Do you want to know what my favorite holiday activity is? You’re never going to guess because it’s a little crazy…The Charles Dicken’s Christmas Fair. Whhhaaaat is the The Charles Dicken’s Christmas Fair you ask?…Well it’s only the best way to kick off the Christmas season if you live in the Bay Area. Today, I am going to try to convince you that your holiday season won’t be complete unless you make a trip to the Dicken’s Fair. To that end, I will give you 10 tips for making the most out of your trip to old-timey London.
The Dicken’s Fair is open for seven glorious weekends, and let’s you walk on the charming streets of Charles Dicken’s London, rubbing elbows with Victorian gentry and guttersnipes, all while smelling the intoxicating scent of roasting sweet nuts. (#notaeuphemism) This year it’s open from Nov. 19 through Dec. 18.
We started going to the fair five years ago when our kids were 2 years and 6 months old. They were probably too young to really appreciate it then but now they love it. And every year it feels more magical for them and us. It’s really big so we see something new each year.
There are 7 stages throughout the fair where you can see dancing, plays, and participate in sing-a-longs at different intervals throughout the day. It’s pretty hard to see it all and very easy to get overwhelmed but with a little planning, you’ll have good ole’ time.
Ten Tips for Making the Most of The Dicken’s Fair
1. Go Early, Buy Your Tickets In Advance, & Plan to be there all-day.
In year’s past, we have gone closer to Christmas. But this year, because I’d gotten tickets through Living Social (which could only be used on a specific day), we went the weekend before Thanksgiving. I have to admit I was pretty sad when I found out we’d be going so early since I wasn’t yet in the Christmas mood, seeing as we hadn’t even gotten to Thanksgiving yet. But man alive, the crowds were so much smaller! It was great. In past years, when we’ve gone closer to Christmas, the crowds have been huge, making it pretty hard to really take it all in. Plus the smaller crowds made it easier to accomplish Tip #3.
The lines to get in can get pretty long and it’s not always the most organized ticket selling operation so you should buy your tickets online. The day we went the lines were shockingly small. Maybe it was because we went so early in the “season”, but in years past the lines have been crazy long. Also, you should be aware that they require you to present a paper copy of your ticket.
There is so much to see you should plan to be there all day. I say 4 hours is the minimum. You should also check out the schedule of events and activities before you go so you familiarize yourself with all the different stage names and show. (You can find the schedule here.)
Also, they only accept cash for parking. Street parking is very limited and IMHO prohibitively far away.
2. Hit up the shows: especially at London Docks.
There is so much to see and experience by just walking around the “streets” but I think the performances are what make this fair so special. The dancing at the Fezziwig’s Dance Party (which is the first big space you come to when you enter) is nice but don’t get stuck there too long because there are 6 other stages throughout the fair. There are many performances going on at any given time but my all-time favorite stage is the “London Docks.” There you can sing-along with pirates or hear beautiful chorus’ singing classic Christmas carols. Check the schedule for show times.
3. Talk to the people
So many people go decked out in their finest Victorian costumes, but what I love the most is that everyone speaks with an English accent, using words and expressions quintessentially Dickensian. And they NEVER break character. Like never EVER. Not even in the bathroom. (Okay, well they will flush the toilet even though indoor plumbing wasn’t invented yet because…well…they aren’t savages.)
If you’re there long enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Queen as she rides through the streets, waving at her loyal subjects. Her royal guards take their job very seriously and make everyone stay where they are when she passes. This means if you hear her coming grab your kids, otherwise you will be separated until her Majesty passes.
4. Kid’s Area
If you have kids under 10, you should make a beeline to the kid’s area. There are craft tables where
you kids can paint ornaments or build fairy houses, they can ride on an old merry-go-round, and play carnival-type games (e.g. “throw the boot at the cat”). This is also the only place you can get kid-centric food (e.g. pizza and pasta).
Throughout the day Santa will also be available for kids to sit on his lap. I love this Santa but you should note that if you have your heart set on your kids having their image of Santa be a fat, jolly old man with a lush fake beard who says “Merry Christmas”, then the Dicken’s Santa may not be for you. The Dicken’s Santa is thin, has a real (translation: scraggly) beard, who approaches the kids with a kind but stoic demeanor and says “Happy Christmas” — in fact everyone says “Happy Christmas!” Santa occasionally rides through the Fair in his horse-drawn carriage — usually at the end and beginning of his sitting times.
