How to Celebrate the Christmas Season in London

How to Celebrate the Christmas Season in London

London is my favorite city in which to celebrate the Christmas season!

When I was in law school, I had the privilege of spending a Fall semester studying at University College London and living in Holland Park. During this time, I experienced my first Christmas season in London. I had no idea an entire city could be so festive and enveloped in the Christmas or holiday spirit!

In the United States, most people feel that we Americans must wait until after the Thanksgiving holiday to begin our Christmas celebrations. Because the British do not have this restriction, they begin decorating and celebrating around the second week of November. This provides ample time to enjoy the city's decorations and participate in all its Christmastime activities. While the Christmas season is ending soon, if you ever have the opportunity to visit London in November or December, definitely take advantage of it and enjoy celebrating Christmas in London!

Trying to plan a trip to London? Check out this post about the best ways to get there!

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

If you only have time for one Christmas activity in London, you must go to Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland! Filled with Christmas markets, refreshments, music, and activities (including an outdoor skating rink), Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland has something for everyone. This market was the highlight of my time in London, and will be the first thing I do the next time I am in London for Christmas.

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Entrance to the Winter Wonderland Park

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Salmon filets being smoked on cedar planks over an open fire in the market

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Me posing with a wood-carved viking while holding delicious mulled wine

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The entrance to one of the rides in the carnival part of the market: my friends and I never learned why the signs were in German.

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One of the many outdoor bars in the market, this one with an apres-ski theme

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Enjoying drinks on the moving carousel bar in the center of the market

Best Christmas Decorations in London

The entire city of London is decorated for Christmas. Some of the best places to enjoy the decorations are on the streets of the city center and at the department stores, where you can enjoy both the window displays and the interior decorations.

On the Streets

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Giant birds welcoming you to the Christmas in Canarby celebration on Canarby Street

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Giant light sets over Regent Street

Department Stores

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Liberty London department store adorned with its lit Christmas trees

 

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Harrod's Christmas window display featuring a glamorous train ride

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Harrod's Christmas window display

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A window display at Selfridge's, featuring hot items among winter landscapes (here Beats by Dre)

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Play Dough spilling out over a Christmas landscape in another Selfridge's window display

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Christmas decorations are put up inside Selfridge's as well

 

London Christmas Markets

Germany may be the country best-known for its Christmas markets, but London offers over a dozen to pick from throughout the city. Each market is unique. Though I would recommend visiting as many as possible - even just to wander around with a cup of mulled wine - so long as you get to one you will have the unique London Christmas market experience.

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Wooden cabins are erected for each shop at the Southbank Centre Christmas Market along the South bank of the Thames River

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Christmas markets stretch for many blocks and each hut contains unique gifts for purchase, like Himalayan salt candles and alpaca capes.

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The Christmas celebrations extend out to other areas of London, like Portobello Market in Notting Hill. There, this Caribbean Santa and his drummer bring a tropical element to the market with carols played on a steel drum.

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Vats of mulled wine are a must at any British (and European) Christmas market.

Christmas Activities in London

Once you have had your fill of walking around London's Christmas markets and looking at the decorations, you can continue to enjoy the other activities available throughout the city. Finding an outdoor skating rink is one of the most popular activities. You may also happen upon a street party, as I did on the opening night of Carnaby Street's Christmas festivities. Westfield London helps children and families visit Santa's Grotto each year. There are always the typical London highlights to partake in as well, such as going for a ride on the London Eye or seeing a show in the West End, made extra special with a Christmastime flare at this time of the year.

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Ice skating at the outdoor rink next to the Natural History Museum is one of the most popular Christmastime events.

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A scene from the Canarby Street Christmas opening party

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Santa's Grotto, which you can find at Westfield's shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush

Christmas Dinner in London

Starting in September you will see British restaurants advertising for customers to make reservations for Christmas dinner. Many locals will celebrate Christmas in London with their friends in the weeks leading up to December 25th by going out for a proper dinner.

I was fortunate to attend two such gatherings when I lived there: a party at Little Bay Farringdon with my school program and a celebration at The Oak in Westbourne Park with my roommates. (N.B. the Farringdon location has since closed, but the restaurant still has locations in Battersea and South Croydon). Christmas dinner is something Londoners place great emphasis on. Be sure to make your reservations early and enjoy this popular tradition!

Discover more Top London Restaurants in this post!

