Editor’s Note: This article is from our archive but since it’s Christmas, I thought it would be a good read for anyone looking for a something to read on this wonderful day. It’s now been 6 years since this magical experience and we hope to do it again one day soon. Happy Christmas from Anglotopia!
On a cold December night, as we digested the consumption of a rather unsuccessful Christmas, Mrs. Anglotopia and I began to look ahead at the coming year. Christmas hadn’t been a big success for us that year – financial, familial, and weather-related problems proved challenging. While we were always grateful for whatever Christmas we could provide for our family, we felt the urge to get away from the Christmas rat race. We had enough of ticking the boxes of a perfect American Christmas. We had heard from our friends that their cottage in Dorset, Updown Cottage on Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, our most favorite place in England, which was usually booked for Christmas every year, was available.
Looking at each other, I said, “Why don’t we just spend next Christmas at Updown Cottage?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Anglotopia responded.
It was all she needed to say. I immediately messaged our friends and reserved the cottage for Christmas and New Years.
Now, we had a year to figure out how to make it happen, let alone pay for it. The next year proved to be a busy one – the most notable event occurring in June when our second little Anglotoplette was born. But we never lost sight of the goal of spending the Christmas holidays in England and trying to have the most English Christmas vacation we could have. It was an amazing and stressful journey but so rewarding that we’re planning on doing it again.
As there were now four of us in our family, we would have to buy four plane tickets. After the cost of the cottage over a holiday period, airfare would be the next most expensive thing to sort out. We knew it would be expensive, so we wanted to get the most bang for our pounds. So, instead of just going for Christmas, we decided to spend a week in London before and a week in the Cotswolds after our stay in Dorset. We would be spending almost a month in England, and we couldn’t have been more excited.
We were also terrified. We’d traveled with a baby before, to the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 with Anglotopia Jr. We handled it well, but now we would have another baby with us plus a very forthright two-year-old. We’d never traveled with two kids before, and it would be a lie to say that we did not have a lot of anxiety about it. But anything worth doing is only worth doing if you’re all in, so to speak. So, we figured if we just planned every step we would take, things would go much smoother.
And you know what? Things did.
For the most part.
We arrived in London in mid-December and were presented with very pleasant weather. Winter in London is usually a mild affair, though sometimes it can be wet, but we had sunny days our entire trip (the terrible weather would find us later in the trip). We had a fantastic first week in London. We rented a flat in South Kensington, not far from the Earl’s Court Tube station. It was a lovely, large flat, perfect for the size of our family. Unfortunately, it wasn’t decorated for Christmas, so it was a little tough for us to get into the Christmas spirit without being surrounded by it as we would have been at home.
We did our fair share of Christmas shopping, which was a lot of fun while we were in London. It was lovely to see all the Christmas lights and store displays. There was enough of a chill in the air to make it feel like we were near Christmas. As we picked out Christmas presents for the kids, we were very conscious of the luggage problem. Anything we bought for them would have to be brought home, and our luggage was already packed to the gills with all the kid stuff we needed to bring. So, we tried to find small gifts and gifts that the kids would enjoy playing with on the trip in case they got bored. That way, anything they loved would make it home safely (and later in the trip, we ended up just buying another piece of luggage to get everything home since each kid got a free extra checked bag). A highlight was picking up a brown Jelly Cat bunny at Hamley’s that we hoped would become Miss Anglotopia’s cuddly lovely.
The Christmas highlight of our stay in London was a visit to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, a yearly spectacle set up annually in a grassy part of Hyde Park. It’s a combination of an amusement park and German Christmas market in the heart of London (the British love German-themed Christmas Markets for some reason). The kids enjoyed the rides, and there was plenty of street food to enjoy. We all enjoyed walking around with a bag of chunky chips. Yum! I wouldn’t necessarily compare it to a local fair; the rides are much bigger and more substantial. It’s more like a temporary Six Flags. The place is huge. You can easily spend a whole day riding the rides, eating the food, and shopping in the market. You can ice skate as well, and if you’ve already done the London Eye, they have their own giant Ferris Wheel. The Hyde Park Winter Wonderland usually runs from mid-November to January. Entry is always free, but the rides and the games will cost money.
Our week in London went by in the blink of an eye, and before we knew it, it was time to pick up the rental car (or ‘hire car’ as the Brits say) and head to Dorset for the ‘Grand Event.’ We were quite ready to leave the pre-Christmas chaos in London. We left in the early afternoon, and we had no trouble with traffic. Shaftesbury is about a two-hour drive from London, and it’s always a pleasant one. I really enjoy driving in England any time of the year. When we pulled up to Updown Cottage for our dream Christmas, we found it already lit up and decorated for Christmas.
