English as tuppence, changeless as canal water – the glories of the British Christmas Market are remembered and rejoiced by Dagbert Beaver.
Yes, it’s that time of year again: winter drawers on and out into the damp and cold of an English December (while the red, red robin goes bob, bob, bobbin’ along somewhere in Scandaland where the snow is deep and crisp and even and Santa’s beard is real) to seek the delights that can be had from ruddy-faced vendors of chestnuts and mulled wine all bedizened as they are with a combination of brandy fuelled bonhomie and cheap tinsel haloes from Claire’s Accessories. Every second advert in the cheap sheets invites you to experience the seasonal joy of the Christmas Markets in Cologne or Salzburg and having been to both of these as well as a rather splendid affair in Venice at which the (extremely good) hot spiced red wine worked out at about 50p a litre, I do find it rather hard to believe that the proliferation of the English version will be anything other than a half-arsed attempt to turn a quick sov for as little effort as possible and will therefore suffer mightily in comparison. Lincolnshire, being the least populated and most rural of all the English counties seems to be the best place for your correspondent to make the comparison, and so Friday eve finds us in Woodhall Spa, about twenty miles from Lincoln.
Built by a loony about a hundred years ago, Woodhall is a charming little mock Tudor village with one main street, The Broadway. For the Winter Fair – or, in the classic Ye Olde English, Fayre – this is closed off at both ends, turning the centre of the village into a pedestrian thoroughfare – not a car in sight, and all the better for it. The event is small enough that there is a minimum of council busybodiness on show and while the event is essentially local (for local people) the BBC bus (local radio for local people) has been there since lunchtime and pulled in people from both round and about, filling it up nicely by the 6:00 opening time. If the relentless drizzle had instead been softly settling snowflakes, the whole thing would have been just about perfect, with butchers cooking burgers and sausages outside their shops (while the (not on strike today, chaps) fire brigade competed with what looked like a consignment of burnt rhinoceros penises but claimed to be hot dogs) as rosy-cheeked children ran around and barrel organs thundered. Stalls of smoked and ewe’s cheeses, free mulled wine, plus of course tombolas, golf games, ski ball, goal shooting and other worthy pastimes organised by all and sundry from the Women’s Institute to the English Prostitute’s Collective, and the inevitable stalls selling a plethora of luminous (and possibly radioactive) tat. More rosy-cheeked infants then marched by candlelight to the Dambuster’s memorial (a singularly unsuccessful attempt to render a breaking dam in art brut concrete) for a carol service. And so to the pub for pints of the splendid local Bateman’s ale in preparation for the trip to Lincoln on the morrow.
Lincoln Minster was at one time the tallest building in Europe, and, built on top of the only hill for miles, is mighty impressive. We’ve opted for the early doors policy, as the Christmas Fair has apparently become extremely popular, and so park about halfway up Steep Hill so as to be able to gawp at the Italian that ol’ Jeff Archer was caught out (again) in. Steep Hill is rightly named, being both very steep and very hill. As we gasp up to the top, enterprising burghers fling wide their windows for the flogging of mulled wine; most welcome, too. Even though it’s only 10:30, the top of the hill is heaving. The market starts in the precincts of the cathedral, right across through the castle and round the back to Bailgate and Westgate. It’s absolutely packed, and officious-looking and sounding stewards are shepherding the crowds around a one-way system while the worst, and I mean the worst, children’s choir in the world try to make themselves heard over some truly awful and hideously would be funky geetar from a bespectacled nerd. While there are some OK stalls most of them have ‘merchandise’ not even fit for burning and the rest are selling faux German food – Bratwurst, Beerwurst, Frikadellen, etc. Well, pardon me, but what happened to Lincolnshire Sausage and Lincolnshire Red beef? This is a nightmare! Having discovered that you can never go back – one-way system, y’see – had a go on an old carousel and munched up half a gristleburger, before we dive into the Toy Museum. Creepy. But enthralling, and, more to the point, empty. Finally, we make break through the still-gathering crowd and dive into the Wig and Mitre for which no praise is high enough – good beers, good wines, great food.
And there we have it. Semi-organised, fine. Great big organised things – we just can’t do it.
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