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Pre-Christmas dinner drinks at The Oak

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My school group ready for the 4-course prix fixe Christmas dinner at Little Bay Farringdon

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The best things to see and do in London at Christmastime
The best things to see and do in London at Christmastime
Spend a Weekend in Wales like a Local

Spend a Weekend in Wales like a Local

A few years ago I spent a weekend visiting extended family in Wales.  At that time I wrote about it in my private blog. Now that I want to share the experience with everyone, I realize this is best done with the memories I had immediately after the trip. Below, I’ve updated my original private blog post from 2013 about spending a weekend in Wales.

A Weekend in Wales, 2013

My great-grandparents, Margaret and Edward Roberts, emigrated from Bethesda, Wales, to Chicago in the early 1900s. Most of their siblings stayed behind in Wales, so I have many second-, third-, and fourth-cousins still living there. The town of Bethesda, where my great-, great-great, and great-great-great-grandparents lived, has a population of 4,000. There is just one high street and a few neighborhoods branching off of it. When the slate mines in the area were booming in the 1800s, it was an extremely important town. In recent years its population and importance has declined. Regardless, I still think it is still the cutest village in the northwest corner of Wales. It was while based in this town that I visited the area my ancestors are from and met many relatives for the first or second time.

Bethesda

Heulwen, my second cousin, and her husband Emyr picked me up from the train station in Bangor and brought me home Thursday evening. I arrived just in time to enjoy tea and delicious homemade cake as we discussed the plans for the weekend. Heulwen also explained my relationship to the people I would meet.

Heulwen had made a wonderful homemade steak and ale pie to have after tea for dinner. After we ate it, she told us that she realized while making it that there wasn’t any ale in the house: it was really just a steak pie! It still gave us energy for an evening walk along Bethesda’s High Street afterwards. During our walk, Heulwen pointed out buildings of significance to our family. For example, the current grocery store used to be a bus station that was owned and run by my great-grandfather. There were many apartments that my ancestors had lived in or been born in decades ago as well.

At the end of the road was a pub called the Douglas Arms. The same family had owned the pub for 3 generations. We arrived around 9 PM and the owner opened the pub for us to have a drink. It was the first time I had a pub open just for me! We entered through the foyer and went into the pub room, which really felt like someone’s living room. In fact, at one time it was a living room. The building was originally a house and the bottom floor was converted into a pub without rearranging the rooms.

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Douglas Arms Exterior

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Photo of the Living Room Pub, from the Douglas Arms website (click for link)

Eventually other local customers arrived and the room filled up. As is typical in small towns, everyone else there knew each other, so they immediately recognized that I was the foreigner in the room. The locals were interested to talk to me about the USA and share their stories if they had traveled overseas themselves.

Snowdonia

The next day Heulwen drove me through Snowdonia, the mountainous region near Bethesda. She told me that every year hikers go into the mountains without the proper equipment, such as maps, compasses, and GPS, and then have to call the rescue service to be saved. This is the same rescue service that Prince William was a member of until 2013. Therefore, people in the area thought that some hikers only called to see if Prince William would come rescue them. Perhaps the number of “lost and stranded” hikers decreased once he left the rescue team!

Mountains of Snowdonia (photo credit: Heulwen Roberts)

Zipline over the quarry: the longest zipline in the Northern Hemisphere in 2013

Betws-y-Coed

On our road trip we stopped at many beautiful towns, including Betws-y-Coed, Bae Colwyn, Rhos-on-Sea, and Llandudno. In Betws-y-Coed we spent some time shopping for typical Welsh souvenirs and had a look at the Royal Oak Hotel.

In the Royal Oak Hotel Lobby

Betws-y-Coed is situated on the A5 expressway. This was the main road used by coaches bringing mail from Dublin to London. The ferry ride from Dublin to the Isle of Anglesey was only about an hour, after which coaches would proceed through the heart of Northern Wales. The Royal Oak Hotel is a grand hotel along the path that many coaches traveling between the two cities would stop at for the night.

Exterior of the Royal Oak Hotel

Bae Colwyn

In Bae Colwyn, Heulwen and I had lunch with my third-cousins Karen. We went to lunch with her specifically because my mom and she were pen-pals when they were children. Unknown to Heulwen, Karen and my mom actually met in Chicago, where my mom grew up, when Karen was 3-years-old. It was nice to spend time with her knowing more about our family connection.

