They said it would be London's Most Unique Winter Festival Ever! They were wrong.
In truth it was a temporary corral by the river, its internal delights invisible unless you paid up to get inside. Three daily sessions of music and entertainment were on offer throughout the month of December, plus the chance to pay for extras like ice skating and food. It could have been wild. It was of course mostly dead.
So after three underwhelming weekends, and two tumbleweed weeks, the organisers threw in part of their towel. Having previously demanded that everyone cough up at least £15 to enter their dubious winter wonderland, they finally relented and threw open the gates for free. So I've now been, and can confirm you probably needn't bother.
You'll receive access to an array of fantastic entertainment for all ages...
Originally there was only one entrance, and another separate exit on the far side. Now there are three ways in, including a new one by the Visitor Centre, almost begging passers-by to wander inside. Imagine a patch of lawn covered in white plastic, brightened up with an awful lot of Christmas trees, screened off behind a metal fence.
...the fully-programmed Mirror Stage...
When they said Mirror Stage, they meant a stage decorated with a couple of reflective blocks. When they said fully programmed, they meant there'll be entertainment on the stage about half the time. The stage was empty when I arrived, with an audience of several of mums and kids and students sitting at tables under cover. Eventually the next act turned up, a perfectly adequate amateur duo who held my attention for at least a minute before I wandered off. I never saw the barmaid in the tent pouring any drinks. The actual Don Letts was on stage last night, and he's obviously a lot more of a crowdpuller, but you've missed him now and nobody else of musical stature has been lined up.
...a troupe of performers and street entertainers to surprise and delight at every turn...
'Troupe' is overstating what I saw, which was one street entertainer in a top hat. He was having a good deal of fun entertaining the kids in the music tent, his signature act being to roll a glass sphere in his hands in a semi-magical way. He also had some juggling balls, and some hoops, so was doing a decent job of babysitting the livelier members of the audience. But the plastic expanse where the map showed the troupe of entertainers to be located was entirely empty, other than a snowy conifer and a cutout cottage.
...a Winter Lifestyle Market showcasing the best of independent designers and brands...
If you're seeking that elusive Winter Lifestyle, don't rush. A dozen white boxes have been arrayed around part of the site, each more shed than chalet. Approximately half of these were locked shut on my visit. The rest offered such delights as cupcakes, prints and hairbraids, the kind of unnecessary things some people give you for Christmas, plus a couple of cabins peddling not many clothes. Though definitely of higher quality than your average tat, the copywriter's claim of "the best... designers and brands" was entirely unjustified.
...artisan food and drink offerings...
The one decent bit of the event is probably the edibles. A small caravan of trucks has turned up, selling some of the usual street food treats like burgers in artisanal baps. Obviously there are churros, because nothing marks up like churros, but don't expect noodles or samosas because they're not very wintertime. Sticking a street food market into this tourist hub was always likely to be successful, indeed I saw queues at some vans, but only because it was lunchtime and the outer paywall has been lifted. The traders must be mighty relieved.
...and a festive art exhibition.
I never found an art exhibition.
Boogie yourself silly at the silent disco.
I couldn't find this initially, because I was looking for a dance floor. Instead the silent disco was a scrap of tent near the largest bar, alongside a counter with some headphones on top. Some teenagers were standing close by, 'phones on but barely moving, the only enthusiastic boogier being a mother trying to get her toddler to engage. If I'd paid good money to get inside for this, I'd have been right cheesed off.
Visitors require a ticket for the bespoke, covered Ice Rink....
Ice rinks sometimes seem ten a penny at Christmas, but apparently there are no others in this quarter of the capital. This one's the usual temporary frozen floor, but covered over to make sure the British weather doesn't intervene. Small children are notoriously bad at skating so they have orange plastic seals to be pushed around on. I have never seen so many orange plastic animals as I saw here, but there may be rather fewer in the evening.
...and the Visit Father Christmas show.
Children don't get to sit on Santa's knee, oh no. Instead they pay to attend a collective experience in a tent, pose for a group photo they can buy afterwards, and collect a brown paper gift bag on their way out. The website describes this as "the most exciting and unique Father Christmas experience that you and your family can enjoy this Christmas", which just goes to show that marketing people will merrily lie for cash, even at Christmas.
It is amazing how some businesspeople think they can stick a wall round some minor entertainment and charge £15 for entry, so I'm delighted these greedy moneygrabbers have been caught out. What remains until the end of the year is a minor winter wonderland with a music stage and street food, not worth crossing London for but decent enough to keep a small group happy for a while. I lasted fifteen minutes, which would have been five if I hadn't known I was going to write this. London's Most Unique Winter Festival Ever is anything but.