5. Fencing Lessons
This year we discovered that for $10 you can get a 15 minute fencing lesson. My 7 year old loved this because he got to stab his instructor over and over again with a sword. Despite the assault my son was inflicting on him, the instructor seemed to be genuinely trying to teach him how to fence. This is in the Kid’s Area but we saw grown-a** adults taking fencing lessons too.
6. Cuthbert’s Tea Shoppe
At Cuthbert’s you can sit and have a full tea service experience with everything from the chintz table clothes to the tiny sandwiches. The 4 p.m. tea service is their most elaborate service. If you want to sit for a “spot of tea,” you must make reservations well in advance here. Hint: the “to-go” window next to Cuthbert’s is a woefully inadequate substitute. Save your tuppins and get a tea at Starbucks after the fair.
7. Food & Drink
The English have never been known for their culinary prowess but there are some fun things to try at the Fair. Our favorite is the “bangers and mash” plate. For $14 they’ll serve you a huge plate of mashed potatoes covered in gravy, two sausages, and a side of peas. For $7 you can get a “banger in a roll” which is basically a sausage in a hot-dog bun. This is the first food stall you’ll see but they have more in the back, usually in the kid’s area.
Every year I swear that I’m going to get a minced meat pie but the line is always so long I’ve yet to actually do it. If you brave the line, I’d love to hear how they are.
Another thing I’ve never done, though I’ve wanted to and will once my kids are more civilized, is eat at “The Tippling Toad.” It’s a full sit-down restaurant experience where you can get full meals with turkey, duck, and chicken platters. They suggest you make reservations in advance, which I imagine is probably quite necessary.
Note: the food stalls only offer bottled water,so you should bring your own bottles of water from home. There are several taverns throughout the fair where you can get draft ales, hot buttered rum, Irish coffee, hot spiced mead, hot mulled wine, and hot toddies, as well as sodas and other cold drinks.
Finally, come with bags o’ cash because the food stalls and taverns only accept cash.
There are tons of little shops selling their wares at the fair. A lot of it is the usual fair-type stuff but they do a good job of keeping the items and the shops in the general Dicken’s/Victorian theme.
This year we found a “wand” shop. The clerk has a
great sales gimick sweet trick where the kids can “test” different wands for compability (ala’ Harry Potter). They determine this by trying to turn the shop’s lights off. A wand is meant to be yours if it turns the lights out. You can give the clerk a wink when the wand “works.”
Another favorite of ours are the living mannequin windows. Women (usually) dressed up pose in shop windows standing very still and serious, like mannequins. My daughter was so drawn to them she stood long enough in front of the window that the “mannequin” broke character to say “Hi”.
9. Cinnamon Crunch Almonds
I challenge anyone to go to the Dicken’s Fair and walk away sans nuts…(Ha!) The smell is spell-binding and it’s one of the first things you see/smell when you walk into the Fair. For $6 you get a cone filled to the brim with warm, freshly roasted and sugared almonds. Just thinking about them makes my mouth water.
10. Old-Timey Pictures at Mrs. Potter’s Studio
Without a doubt, this is my most favorite experience. It could have something to do with my obsession with sitting for old-timey photos shoots but I think not! Mrs. Potter takes her job very seriously, and as gruff as she is, her assistants are as lovely. If you want to sit for Mrs. Potter, go directly to her shop and make a reservation. One year we waited over an hour to have our picture taken and then another two for the photo. It’s not cheap either ($50 for one picture) but they do a great job.
Some things to keep in mind: (1) you’ll take several pictures with both serious and smiling faces, and you’ll have to pick the one(s) you want from Mrs. Potter’s camera immediately after taking the pictures — I’m a classist therefore I prefer the serious faces but I know reasonable minds can differ on this; and (2) if you opt to be put in a dress and you’re not a waif, expect to have your bare back and bra exposed for the time it takes them to accessorize and pose you — once you’re on the “set” no one except your people will see your bareness.
Here is our old-timey picture…try not to be too jealous….Ha!