Me, Heulwen, and Karen at lunch

Seaside Rhos and Llandudno

Rhos-on-Sea and Llandudno are both gorgeous seaside towns. Rhos-on-Sea has huge beaches that stretch for miles along the coast and extend many meters before meeting the water. It was a bit cold on the day we visited, but the town looked like it would be a fantastic place to vacation and spend a few days in the summer.

Rhos-on-Sea Beach

Llandudno is one of the more upscale towns in the area. It has a boardwalk with a few grand hotels and restaurants along it. A large town sitting on the side of a mountain overlooks the beach area, and an open-air tram ascends the mountain year-round. Because the weather was brisk, we drove to the top of the mountain to have a view of the town and surrounding area instead of taking the tram.

Llandudno Boardwalk

The areas of Wales Heulwen took me to on Friday were beautiful. They gave me a good sense of the diversity of landscape in the country with the huge mountains and the spacious beaches located so close to each other.

Bangor

Friday night, two of my third-cousins took me out for a night on the town in Bangor! Alice and Sioned were  gracious hosts allowing me to unexpectedly join Alice’s birthday party. They brought me to three bars in town and then a club to show me proper Welsh nightlife. It was similar to nightlife in any other European city with a few exceptions:

  1. Popular locations allowed in large groups of just men, without any women with them. There are very few places in other cities that would permit this, especially with a cover fee.
  2. The men all had haircuts like American military men, though most of them weren’t actually in the military.
  3. Many people I met were obsessed with the fact that I was American. There are a few pictures of me out there I will never see again from people who needed a photo with the American in town.

Just as everyone knows each other in Bethesda, we ran into a large number of people my cousins knew at the bars and in the streets walking around. I had to cut the night short to go home while everyone else stayed out dancing since there was a busy day planned for Saturday. Regardless, I had an incredible time and am so thankful to Heulwen for contacting Alice and Sioned to set this up, and for them taking me along for the night.

Alice, Me, and Sioned

Isle of Anglesey

Saturday morning Heulwen and I set out on another sight-seeing adventure, this time to Caernarfon. This was the town in which many of my American family members stayed in during our 2010 family reunion. It is on the water near the Isle of Anglesey and has one of the most well-preserved castles and walled cities from the 1200s that I have seen. The English built the castle to oppress the Welsh, so it’s not a great source of pride, but it still adds a lot of charm to the town.

Caernarfon Castle

Heulwen’s daughter Hannah met us at the hotel in town for lunch and coffee. After lunch, we all went to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the town with the longest name in the world. It means “St. Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel near to the Rapid Whirlpool of Llantysilio of the Red Cave.” This town became notorious for its name length and specificity. It is also the first town you reach on the Isle of Anglesey when arriving from the mainland.

Sign at the train station for the town

That afternoon we all visited Hannah’s older sister Ceri at her house to have tea with her and her two young daughters, one of whom had just been born. I had heard all weekend from Heulwen and Emyr about how smart the older daughter, Erin, is, and they were completely right. For example, the first language of most people in Wales, including my family, is Welsh. Erin, who is three-years-old, speaks Welsh, but is also starting to learn English. This normally doesn’t happen until age four or five when children start school. Erin was mostly able to understand me and to respond using simple words. Most people I know can’t speak two languages, and certainly not by age three.

Ceri, Megan, Me, Hannah, and Erin

Family Dinner

After spending most of the weekend with my great-grandmother’s side of the family, I went out to dinner on Saturday night with about 20 relatives from my great-grandfather’s side of the family. They were all also from Bethesda. Years ago, one of them researched his family history, then walked down the road to Heulwen’s house with some paperwork and announced that they were related.

Most of my relatives from my great-grandfather’s side of the family had been at the family reunion I attended in Chicago in 2002, so I had briefly met them and vaguely remembered them. They were all excited to see me and to tell me about their lives, as well as hear about how all the American relatives were doing. I hope I sufficiently updated everyone because we only see each other about once every five years. It was difficult to adequately describe who each person was that I was talking about, seeing as I have five aunts and six cousins in Chicago, plus their families, plus a number of second cousins who the Welsh relatives know.

Lyn and me after dinner

Talking with the men

Spending the weekend with my family and meeting them all for either the first or second time made for a fantastic relaxing weekend and was special for me. I enjoyed extending my known family tree. Every person I met was really friendly and welcoming. Although we are distant relatives, I am still glad to be a part of their family. Heulwen and Emyr were fantastic hosts making sure that I was comfortable, well taken-care of, well-fed, and that I got to see everything and everyone that I wanted to without making the weekend seem busy or rushed. I hope to return and to see everyone again soon!

