Even for the ‘Bah-Humbugs’ amongst us, this yearly event is a joy, even for the sheer pleasure of being among people who are not only delighted to see each other but also extremely welcoming to visitors.
This is a 3-pronged visit and probably the best place to start is at Saint Olav’s Norwegian church/Seaman’s Mission in Albion Street. The interior is all warm wood and warm welcome. Run by knowledgeable Norwegian ladies in fancy dress (don’t cringe, it really works!). They run a variety of interesting Norwegian craft stalls including Christmas ornaments but also hand-painted arts and crafts, knitted garments and, best of all, food. At the Altar end of the church you can buy Scandinavian-style open sandwiches and coffee/tea and then sit down and talk to whoever you end up sharing a table with. Don’t worry if you are a bit on the quiet side, they will definitely help you out! The history of this church is really worth a read; have a look on www.norway.org.uk or key in ‘Seaman’s mission Rotherhithe’ for more detailed information/history. The entrance fee is £1 with proceeds going to the work of the church. Once you have your ticket, you can re-visit as many times as takes your fancy. There is a courtyard outside the entrance to the church with a bar-b-q/grill smoking away in the corner. Reindeer burger anyone?
Right then, ready to push on? Come out of the church and turn into Neptune Street to stroll through the Scandinavian market. I use the word stroll loosely. It gets packed solid if you are not an early-bird, so it’s a case of just moving along at the pace of everyone else. On the upside, it means you will talk to most of the stall-holders and I have never met a friendlier bunch anywhere. They come from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Latvia and will be more than happy to tell you about their products and their country. Yes, they are there to sell their wares but it’s not a hard sell and they will often offer you a chocolate as you pass or some cake if you are interested. The produce is, once again, high quality and the variety on offer is superb. Anything from food, to candlesticks and thermals. Father Christmas appeared and was ‘high-fiving’ anyone and everyone. You have to laugh. The little shops in Neptune Street benefit from this market as it obviously attracts thousands of visitors to the area over the 3-day event. That’s got to be good hasn’t it?
A little note here: some stalls do take a debit card but it is mostly cash and there is only one cash machine in the newsagents in Neptune Street and they charge to withdraw cash. So, remember to have some cash with you when you go.
O.K. If you walk along Neptune Street with the Norwegian church behind you, you will come to the Finnish church on the left. It looks more like a little block of flats or offices (no disrespect intended). They usually have a big white hand-painted sign pointing at the entrance or you might walk straight by. The Finnish church is in stark contrast to the Norwegian church because of its modernity. However, it has the same welcome (and also charges a £1 entrance fee). The inside is decked out more like a huge supermarket and is always very crowded indeed. Upstairs they sell craft goods and there is a little café selling cakes etc. There is also a café/restaurant on the ground floor which is a darkish area with Christmas lights. I find this place a little claustrophobic after a while but still go in to support them and buy some fresh rye bread. The ground floor is accessible for wheel-chair users but you might feel a bit hemmed in with all the crowds. They don’t push but the sheer volume of people can be intimidating. There were all age-groups at this event but perhaps Friday would be better if you have small children with you.
The trick is to get there early if you can. This 3-day event normally takes place during the 3rd weekend of November, with Saturday obviously being the busiest day. So, if you want a taste of a Scandinavian Christmas but can’t manage a trip abroad, give this a try. It can be hard to find details of this event on the Web, so try the Norwegian Embassy site nearer the date.
Albion Street/Neptune Street is a 10 minute walk from Surrey Quays station which is on the Jubilee Line and also London Overground. I get the 188 bus from Russell Square – destination North Greenwich – and it drops me off at the Neptune Street stop. The bus takes a little longer but you do see a bit of London on the way.