Whatever happens in December, there are still hotels and self-catering options left which, restrictions permitting, will help you end the year on a happier note
It’s not going to be the same, that’s for sure, but with a full lockdown imposed upon all of us until at least Dec 2, Christmas is certainly going to be curtailed this year. And even once the national lockdown has ended, there are sure to be varying restrictions around Britain. As before, it is possible that household mixing will be forbidden for many and gatherings of more than six for all, but if we are stoic, imaginative and flexible we can still have a memorable, if very different, Christmas.
Since my husband and I are unlikely to be able to spend Christmas with our family, as that would make more than six, we have decided to spend it away – though admittedly not very far away – and it’s a huge relief to have a plan in place, even though it all feels very strange.
On Sept 1 every year without fail, our dear departed mum would call my sister and me “to talk about Christmas”. Who would be coming, what exact time would we be arriving and leaving, who would sleep in which bed, should we brine the turkey or cook it upside down this year, or perhaps one of us could sleep on a camp bed by the Aga and baste it as it slow-roasted through the night? Who would bring the Neapolitan chocolates, cheese footballs, nuts and crackers? The build-up was relentless and exhausting but the result, as a dozen or so of us crammed around the dining table, opening my mother’s famously teasing table presents (the best being a series of tiny empty boxes, one inside the other, that finally revealed a much appreciated and very generous cheque) was always memorable and joyous.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t much want to sit in our New Forest house on Christmas Day, looking dolefully at my husband across a stuffed turkey breast for two, dreaming of what might have been, even if my attempts at recreating my mother’s no-holds-barred, no-detail-spared festivities have been poor substitutes for hers since she departed for her Christmas grotto in the sky.
So we’ve gone Awol and we’ve made a plan. We’ve booked ourselves into a lovely local café with rooms, a fun, informal and affordable place called Spot in the Woods that also has divinely cosy shepherd’s huts, one of which will be ours on Christmas night. Meanwhile, six of the family – one single son, one married son, his wife and their one-year-old plus my daughter-in-law’s mother and sister – will occupy our house. Three more – my sister, her husband and their son – have booked Thatched Eaves, a local luxury B&B, which is offering a Winter Glow Christmas hamper as well as a slap-up breakfast.
All very well, but will we ever meet? Can we meet? Yes, we will and we can (restrictions allowing), on Boxing Day, albeit suitably masked and distanced, on the ferry from Lymington to Yarmouth, from where we will walk on glorious Tennyson Down, pausing at the Needles Landmark Attraction en route, sadly Covid-closed this Christmas. Father Christmas won’t be there in his grotto and the carousel will be stationary, but at least we can view the Needles from the Lookout Tower, get down to the beach, peer into the Sand and Sweet Shops and use the loos.
Having walked to Freshwater Bay and back to charming Yarmouth through Afton Marsh and along the Yar, we’ll share turkey sandwiches and Christmas cake, and table presents of course, on the ferry home. I’m hoping it will be a memorable day out and feel like a holiday; it will certainly be different.
As you can tell, Christmas for my family has always been about coming home. But while my mother firmly believed that bunking off at Christmas was as bad as not listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge at 3pm on Christmas Eve, or watching the Queen at 3pm on Christmas Day, for others it’s a chance to escape, to have a break and to recharge the batteries. And even she would surely admit that the circumstances in 2020 mean that this is the perfect year to ring the changes.
In this guide to Christmas Not Being Cancelled (hopefully), we have collated our selection of hotels that, at the time of going to press, still have availability, and the same for self-catering properties. We also round up festivals and events that, hopefully, will still go ahead. Where advance bookings are required, always check the booking policy, in case of cancellation or date change.
Hotels always pull out all the stops at Christmas, but never more so than this year, when they will be heroically determined to give their guests an unforgettable experience despite the stresses and restrictions caused by the pandemic. Wherever you choose, you’ll find the highest standards and plenty of fun.