If you’re interested in visiting this area of Wales, I recommend staying at the hotel in Caernarfon where my family stayed for their reunion: The Celtic Royal Hotel. By using this link I receive compensation at no additional cost to you.

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Thinking of heading to Wales' Snowdonia Region? Find out where to go and what to see - including travel tips from locals! - in this blog post.

 

Top 6 Restaurants in London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Top 6 Restaurants in London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The original intent of this post was to highlight restaurants in London throughout the city. However, as I made my list of recommendations I realized that most of the restaurants were in the Notting Hill area, where I had lived in London. Therefore, this post will focus on restaurants just in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Next time you are in London, use the information below to head west and check out the best restaurants in London’s most exclusive neighborhoods!

Looking for more information about London? Check out the Getting to London post!

1. Julie’s

Julie’s restaurant is a hidden gem in Holland Park, an upscale neighborhood just past Notting Hill. The unassuming exterior on Portland Road opens to a variety of rooms, elegantly-decorated in a British-Egyptian style, creating many intimate spaces to enjoy your meal. Julie’s has been noted as a favorite special-occasion date spot of Princes William and Harry. Many other A-listers have been spotted walking through its doors as well. Prince Charles even began his bachelor party here before marrying Princess Diana! Even so, the menu and prices still are accessible to those of us commoners looking for fine dining in London, and reservations are not too difficult to come by.

135 Portland Road, Holland Park, London, W11 4LW * http://www.juliesrestaurant.com/

 

2. Electric Diner and Cinema

The Electric Diner is a casual restaurant connected to an old-fashioned cinema showing current movies (this week’s selection is Mama Mia! 2). You can grab a drink or a bite to eat at the diner before catching a show in one of the leather armchairs, couches, or front row beds featured in the theatre next door. One of the best features, especially for Americans, is the brunch served every Sunday! Among other offerings, the diner features many popular brunch items, including a proper Bloody Mary, which is surprisingly hard to find at restaurants in London.

191 Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2EDhttp://www.electricdiner.com/

 

3. Beach Blanket Babylon

Beach Blanket Babylon has some of the best pre- or post-dinner cocktails in the area. Its decorations are also incredibly ornate with Roman and Greek design influences. I unfortunately cannot speak to the food, but be sure to try the Elderflower Daiquiri if you go for cocktails, you won’t be disappointed.

45 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2AAhttps://www.beachblanket.co.uk/

 

4. Granger and Co.

Granger and Co. is a lovely casual upscale restaurant in the heart of Notting Hill. Its large windows let in vast amounts of light during the day, which make it an inviting space to either chill out at the bar with a pastry or grab lunch with friends. The light lunch menu reflects the high-end air of the area without the high-end price points.

175 Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill, London, W11 2SBhttps://grangerandco.com/

 

5. Harrod’s Champagne Bar

Outside the Notting Hill area in Knightsbridge, Harrod’s is famous for its luxurious shopping experience. This Qatari-owned shopping mecca, offering everything from Alexander McQueen ball gowns to gustatory delicacies to throw pillows, also features 23 dining options. Though you may not think of a shopping emporium as hosting some of the best restaurants in London, you should give it a chance: the Champagne Bar in particular does not disappoint. Do not make the mistake of thinking you should skip this option due to its high price-points. Like most things in life, the price is worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

87 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7XLhttps://www.harrods.com/en-gb/restaurants/fine-dining/the-champagne-bar

 

6. The Real Greek

This restaurant has ten locations in London, including a location just outside Kensington and Chelsea in Shepherd’s Bush. I became obsessed with finding authentic Greek food when I visited Greece two years ago, but long before this I became obsessed with London’s restaurant The Real Greek. Featuring a variety of hot and cold small plates, The Real Greek is a fun place to dine out with friends while also a welcoming environment when dining alone: I can personally speak to both experiences! With so many locations you cannot fail to run into this restaurant, so be sure to stop in when you see one.

Southern Terrace, Westfield Shopping Centre, 1073 Ariel Way, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 7GBhttp://www.therealgreek.com/

 

Bonus! Borough Market

 

Borough Market is an outdoor food market on the opposite side of London from Notting Hill. Regardless, it is my favorite lunch spot in the city. It is fun to walk around and see the unique specialty items offered from around the world. It also allows a group of picky eaters to each select a different cuisine and still all dine together. Best of all, you can pick up a pitcher of sangria or Pimm’s cup to enjoy along with your selection!

