What to do in the UK for winter visitors and students
21 December 2016

Winter can be one of the nicest times to visit the UK or study here. There are plenty of festivals and events, and it can be a beautiful time of year to spend time in the countryside or shopping under the festive lights. And even if there's nothing happening, our pubs and restaurants are warm and friendly, with open fires, warm drinks and good food.

Lots of the events in the UK at this time are linked to Christmas, New Year and the shortest day of the year. Here's a few of the best and most unusual things to do here in December.

The shortest day of the year

The shortest day of the year, 21 December, is celebrated at the Stonehenge stone circle at sunrise, and in Brighton at sunset. At Stonehenge, druids and pagans dress up and are allowed within the stone circle to sing.

In Brighton, there's the newer Burning the Clocks event. People make clock-themed lanterns, and parade them through the city streets and down to the beach in the dark, where they are thrown on to a bonfire.

Winter fairs

These are a relatively new to the UK and often including skating rinks, funfair rides and a Christmas Market. The best known is probably the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland in central London, but there is also the Sunderland Frost Village in the North-East and Nottingham's Winter Wonderland.

There are a lot of smaller, more Christmassy events too.

Alternative Christmas events

We've written about Christmas before but here are some of the stranger things you can do here:

  • Watch the Christmas morning swimmers on Brighton Beach, Lowestoft, Weymouth and the Serpentine in London, and Boxing Day swimmers at Redcar and Cromer.
  • Go to the open-air seafront concert at Eastbourne bandstand
  • Look out for Plygain carol services if you are in Wales: this ancient way of singing, in harmony and without instruments, has been revived in some churches.
  • Kirkwall Ba game - this takes place on both 25 December and 1 January, and is like a football match on the streets of Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands off Scotland. It has been described as more like a civil war than a game.
  • Grantchester Barrel Rolling Race - four local teams roll wooden barrels up and down the high street of this little Cambridgeshire town in a relay race, followed by a race between the town and surrounding villages on 26 December each year.
  • Keynsham Mummers Play - another 26 December event, this one has a group of amateurs performing an ancient play in three different locations in this Somerset town.

The sales

It's a tradition in the UK that we spend much of December shopping for Christmas presents, unwrap them on the 25th - and then go out shopping for bargains the following day.

Most shops in the UK start their sales on 26 December and the TV news usually includes a story about how busy the shops were. London's department stores, like Harrods and Selfridges, are always popular with shoppers, but there are sales in almost every shop in the land. A list of the big London sales destinations is here.

Hogmanay/New Year

Nowhere does New Year celebrations quite like Scotland, where it's called Hogmanay. Edinburgh does Hogmanay in style, with a torchlight procession on 30 December, a street party on 31 December and the Loony Dook on 1 January. This is when people parade through South Queensferry in fancy dress before walking into the freezing River Forth.

Inverness hosts the country's biggest free Hogmanay celebration, The Red Hot Highland Fling. If you're looking for something spectacular, head for Stonehaven where at midnight marchers parade down the main street swinging balls of fire around their heads.

If you're in or near London, look out for the New Year's Eve fireworks at the London Eye (tickets necessary if you want to get close) or the New Year's Day parade.

In Wales, there is a tradition of the New Year Walk In, where people with burning torches follow a decorated horse's head on a pole to a local hotel where there are a series of challenges in poetry. The Mari Lwyd can be seen in Llangynwyd, near Bridgend and Llanwrtyd Wells.


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