Brenda Watkinson checks out what towns and cities are planning this Christmas to deliver an enticing mix of festive shopping opportunities for groups.
Christmas shopping outings are always popular with groups and a great way to get into the festive spirit. In fact, there is nothing more magical than strolling along ancient cobbled streets decked with colourful decorations and twinkling lights in search of those special Christmas gifts. In this feature, we present a snapshot of what some of the UK’s cities and towns are offering in the way of Christmas shopping opportunities accompanied by a varied programme of festive events.
The city of York makes a great group shopping destination and, for the first time ever, the popular St Nicholas Fair will run for a full 25 days in the run-up to Christmas. The fair features traditional wooden huts selling gifts, crafts and the very best in local farm produce. New for this year, York is launching a brand new St Nicholas Christmas Festival, also running from 27th November to 21st December, and this will include a host of festive events at the city’s major visitor attractions such as a programme of carol concerts at York Minster (see page 55), a Made in Yorkshire art and craft market at the medieval Guildhall, ice skating at York Designer Outlet’s Yorkshire Winter Wonderland and festive chocolate fun at York’s CHOCOLATE Story (see page 57). These events will run alongside the traditional festive market stalls, where stall holders will be dressed in Victorian costume.
Bath Christmas Market (27th November to 14th December) features more than 150 beautifully decorated wooden chalets, selling a variety of high-quality products including handmade Christmas decorations, personalised gifts and toys, local artwork and designer jewellery. Set in the picturesque streets and squares surrounding Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths, Bath Christmas Market is located right in the centre of the shopping district so visitors can also enjoy the excellent mix of high street and designer shops, attractions, cafes and bars in this UNESCO World Heritage city. In the run-up to Christmas, there will also be candlelit carol concerts, special exhibitions, shows and music events on offer along with Bath on Ice, a great way to enjoy the city’s winter festivities.
The city of Bristol makes a particularly good destination for a Christmas outing or short break. Bristol shopping quarter comprises Broadmead, the Galleries and Cabot Circus and is home to over 500 stores including flagship department stores and high street favourites, perfect for Christmas shopping. Free coach parking is available nearby. A free event at Cabot Circus shopping centre on Friday 7th November at 6pm will see the switch on of Bristol’s Christmas lights and the official start of the festive season in the city. Another highlight for groups this year will be the popular German-themed Christmas Market, located in the pedestrianised area of Bristol Shopping Quarter, Broadmead (7th November to 22nd December). Visitors will be able to browse the quaint wooden chalet-style stalls selling gifts, original homemade crafts, and German-themed food and drink before relaxing in the Bavarian beer garden. A local produce and craft market will join the German-themed market from 4th to 21st December, featuring gifts with a Bristol twist, local handmade goods and Fairtrade produce. A short stroll away is St Nicholas Market in the heart of Bristol’s Old City surrounded by beautiful Georgian architecture and boasting award-winning produce and some unique stalls. New for 2014 is a giant snow globe, which will be located near the Christmas market in Broadmead, where shoppers can step inside and have their picture taken, making a perfect souvenir or gift for family and friends.
Gloucester Quays Outlet Shopping is bringing a mix of Christmas festivities to the historic Gloucester Docks this winter with its annual Victorian Christmas Market (20th to 23rd November) and Festive Fayre (12th to 14th December). Spanning the Quay’s waterside area, the traditional Victorian Christmas Market transforms the outlet’s outdoor space with over 120 stalls selling artisan food, handmade goods, gifts and bespoke fashion items. The atmosphere is enhanced by Dickensian street performers and live music including regional brass bands and choirs at the Victorian Bandstand. Meanwhile, the Gloucester Quays Outlet’s Festive Fayre features over 80 tempting producers, boasting the finest seasonal produce from around the country and even further afield. You will also find unique handcrafted gifts, locally grown Christmas trees, handmade decorations, wreaths, scented candles and seasonal plants. Gloucester Quays Outlet features over 60 stores including M&S Outlet, Next Clearance, Gap Outlet and many designer brands with savings of up to 70% off RRP.
In Swansea, groups are welcome to join in the city’s Christmas festivities. Not to be missed is Swansea’s award-winning Christmas attraction Waterfront Winterland in Museum Park (14th November to 4th January 2015) featuring two outdoor ice rinks – the Admiral Rink and a children’s rink – a festive funfair, Santa’s Grotto and a Sky Ride right in the heart of the city. Ice skating tickets are on sale from September 2014. Always popular with groups, Swansea’s Christmas Markets (28th November to 21st December) offer both festive food and distinctive gift ideas while this year’s Christmas Parade (16th November) will once again have Father Christmas as the guest of honour to switch on Swansea’s Christmas lights and really get the festivities going.