At the Fife Arms in the Highlands of Scotland, for example, an Alpine Winter will be under way, with a fondue restaurant, Glühwein and roasted chestnut bars, a Christmas tea room serving stollen, mini-gingerbread houses and Sprungli hot chocolate, a whisky and chocolate bar in the library and a garden transformed into a magical playground for adults and children.
At the Lord Crewe Arms in Northumberland there will be roaring fires, cosy hideaways, hearty feasting and surprises under the twinkling tree, while at the Grosvenor Hotel in Stockbridge you can expect carol singing under the porte cochère on Christmas Eve, a string quartet and a star pianist on Christmas Day and a jazz duo at its Boxing Day party.
Self-catering means doing Christmas your way, but somewhere new. We passed the gorgeous East Afton Farmhouse on the Isle of Wight when we tested out our planned walk; we’re booked in elsewhere but have noted it for another year. As we are a largely Scottish family, The Old Millhouse in Dalkeith would have been fun, with the promise of Hogmanay in nearby Edinburgh at the end of the Christmas Week, and at the other end of the price scale, cosy National Trust Rose Castle Cottage in the Lake District also appeals.
As for family events, there are still plenty around if you know where to look, from Santa Steam Trains to ice skating at Hampton Court. All is not lost: here’s the definitive list. Wrap up warm and please don’t let it rain!
A HOTEL FOR THE HOLIDAY
If you’ve never spent Christmas in a hotel before, this may well be the perfect year to try it. From sheer unbridled decadence to cosy country chic, here are 10 of our favourite options that still have availability.
Spot in the Woods, New Forest
This stylish B&B with five shepherd’s huts features a lively café and tempting deli/shop. A large wooden veranda overlooks a secluded garden. Two and three-night packages are available, kicking off with welcome drinks and nibbles on Christmas Eve.
Two nights from £660; three from £980 (spotinthewoods.co.uk). Read the full review here
Lord Crewe Arms, Northumberland
A lord-of-the-manor building, in a pin-neat estate village, that oozes atmosphere at every stone-flagged turn. A reputation for honest British cooking, plus the rural location, makes it popular with walkers and foodies. For Christmas, expect Buck’s fizz, board games by roaring fires and plenty of feasting.
Two nights from £359 (lordcrewearmsblanchland.co.uk). Read the full review here
The Fife Arms, Scottish Highlands
The delight is in the detail at this wildly romantic, sublimely comfortable, uniquely fascinating passion project from international art dealers Hauser & Wirth. It’s going all out for Christmas this year, with cracker and wreath-making on Christmas Eve using foraged ingredients, and a stocking on the door of each room the next morning.
From £543pn (thefifearms.com). Read the full review here
The Grosvenor at Stockbridge, Hampshire
This historic fly-fishing hotel is now a most comfortable and elegant place to stay; fun and thoughtful, traditional yet colourful. Yuletide celebrations will include a Christmas Eve afternoon tea to enjoy while being serenaded (safely) by carol singers.
Three nights from £685pp (thegrosvenorstockbridge.com).
The Lygon Arms, Cotswolds
The renowned Lygon Arms is one of Britain’s most historic inns, on the doorstep to beautiful walks and with a terrific spa. Christmas Eve here will also see socially distanced carol singers, and four-legged guests will be welcomed with a tree bearing treats for them.
From £345 per night (lygonarmshotel.co.uk). Read the full review here
This National Trust property, dating back to the late 17th century and set among 376 verdant acres on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire, is truly something special. For a blowout end to what has been an indisputably dreadful year, enter Cliveden’s three-night, all-inclusive House Party, with festive afternoon tea, carol singers, and plenty of five-star fun to be had.
Three nights all-inclusive from £3,900 (clivedenhouse.co.uk). Read the full review here
Nowhere does Christmas in London quite like Claridge’s. The art-deco grand dame is offering a three-night package that as well as breakfast and Christmas lunch (excluding alcohol), includes a bottle of champagne on arrival, in-suite Christmas trees and a host of magical touches: children’s storytelling, mince pies and carrots for Father Christmas and his reindeer, a visit from the man himself, stockings for all, and a horse-drawn carriage ride around Mayfair with hot chocolate and marshmallows.