8 Southwark Street, Southwark, London SE1 1TLhttp://boroughmarket.org.uk/

 

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Top 6 Restaurants In London's Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Getting to London

Getting to London

So you want to go to London!

This beautiful city is one of the biggest transportation hubs in the world, so whether you’re arriving by plane, train, bus, or car, you should have no problem getting to the city quickly and easily from wherever you are.

Looking for more information on London? Check out the post Top 6 Restaurants in London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea!

By Plane

London is serviced by five international airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and London City. You can reach central London from each of them by public transportation or taxi, so it doesn’t make too much difference which one you fly into.

Heathrow: Heathrow is the main London airport for flights coming from the U.S., although direct flights are now available to Gatwick and Stansted as well. The easiest and cheapest way to get from Heathrow to downtown London is to take London’s subway, officially known as the Underground and commonly referred to as the Tube. To do so, purchase an Oyster Card at the airport (you will get a refund when you return it later), add value, and board the Picadilly Line, the only line available from Heathrow. The first half of this journey on the Tube is above ground, so it is a relaxing way to experience your first views of the city.

However, it will take you over an hour to reach central London from Heathrow by subway, so for a few pounds more it is well worth it to take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station. It will take you just 15 minutes to get into the city using this option. You will be dropped off at Paddington Station, from which four Tube lines are accessible.

You could also consider taking a National Express bus or a taxi, but the price of the taxi could be double or triple that of the train, and both methods will still take about an hour to get into the city.

Gatwick, Standsted, and Luton: To get from Gatwick, Stansted, or Luton Airports to London, you can take a train, bus, or taxi. The train is most advisable as it will take you right into one of London’s major train stations (Victoria or Blackfriars Station from Gatwick, St. Pancras Station from Luton, and Liverpool Street from Stansted). Tickets cost between $13 and $23, and trips take about 30 minutes. By contrast, bus tickets are less than $10 and will also get you to a major train station but could take closer to an hour. The biggest advantage of taking the National Express bus service over the UK’s National Rail service, aside from the cost, is that the bus is rarely if ever affected by strikes (I once waited over an hour for a train from Stansted to London after returning from a week-long trip, which was tiresome and frustrating when all I wanted was to be back relaxing in my apartment).

London City: London City is the smallest of the London airports, but it does service international flights on budget airlines. It is also on the Tube system, so you can take the above-ground DLR train from the airport to Canning Town station and then access the rest of the Tube network from there. A trip on the Tube to central London will take about twenty minutes; a taxi from London City airport will take about a half hour.

By Train

If you are traveling to London from somewhere else in Europe, I recommend taking the train. Your journey will end right in central London at one of its many beautiful train stations, and you will have a chance to take a picturesque ride through the countryside. If you will be pre-booking your train ticket online (versus buying it at the train station), check out TheTrainLine.com for the cheapest tickets available. You can access additional discounts by purchasing a railcard, such as the railcard for travelers under 25 years old, which would be cost-effective if you plan to take multiple train rides around Great Britain.

The most popular train from continental Europe to London is the Eurostar! Although it is more expensive than flying, it is much faster and will take you right from city center to city center. For both the convenience and experience, taking the Eurostar between London and Paris or any of its other accessible cities is definitely worthwhile.

By Bus

Although London sits on the island of Great Britain, it is actually accessible by coach bus from various locations within the country and around continental Europe! National Express buses are available for cheap transportation around Great Britain; to find other bus lines for transportation to and from Europe, check out GoEuro.com. The bus may be the least comfortable transport option, but it is also the cheapest, and like the trains will bring you right from city center to city center.

By Car

Of course if you have access to a car, driving to London is always an option. It is accessible by multiple major highways in Great Britain. Keep in mind if you are not used to driving in a British-owned territory that cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, left turns on red lights are generally not permitted, and gas prices may be higher than what you are used to (currently gas costs around $5.79 USD per gallon in the UK, and just $3.50 USD per gallon in the U.S.).

The biggest downside to driving in London is the Congestion Charge that applies as a toll in city center. The charge applies from 7 AM to 6 PM Monday through Friday, and will be applied whenever you enter the Congestion Charge Zone. The zone expands from Hyde Park in the West to just past Liverpool Street Station in the East, and from Kings Cross Station in the North down past Borough Market in the South. The charge is about $18 USD for each entrance into the zone. However, the freedom of having your own transportation may make the extra fees worth it.

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How to Get to London

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