Londoners have gone a bit mad for this kind of thing of late, first 'continental' markets, then the funfair behemoth that is Winter Wonderland. When that tackfest began in 2007 it was little more than a patch of rides beside a few Bavarian cottages, but it's grown and grown over the years to cover an increasingly unhealthy acreage. And blimey, it's popular. I went on Sunday, joining a heaving throng denser and more slow-moving than I'd ever believed possible. Families and groups of mates shuffled around, swilling glühwein out of plastic cups and stuffing their faces with £7.50 pork baps. Some queued for the mega-observation wheel with Santa hanging off it, while others simply walked round and round the perimeter, watching out for pickpockets and maybe having some more churros. This is December in the capital, folks, and the masses love it.
So Winterville would seem to be a sound business proposition. Seal off a central portion of an East End park, then stick a funfair up one end of the enclosure and a few other rides elsewhere. Line the aisles with bars and food, and freeze over an ice rink for good measure. Add some tents of boutique shopping and proper entertainment, this to ensure the place has a unique selling point. Stick security guards on the gate, and invite the Metropolitan police too in case anything kicks off. Open it up from December 2nd to January 1st to catch the solstice crowds. And make getting inside free, in the hope that visitors will sign up for tickets to the attractions once they've tired of food and drink and stalls. Available now in London E3.
I went yesterday evening, which was Day One and a Tuesday so unlikely to be busy. It was also dark and cold and damp, but that's Winter for you, hence these were surely perfect market conditions. A map was thrust into my hand as I entered, which I should have read but it was a bit dark, and some of the combinations of text and background colour weren't particularly easy to read. Nobody was queueing up at the ticket office, partly because they hadn't read the map either but mostly because any crowds had yet to arrive. A few local families had turned up to see what all the fuss was about, increasing in number as the early evening went on. But I also noticed a considerable number of smart twenty-something media types with scarves and big cameras, because it turned out Tuesday was press night, and this made the place look rather more presentable that it might otherwise have done.
All the special guests were being schmoozed in the cabaret tent, so I couldn't look inside 'The Spiegeltent', but a wide range of shows will be taking place here over the next month. Some are free, some cost £20, so check wisely, but the expensive ones do at least look like they might be special. There's also a daytime pantomime, and a series of paid-for children's shows in The House Of Fairy Tales, but these take place only at or near weekends. A sprinkling of arts and crafts tents were open yesterday and keeping the Columbia-Road demographic happy, but I suspect they were only staffed and active because it was press night. Indeed most of the signature stuff at Winterville appears to be weekends only, so come at any other time and you'll have to make do with food and drink and much more ordinary amusements.
The fairground will be a big draw I'm sure, indeed it usually is whenever one turns up in Victoria Park. Various swirly twisty beasts had been erected over the weekend, each glistening with lights, as well as a few of those giant house-type things you walk inside for a thrill and several of those stalls where you throw things. And yet this corner of Winterville was perfectly dead. Indeed I've never walked alone through a fairground before, past a collection of vacant-looking stallholders waiting for someone, anyone, to stop by and kickstart the evening. Ditto the showmen at the Wall of Death, revving their motorbikes and pleading with the handful of passers-by to pay to step inside and see the show. But they're patient, they know things always kick off later, and Winterville's open til ten.
A few years ago all the food offerings would have been burgers and noodles, but this is a bit more Shoreditchy and hence there's a lot of streetfood. Cheesesteaks, brisket and pulled pork are present, as well as more vegetarian-friendly options, not that anyone was really biting at six in the evening. A row of bartenders awaited custom in several large marquees and cabins, I'd say with optimistic capacity (especially the pumps tucked out of the way beside the ice rink), but at weekends who knows? I chose to partake in the tiny Hot Cider Bar, just to say I'd tried something, plumping for the warm spiced cider option. I was a little unnerved when my server disappeared below the bar for thirty seconds, but she did eventually emerge with a none-too-vast cup of warm-ish red liquid. It tasted fine, but smelt of cows, and the last few gulps were tepid with dregs in, so perhaps don't follow my lead.
Further tips. Don't wear your very best shoes because, even though the grass has been covered over, the matting is damp and in places muddy. Bring money because there's basically bugger all to do if you don't. Make sure you get your banknotes before you turn up because the cash machines on site charge £2.95 for the privilege. Don't traipse all the way over to Victoria Park because you've heard good things in Time Out, because they're one of the sponsors so they're not going to say anything negative. Don't come expecting something similar to Winter Wonderland, because Winterville's smaller and rather less brash. And if the place manages to get some atmosphere, well, if you like this kind of thing you'll like this kind of thing.