It was quite a welcome. Jane and Simon, the cottage owners, had come down and decorated the cottage just for us – that included a tree with all the fixings (lights and ornaments). As soon as we opened the door, we stepped into an English Christmas. They’d thought of everything to make sure we had the perfect English Christmas, including leaving us some lovely gifts (more on those later; they were hidden from the kids!). Our son was very excited to see all the decorations, and we all felt like it was finally Christmastime.
One thing that’s hard to get used to when you’re in England in the winter is the early nights. Because Britain is further north than most of the US, it gets dark very early in the winter. The sun starts going down at 3:30 and it’s gone by 4:00 p.m. These short days with a low winter sun cruising across the horizon make you want to make the most of each day. Early starts and early ends to the days. Thankfully, places still stay open to their normal times; it’s just dark out. It takes some getting used to. The flip side is that in the summer, sometimes the sun doesn’t go down until past 10:00 p.m., leading to very long days and trouble falling asleep if you go to bed early. So, it was a real treat as we pulled up to the cottage and found it lit up for Christmas for us. It was like right out of a postcard.
Gold Hill is a very special place for us. You will know a picture of Gold Hill immediately; it’s probably the most recognizable English street in the world. It’s just that most people don’t actually know where it is. Growing up, I bought a poster of Gold Hill at a local hobby store, and I fell in love with the picture. As I dealt with the horrors of American high school (and being a geeky Anglophile), Gold Hill became a symbol of hope for me. I figured nothing could be as bad as I thought because one day I would visit Gold Hill. And I did. In 2004, I visited for the first time, and Mrs. Anglotopia and I fell completely in love with its charm. When we discovered a few years after that first visit that one of the cottages on the hill was available as a holiday let, we booked our first stay at Updown Cottage, and our love was sealed forever. Not only did we gain a beautiful place to spend our time in Dorset, but we also gained very good friends. Spending our first Christmas on Gold Hill in Dorset was the culmination of a lifetime of dreams.
We began thinking about our Christmas dinner months before our trip. Our goal was to have as traditionally a British Christmas dinner as possible (with a few American embellishments to make sure the kids ate it). We discovered the main dish for Christmas Dinner in Britain is usually turkey or goose, but most people do turkey these days. We found this intriguing as turkey is the dish of choice in America for Thanksgiving. We decided on turkey since neither of us liked goose. So it was a bit odd that we would be having turkey twice in one year – it also turns out that many of the side dishes in a British Christmas dinner are also the same as for an American Thanksgiving dinner.
So, for months we had fantasies of our British Christmas dinner in our perfect little English cottage in Dorset. After speaking with our British friends, we discovered that while you can find turkeys in stores, it’s not as common. They recommended ordering a turkey from a local butcher. We could order the exact size we would need and have it delivered right to the cottage. This seemed like the best option for us, so we didn’t have to search for one. It also kept the money in the local economy and ensured that our turkey was locally sourced and raised. When the bell rang on our cottage door, and the butcher made the delivery (we also bought some other meats we thought we’d eat) we were shocked at how small the turkey was, it was maybe half the size of what we would have at Thanksgiving. But that didn’t matter, it was only the four of us, and Miss Anglotopia wasn’t even on solid foods yet. It would be plenty. The turkey was fresh, butchered the day before, just for us. We had it delivered two days before Christmas and stored it in the cottage’s fridge until the big day. We joked that we drove by our turkey grazing on the way down from London.
In Britain, they don’t have Santa Claus. They have Father Christmas. Father Christmas has roots in anti-Puritan sentiment, and he became a symbol of merrymaking. As time progressed the idea of Father Christmas and Santa Claus merged. It’s also less common for children to visit him and tell him what they want for Christmas. There are some places that do it – but often you have to book months in advance (like at Harrods, sometimes you need to book as far ahead as August!). We hedged our bets and took the kids to see Santa back at home before we left. But we had to explain to our oldest that Santa would find him no matter where we spent Christmas. Once we did arrive in London, however, we did manage to run into Father Christmas on a visit to Selfridges, so the kids were thrilled about that.
As we settled in for our stay at Updown Cottage, Christmas went from ‘that event we’ll worry about once we get to Dorset’ to ‘Uh-oh, Christmas is in two days.’ We still needed to do some Christmas shopping, knowing full well that we had to keep it simple so that we didn’t overfill our luggage. We had a lovely time visiting the High Street in Shaftesbury and buying gifts for the kids that they couldn’t get anywhere else. One of them, a small bell toy for Miss Anglotopia, became one of her favorite toys. We also ventured out and visited a mall in Southampton for the first time. We were able to pick up lovely Christmas pajamas for all of us, a tradition that Mrs. Anglotopia insists on, so we were properly attired on Christmas morning. Mrs. Anglotopia and I also separated and did a bit of secret shopping so we could buy gifts for each other without spoiling the surprise.