Three nights from £3,315 (claridges.co.uk). Read the full review here
The Ned, London
For a capital Christmas with a twist, former Midland Bank turned party palace The Ned is hosting a one or two-night sleepover package, the latter with £150 credit to spend as you please, and both offering either Ned’s Festive Feast or Cecconi’s Christmas Day lunch. Swim it off in the pool, then recover in the spa with sauna and steam room.
One night from £540; two nights from £980 (thened.com). Read the full review here
Stanbrook Abbey Hotel, Worcestershire
Christmas Eve carols will be extra special here, in the original church at the centre of the hotel. You’ll wonder why you haven’t concluded every Christmas Day breakfast with a falconry display. Later, work off the five-course tasting lunch with wine pairings with a 140-step climb up the Grade II-listed Bell Tower.
Two nights from £830 (handpickedhotels.co.uk/stanbrookabbey). Read the full review here
The Mitre, Hampton Court
The recently opened Mitre, by the people behind Beaverbrook in Hampshire, is housed in a building dating back to 1665 to accommodate the courtiers of Charles II. “Stay like a King” is the apt name of its Christmas package, including, in addition to all meals (even a Bollinger afternoon tea), a service at The Chapel Royal in Hampton Court Palace, gourmet hamper for Christmas Day night, Boxing Day yoga or Thames boat trip, and tickets for the Hampton Court Palace Ice Rink.
Two nights £3,000 (mitrehamptoncourt.com).
Prices are based on two sharing, unless stated otherwise
By Rachel Cranshaw
A HOME FOR THE HOLIDAY
To end 2020 on a happy note, book your bubble into a self-catering hideaway.
Rose Castle Cottage, Lake District
Christmas is all about giving, so why not give back to the National Trust this season with a stay in this remote cottage? Set above the picturesque Tarn Hows, the only interaction you’re likely to have is with the hardy Herdwick sheep.
Sleeps four, £674 for four nights from Dec 24 (nationaltrust.org.uk)
Old Millhouse, Midlothian
For a posh Christmas – where you can start the day with a glass of champagne in the outdoor heated hydro pool – this old stone house on the Esk in Dalkeith is on the money (in all senses) and includes a bar room for your evening dram.
Sleeps up to 10, £6,107 for week from Dec 20 (oldmillhouse.co.uk)
East Afton Farmhouse, Isle of Wight
This 18th-century farmhouse in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has the kind of kitchen you’ll want to prepare a festive feast in, while Christmas films can be enjoyed in the cinema room.
Sleeps up to 12, £3,269 for Dec 21-28 (eastaftonfarmhouse.com)
Graig Ddu, Monmouthshire
Known as “the cottage in the woods”, this charming hideaway in Llanthony Valley has everything you need for a restorative Christmas break. It’s suitable for a couple or close friends who want to do little more than read, walk and forest bathe – you can see the pines as you take a dip in the bath.
Sleeps two, £850 for a week’s stay over Christmas (sawdays.co.uk)
The wild, elemental beauty of Northumberland is so suited to our Christmas fantasies that places usually book up months in advance, particularly on the coast at Bamburgh, where its namesake castle looms. Still available, Windley is a very cool 1950s-styled cottage opposite the village’s Grove.
Sleeps four, £1,555 for Christmas week (crabtreeandcrabtree.com)
Rockhaven Manor Cornwall
The grand mahogany staircase that greets you on arrival at this grand Georgian residence is like something from an American Christmas movie, and that’s not where the Christmas idealism ends. There are open fires in both the lounge and dining room – leave one free for Father Christmas.
Sleeps up to 12, £3,620 for Dec 21-28 (latitude50.co.uk)
Dandridges Mill, Oxfordshire
Fully accessible, this one-floor apartment in the village of East Hanney is great for multigenerational bubbles. The open-plan living area means the cook need not miss out on the fun as they prepare lunch, and there are lots of nice walks nearby in the countryside.
