RISHAD SAAM MEHTA takes in the Yuletide spirit as he potters around Westminster, Trafalgar Square and other snow-clad attractions

So, I'd packed more woollies than you could find in a mall in Chennai during summer, because I had been warned about the cold front that was coming in over the island of Britain over the last 10 days of this year.

For all the times that iconic department stores such as Hamleys, Selfridges, Harrods and Fortnum had played ‘I'm dreaming of a white Christmas' to go with their beautifully-decorated Christmas windows to help spread the Christmas cheer, the dream did come true, though a few days before Christmas.

Snow fell, the roads closed, and flights were grounded, but the city of Westminster, the heart of London, didn't lose its Christmas spirit. Carol singers were out at Trafalgar Square singing sweet and clear, under the Christmas tree that Norway annually presents England in gratitude for sending the Nazis out in the Forties.

The next day was even better with the sun out, and Fleet Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street saw shoppers scurry for that last bit of shopping — a scarf for Aunty Judy, PS3 for John, silk tie for Jeremy…

Retail therapy

I walked along these charmingly and beautifully decorated streets, staying away from the shops. With the kind of stuff on display and offer, these pretty shops were like inverse volcanoes waiting to suck me into retail paradise where my credit card would turn into a weapon of bankruptcy.

So, I stuck to visiting little winter cafes and sampling mulled wine and hot chocolate laced with Bailey's Irish Cream or French brandy. Very nice to send some cheer and warmth racing around your insides.

The Convent Garden Christmas Markets were full of festivity too, with stalls selling everything to do with the season. The festive atmosphere carries on past Christmas and even past New Year's, right till January 6, which is the 12th night after Christmas. So, even if you do visit between Christmas and then, you'll still find a full helping of good old Christmas cheer.

Around the bridges, opposite Charing Cross Station and near Piccadilly and Leicester Square, are men selling hot roasted chestnuts, another season speciality, ideal to sit on a ledge and munch on as you watch people go by.

The West End or theatre land has carol concerts running in many of their fine theatres, and the all-time kids' favourite ‘The Lion King' musical is on at the Lyceum Theatre just off the Strand. There are also many pantomime concerts on that kids will shriek in joy over.

The general view is that London is a summer destination and it's cold and grey during the winter. Agreed, that it goes dark by 4.30 p.m., but the holiday season spreads a tangible sense of happiness around the season. Little pubs (and there are plenty around London) have roaring fires and guffaws. And, everyone generally seems to be in a very good mood. And, for all the snow that fell during the first two days of my visit, there was even more sunshine afterwards.

So, while it definitely is very cold, there are lovely sunny spells too. But, I've left the best for last. The places where kids and adults alike will have a blast are at one of the nine skating rinks around London.

The ice rinks beckon

The Tower of London is a spectacular ice rink venue while the Hampton Court Palace has a rink with beautiful decorations showing how the festive seasons were celebrated in the past.

Somerset House is one of the most stunning skating spots available to those in London, set within a sumptuous 18th Century courtyard, while the ice rink at the Natural History Museum is complemented by their Christmas Fair; so, there really is a lot to see and do there this year.

While rinks are very popular for the kids and can get pretty crowded, for adults, a number of London ice rinks offer special late-night ice skating sessions, giving them the chance to go for a spin, holding hands, under the stars and under the glow of festive decorations.

Finally, you wouldn't want to leave London at this time without going to the Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park. Here, besides the ice rink, there are rides and stalls that are full of fun, frolic and food.

From giant Ferris wheels to scrumptious hot dogs and colourful carousels to cream-topped cups of steaming hot chocolate, this is where you should head for an afternoon of happiness.

Right now, fares are at their lowest, and after Christmas, many stores will have massive sales on. How about a quick getaway to London?

For more information, visit www.visitbritain.co.in

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