When we told people we were going to Britain for a month during December and January – they laughed at us.
“Britain has terrible weather – why wouldn’t you go somewhere warm?” was the general refrain.
Actually, Britain has generally pleasant weather in the winter, and for the first week or so of our trip in London – it was pleasant. Temperatures were around 50 degrees Fahrenheit – there was occasional rain, but generally, the sun was out. It was fantastic. We felt particularly smug when we heard that back home in Chicago they got sub-zero temperatures and two feet of snow!
And then the windstorms hit! While we were in Dorset, which is close to the southern coast, we experienced some of the craziest winds in our entire lives. Combined with torrential rain, storms kept us inside quite a bit and did a lot of damage to low-lying areas. We had to cancel some plans because attractions were closed. We had booked a special Santa Steam Train on the Swanage Line, but they canceled the trains due to the winds and flooding. During the worst of the winds, I had to leave the cottage to get some provisions and could barely get up Gold Hill – the wind was blowing so hard. It also spoiled our plans to visit a Christmas Market – the center-piece of Christmas in larger British cities. We tried to go to the one in Salisbury, but the weather was so terrible that by the time we got there, the wind was blowing sleet. We decided to just get back inside the car and go home rather than strap the kids into strollers and brave the weather. We tried again to visit the Christmas Market in Bath only to discover it had closed the day before. Until next time, then.
The flooding was amazing to behold and scary for the people caught in it. On the day we visited Southampton, our route had to be diverted several times (frustrating our GPS as it struggled to keep up) because major roads were flooded out. It’s quite something to be lying in bed, late at night and hearing the wind batter a 400-year-old cottage, its ancient English Oak beams creaking in the night. You experience noises you never experienced before. A cottage up the hill on Gold Hill lost its gutter (not sure what they call them in England) in the storms. Thankfully, there was no damage to Updown Cottage; it held up as well as it had done for 400 years. Though, after we left, it didn’t fare so well when another windstorm struck. The dining room doors were blown open and shattered. What’s funny is that almost every British person we ran into apologized for the bad weather we were experiencing, as it was very unusual for that time of year. ‘No, it’s all right,’ I said – the weather was much worse back home!
The terrible winter storms just gave us an excuse to stay warm and snuggled up inside our little cottage, with a fire in the hearth, something delicious cooking in the oven, and some British Telly. We loved it. And the kids loved it! It was turning into a lovely Christmas. The only thing that could have made it more perfect was if we had had some snow. There was no snow. It rarely snows in southern England, and a white Christmas is even rarer. But as I often tell people, ‘we didn’t travel to Britain for the weather.’
Before we knew it, the night before the big day arrived. We had a lovely dinner and watched The Snowman – a lovely cartoon that encapsulates British Christmas perfectly. The kids were bubbling with anticipation, and for once, we didn’t have to fight them on going to bed at the proper time. After they went to bed, Mrs. Anglotopia and I spent the rest of the evening wrapping their presents and watching British Telly (and sneaking away to wrap our secret presents for each other). By the end of the night, despite our apparent restraint, there was quite a number of presents under the tree, and we were quite chuffed. We could not wait for the kids to get up and see their presents, their first British Christmas.
Of course, they woke ridiculously early, and who could blame them?
The next few hours were a dizzying array of wrapping paper flying everywhere and copious amounts of tea to make sure we could wake up for the day. We eagerly opened our presents from Jane and Simon, the cottage owners, and they were truly lovely and thoughtful (mine was a specially made Ordnance Survey Map of Shaftesbury and its surroundings – perfect for walks!)
And then at 8:00 a.m., the bells started. This was probably my most favorite memory from the trip. Our cottage on Gold Hill is right down the hill from the local church (which was built in the Victorian Era). On Christmas Day, it was truly lovely to hear the bells ring out for what seemed like forever. It was raining, but it was worth it standing outside the front door to listen to the bells toll. And when they had finished, another church in Shaftesbury followed suit with their bells. The cascade of bells on Christmas Day was beautiful. It was something we simply didn’t have back home and could only hear in England. It was magnificent. The kids loved it too. I will never forget the bells and will spend my life trying to get back to England for Christmas to hear them again.
After that, it was time for a Christmas breakfast, and then Mrs. Anglotopia got right to work on our Christmas Dinner. My job for the day was to keep the kids out of her hair as she struggled to cook on foreign cookware with foreign directions. Sourcing all the ingredients had been a challenge – between getting the bird and finding all the ingredients at the local grocery stores (which kept odd hours at that time of year and sometimes weren’t even open when the door said they should be!). The kitchen is on the bottom level of Updown, so it was easy to keep the kids occupied with all their new presents while she cooked. By mid-morning, the house was already filled with the beautiful smells of what was cooking. One British Christmas tradition we could not abide by was having Brussel sprouts; we all hate the taste (and the smell is even worse), so we did not include those in our dinner plans.