Sleeps up to eight, from £3,800 a week over Christmas (luxurycotswoldrentals.co.uk)
With a wood burner inside this luxury wooden cabin in private woodland, plus a wood-fired hot tub in the garden, this cosy home away from home is well named. A gorgeously romantic hideaway for two, there’s even a skylight for stargazing from bed. A 15-minute walk will bring you to a country pub for Christmas Eve drinks.
Sleeps two, £1,462 for Dec 21-28 (boutique-retreats.co.uk)
Lavender Cottage, Sussex
This Tudor cottage in the chocolate-box village of Alfriston is an easy escape for those looking for a more traditional Christmas. It has an inglenook fireplace, exposed beams and a slightly ramshackle but warm feeling. It’s a quick toddle to the pub or the South Downs.
Sleeps four, £830 for Dec 24 week (amberleyhousecottages.co.uk)
Alba Beach House, Cornwall
Raise a Christmas Day glass from the balcony of this pink cob cottage that overlooks Porthmeor Beach. Put on your wetsuit for a swim, and play board games around the living room wood burner or admire the view from the window seat.
Sleeps eight, £4,950 a week over Christmas (uniquehomestays.com)
By Sally Coffey
THE BEST EVENTS FOR FAMILIES THIS CHRISTMAS
There are still family events being held around Britain this year, from Christmas markets to fairy light-festooned trails. The following offer a frisson of hope (restrictions across Britain allowing), but being prepared and advance booking advance is essential.
Most Christmas markets are cancelled this year, but there are a few still hoping to open, including Cardiff (cardiffchristmasmarket.com), Sheffield (sheffieldchristmasmarkets.co.uk) and Swansea (swanseacitycentre.com). Bath (bathchristmas market.co.uk) and the Peak District (visitpeakdistrict.com/christmas-market) are hosting virtual markets so you can order online.
Santa’s Grotto with Peter Rabbit & Friends, Milton Keynes
The great man will halt his sleigh at mega-mall Centre MK in 2020. There’s plenty of space here for a socially-spaced grotto, an immersive experience including Potter characters such as Squirrel Nutkin and Mr Toad. Kids will decorate biscuits with Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, and get a gift in the grotto.
Dec 2-Dec 24; adult £4.99, child from £12.50; centremk.com
Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall, London
London’s gilded, red-velvet Royal Albert Hall has celebrated Christmas for 149 years, and it’s thrilling that it plans to open this festive season. Seating half its usual capacity, RAH will present the Royal Choral Society and Handel’s Messiah. There will also be Christmas carols, the glorious Nutcracker, Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas and the family show, My Christmas Orchestral Adventure.
Events Dec 9-Jan 2; tickets from £15; royalalberthall.com
Christmas at the Botanics, Edinburgh
With light sculptures, motion-activated lasers that burst around the greenery like fireworks, and a glittering walkway, Edinburgh’s light show in its botanical gardens is in its fourth spectacular year. There’s also the essential cockle-warming mulled wine and hot chocolate.
Nov 26-Jan 3; adult £19, child £13; rbge.org.uk
Santa Steam Train, Leicestershire
Risk-assessed and socially distanced, Santa Claus is coming to town by train this year on the Great Central Railway, where each bubble will occupy their own compartment.
Various dates after Dec 2; four-person carriage £69; gcrailway.co.uk
Hampton Court Ice Rink, London
Many of the UK’s seasonal rinks are closed, but Hampton skates on, with its rink in a peerless location. With river views and a backdrop of Hampton Court, this year the ice rink is larger than ever before, in order to make space for socially-distanced pirouettes.
Dec 5-Jan 3; adult £16, child £11.50; hamptoncourt.com
Alnwick Light Trail, Northumberland
A magnificent light show awaits visitors to the Alnwick Garden, where this year they have extended their trail to ensure more can attend. There is even a Father Christmas grotto in a treehouse.
Dec 4-31; Adult £11, child free; alnwickgarden.com
By Abigail Blasi