In the Midlands, Birmingham is increasing in popularity as a Christmas and New Year destination and proudly boasts the largest authentic Christmas market outside Germany and Austria. The Frankfurt Christmas Market (13th November to 22nd December) is the centrepiece of the city’s festive event calendar and features over 180 stalls selling gifts, jewellery, decorations, handmade toys, delicious German fare and Glühwein. Meanwhile, adjacent to the Frankfurt Christmas Market, the Christmas Craft Fair offers a selection of beautifully hand-crafted items, created by local artisans. In fact, Birmingham is the perfect place to get Christmas shopping all wrapped up with over 1,000 shops within a 20-minute walk in the city centre. At the heart of the city is Bullring, home to 160 shops and the iconic Selfridges complex while The Mailbox houses some top designer names such as Harvey Nichols. Other key dates in Birmingham’s festive calendar include the annual Christmas Parade and Light Switch On (8th November) and Acorns Charity Santa Fun Run in Brindleyplace (6th December).
Further north, no festive visit to Manchester would be complete without a stroll through the famous Christmas Markets (14th November to 21st December). Located at a number of sites in the city centre, the markets comprise over 300 stalls and are a fantastic place to start your Christmas shopping experience as they offer a great choice of original gifts and a chance to indulge in an array of mouth-watering delicacies from across Europe. Afterwards, your members could head off to explore the rest of the Mancunian shopping experience such as the Arndale Shopping Centre, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and the out-of-town Trafford Centre, all of which will be celebrating Christmas in style. Outside the city centre, a Victorian Christmas Market can be experienced this year at The Lowry Outlet in the heart of MediaCityUK in Salford (4th to 7th December). Considered the highlight of the shopping season, the Christmas market boasts over 100 different producers with uniquely decorated stalls selling artisan food, handmade goods, gifts and bespoke crafts. There will also be lots of entertainment including regional brass bands and choirs at the Victorian Bandstand along with Dickensian street performers. The Lowry Outlet boasts more than 80 stores, restaurants and cafes including M&S Outlet, Molton Brown, Cadbury’s, Whittard of Chelsea, Gap Outlet and The Body Shop offering savings of up to 70% off RRP.
Edinburgh offers a picture-perfect setting to celebrate the festive season and visitors can expect twinkling lights, mammoth Christmas trees and a superb selection of independent and high street shopping. The action starts on Light Night (23rd November) as Edinburgh’s Christmas lights are switched on in George Street directly followed by the opening of Edinburgh’s Christmas (23rd November to 5th January) featuring events, attractions and festive markets. Iconic favourites include the Princes Street Gardens’ ice rink and Big Wheel along with some exciting new additions, Santa and the Elves’ workshop, hidden in the giant Christmas Tree Maze, and the Santa train.
Festive fayres conjure up some very colourful images – Christmas decorations and lights brightening the streets, the aroma of mulled wine and cinnamon wafting in the air and the distant sound of choirs singing carols. However, it is worth noting that careful pre-planning is essential to make your outing a success as the fayres can get extremely busy, especially at weekends.
Famous for its connections with the Great British author, Charles Dickens, Rochester offers a selection of independent shops and restaurants and its High Street oozes with festive spirit in the run-up to Christmas. This year, 15th November will mark the beginning of Yuletide festivities with the traditional Christmas Light Switch-on ceremony, followed two weeks later by the 2014 Rochester Christmas Market. Held in the iconic setting of Rochester Castle Gardens, the market offers gift ideas, value goodies and stocking fillers along with some tasty Christmas treats (29th and 30th November, 5th to 7th December and 12th to 14th December). Meanwhile, a separate event, the annual Dickensian Christmas Festival (6th and 7th December) is popular with groups too. New for 2014, a Christmas Lunch is served in the grand Queens Hall of Rochester’s Corn Exchange and is offered exclusively to groups during the Dickensian Christmas weekend only (pre-booking essential). Coaches and minibuses need to pre-book parking for the market and festival weekend.
Meanwhile, just 20 minutes from London, St Albans with one of the oldest regular markets in the UK, dating back to the 9th century, has confirmed the dates for its second ‘German-inspired’ Christmas Market this year (27th November to 21st December). The 25-day event will take place around the magnificent 11th-century St Albans Cathedral and feature more than 80 traders selling a range of high-quality goods as well as specialty food and drink. There will be live music and entertainment throughout the event. Coaches can drop off passengers in St Peter’s Street, a five-minute walk from St Albans Christmas Market.
Another traditional Christmas market is held in the cathedral city of Lincoln (4th to 7th December) where visitors can browse over 250 stalls located within the medieval square between the Norman castle and Gothic cathedral. In addition to the usual range of high quality stalls, several exciting changes are taking place this year, including more entertainment in all areas of the market to create an even more festive atmosphere. Visitors to the market should look out for handmade jewellery, hand-poured candles, wooden toys, hand-painted glass, ceramics and locally-created art, as well as fresh produce from the local area. Coach groups must pre-book for the Lincoln Christmas Market 2014 before 23rd November with Early Bird prices available until 30th September.
Celebrating its 22nd anniversary this year, Worcester Victorian Christmas Fayre (27th to 30th November) will feature more than 100 stalls this year and the city’s historic centre will be transformed back to the Victorian era. Visitors will have no problem choosing their Christmas gifts as they browse the range of products on offer in the local arts and crafts maker area, international area, festive gifts area and food court. Entertainment includes carol singing, instrumental performances, dance displays and juggling stiltwalkers!