food on offer. There's a lot of food. Think of it as Borough Market West, but with substantially less locally-sourced food. Much of this food is meat-based, because stereotypical Germans like meat, and lot of it is sausage. Those aren't extended hot dogs, those are megawurst, and at a price which would look high in euros let alone pounds. Beer is also freely available, carefully branded as "bier" to distinguish it from any import you might be able to buy in a nearby pub. You could, quite frankly, do a lot worse for lunch. A damp November day was far too early in the season for Santa's Secret Village to be doing a roaring trade - no queues of wide-eyed kids yet hoping for a delve in the old man's toysack. And the red-robed carol singers beneath Hungerford Bridge were having to struggle hard to be heard, their fa-la-las drowned by each and every twelve carriage monster passing overhead. But you might well find a stocking filler or two here if you're desperate for gift ideas, and there's plenty of time left before Christmas for a South Bank stroll.
The O2 Christmas Fair For punters at North Greenwich's favourite upturned lid, a stroll along Entertainment Avenue usually ends with nothing. There's a huge void at the far end of the internal walkway, beyond the Michael Jackson exhibition, in the space where the supercasino was meant to go. This Christmas they've finally got round to filling it, and the inspired choice of content is an undercover funfair. With hundreds of thousands of Londoners based nearby, and inclement weather held at bay outside, this would seem an ideal spot for festive merriment. It certainly looks impressive at first glance, especially the green-lit rollercoaster which whips punters almost up to the teflon roof. The fair's official website certainly wants you to come visit, and ideally to shell out for an all-inclusive fair and restaurant package ('only' £150 for a family of 4). The reality, however, isn't yet so worthwhile. I counted only 7 rides within the fairground space, one of which was being shunned by all and sundry, and one of which was a £4-a-time hall of mirrors. There'll be a few more 'Vintage' rides in early December, but I'd still expect visiting families to spend longer in the restaurant than at the fair. As further distraction there's a Traditional German Market outside in Peninsula Square - so 'traditional' that the traders include a Dutch mini-pancake booth and a Charcoal BBQ. Alas, not the most attractive place to be on a wet November afternoon. The poor soul manning the isolated glühwein bar, for example, could do little but stand alone in his illuminated shack waiting for the rain to subside. A Dome-estic Christmas is better than nothing, but could do better.
Winter Wonderland When I visited this Hyde Park funfair the first year it opened, I was woefully underimpressed. A handful of booths and fairground rides tacked along a single concrete path - most definitely nothing to write home about. Things have moved on, and this year's Winter Wonderland event is considerably larger. The main entrance from Hyde Park Corner is via a temporary wooden arch, alongside which on Saturday various parties of visitors were busy snapping souvenir photos. Immediately beyond is a carol-singing reindeer, a clear favourite with those passing by, but revealed from behind to be powered by an Einhell KCK 210/8 Kompressor. There are streets of Black Forest-style booths across these 20 acres - a whole Hansel & Gretel forestful - rather like the Cologne Christmas Fair on steroids. Too much food, I'd wager, unless the intention is to ensure that whenever your appetite wavers there's a icing-dusted hot waffle nearby. At one particular multi-storey dining establishment I watched as five red-coated servers stood poised to dish up XXL-Bratwurst, Pommes Frites and Maiskolben, but alas their "please queue here" sign was proving wholly unnecessary. One of London's temporary winter ice rinks is located nextdoor, swirling with talented amateur skaters and a few terrified klutzes hanging on to the perimeter barrier for dear life. And, unlike at the Dome, there are fairground rides a-plenty. Big wheels and funhouses and twirly things and a whopping great Christmas Coaster - which appears to be a normal rollercoaster but with a few silver baubles attached. In a profiteering twist, even the smallest sleigh ride comes with a "souvenir photo" booth so that you can take away a hastily-printed image of your grinning toddler. A cup of "Warming soup" (Heinz tomato) will set you back £3, or £3.50 if you splash out with a bread roll. These are almost Mayfair prices, which is appropriate given that Mayfair is very close by and was itself named after a seasonal showground. The organisers have thought of everything, financially, and signposts will direct you towards the nearest cashpoint should your wallet starts to flag. But I suspect that London's latest funfair is going to prove rather popular this winter, whatever the cost, especially with families, after-hours workmates and bunches of pleasure-seeking teen- and twenty- somethings.
Conclusion: If you want a traditional German Christmas Market, go to Germany. If you want an expensive funfair, a few trinkets and a lot of sausage, stay in town.