When Miss Anglotopia went down for her nap late in the morning, Anglotopia Jr and I suited up and went for a walk to Melbury Hill, the tallest hill in the area. It’s quite a climb, but the views are amazing. The temperature dipped to a proper winter cold. And what really struck me was the silence. Back home, we live near major roads and industry, so even if you live a bit out in the countryside, there’s never much silence. But in Shaftesbury that Christmas it was completely silent. There were no cars on the roads, there is no industry clanging away, there are no airplanes in the sky, there are no trains rumbling along. It’s just you and nature and a quiet community getting on with Christmas Day. Occasionally the silence would be lovingly interrupted by the sound of bells tolling from some distant church.
It’s safe to say that it was probably the most lovely Christmas day I ever experienced. And it wasn’t even over yet!
By the time we returned from our walk and recovered with warm cups of tea, it was time for the main event: Christmas Dinner. The turkey turned out amazing, and Mrs. Anglotopia had no problems roasting it properly in the English oven. All the fixings turned out perfectly. For someone who had never prepared a British Christmas dinner, Mrs. Anglotopia hit the ball out of the park, and everything was perfect. The food was great, as was the table setting (and of course we popped Christmas Crackers). Mrs. Anglotopia made homemade Yorkshire Puddings for the first time in her life, and they were memorably delicious. Though some things didn’t quite turn out so perfectly, like the hors-d’oeuvres that ended up burnt. Sadly, we didn’t have the family dog with us to scarf them up instead. As we ate our bountiful Christmas dinner, we watched as the sun began to go down on our English Christmas across the Blackmore Vale below us. Smoke billowed out of the smokestacks of the cottages and farms in the distance.
Soon bedtime came around again, and the kids went to sleep like champs. How could they not? They were exhausted! British Christmas had run them ragged (and us too!). After they were sound asleep, we started a fire in Updown’s sitting room, opened a bottle of wine, and enjoyed the various Christmas specials on British TV (I believe the line-up that year was Doctor Who and Downton Abbey). It was a treat to watch our favorite shows live, as they aired in Britain. I’m not afraid to admit that we did not last long into the evening ourselves and nodded off in post-Christmas happiness, having had the perfect British Christmas.
In America, most people go back to work on December 26; the retails stores open back up, and then return season begins. There are usually big sales. Many employers will give the day off, but if they’re not, shall we say enlightened, most people are back at their desks on the 26th. In Britain, December 26 is Boxing Day, and it’s a Bank Holiday, meaning most things are meant to stay closed. Things have softened in recent years (which is a shame), and most bigger retailers are now open on Boxing Day for limited hours (usually 10 a.m. -4 p.m.). The Boxing Day sale is a huge event in the British retail calendar as people go out to buy the things they didn’t get or return the presents they didn’t want. But as most non-retail employees have the day off, it’s still a holiday in those households. We knew this and planned ahead.
We have good friends in Shaftesbury who were kind enough to invite us to their Boxing Day Lunch, which was a very special treat. It gave us an opportunity to visit our friends and try some foods we hadn’t yet tried. We tried meat pies for the first time, and Mrs. Anglotopia fell in love with British pickle spread, having tried it also for the first time. It was a lovely and relaxing way to spend an afternoon, and it reminded us that after 15 years of travel in Britain, the best things we’ve gotten out of our travels are our friends, not the souvenirs we’ve brought home. We did miss our families a bit during the holiday period, as they missed us, but we all had celebrations before and after we left. And even though we were far from home, all our friends made us feel right at home, and the spirit of Christmas was plentiful.
Most employers in Britain shut down for the two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s, at least in the white-collar area of jobs. The kids are also off of school as well. This means that the space between Christmas and New Year’s is a great time to visit Britain’s tourist attractions. We took advantage of this, visiting ruined Corfe Castle, finally riding the Swanage Railway, visiting Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and HMS Victory, Longleat House and Safari and Jane Austen’s Home at Chawton (we’ve written about all of these things on Anglotopia.net). It was a whirlwind, many of them were not crowded at all, and it was a great time to see so many places (and the weather did improve).
Before we knew it, it was New Year’s Eve, and we rang in the new year watching Big Ben bong on the telly rather than watch the ball drop in New York. The next day it was time to begin wrapping up our English Christmas vacation, and with much sadness, we packed our bags to head on to our next destination (the Cotswolds). We packed up our hire car, strapped the kids into their car seats, and Mrs. Anglotopia and I looked at the cottage, still decorated for our Christmas. It was a very emotional moment – tears were shed – as we drove away from our perfect English Christmas. We can’t wait to do it again.