From Concorde to a Romanian trawler: best and oddest new year celebrations
I'm looking forward to a quiet night at home – and remembering some rather more raucous holidays in the past
In The Ice Hotel’s bar, Sweden, December 2014.
I should be in Bahrain now. Or maybe Andalusia. Or Spetses. Somewhere else.
But Somewhere Else isn’t somewhere we Tier Four people are permitted to visit. The British Government’s Pandemic points system for this latest phase of the COVID epidemic is like some weird airline loyalty scheme in reverse: the higher your tier, the less frequently you fly.
Instead, I’ll hunker down, pour a Bunnahabhain and have a good wallow in past Christmas and New Year trips.
This list is more the latter than the former. Having experimented with Christmasses in various overseas locations, I eventually realised that home is best. It’s true that too many English Christmasses dawn grey and mild and you end up in that peculiarly British fuggy state of consciousness brought on by too much wine, central heating and TV. At least in this benighted year the pagan gods of winter festivals chose the 25th for the one day of a soggy week that would be crisp, freezing and sunny.
New Year’s Eve, though – so many places, so many different celebrations, so many alternatives to the bad jumpers and noisy pubs you’ve (in normal years) seen a lot of in the average British holiday season. Here are a few.
Utsira: worth getting churned up about
North Utsira, South Utsira – moderate, becoming good later. How many times have I nodded off to sleep with that incantation from the Shipping Forecast? You hardly think a place called Utsira exists; or if it does, maybe it’s a deep sea trench or an oil platform in the middle of the North Sea.
Yet the isle does exist, off the coast of Norway; and you used to be able to fly there, or to Haugesand, as close as you can get, by Ryanair. Our late December flights were £15 out, £40 back. Those were the days when Ryanair put a pin in the map, found an airport, asked for a big cheque from said airport and five minutes later, started a new route. I wonder if those days will ever return?
The stretch of water between Haugesund and Utsira was neither moderate nor good: more like Southeast veering southwest, 6 or 7, stomachs rising and falling very rapidly. People who obviously took that same ferry several times a week were groaning and throwing up. This was not a good sign.
But we got there. Two of us shacked up in a log cabin built to house 15. Many Scandinavian log cabins are like that: every room crammed with bunks and beds. Scandis love a big intergenerational knees-up. Bring your friends and aunties, there’s room for everyone.
I don’t remember much about the party apart from being woefully underdressed. You think: ‘New Year’s Eve on a Norwegian fishing island – not exactly The Savoy, is it?’ Wrong. The assembled revellers were head to toe in black suits, black dresses, ties and sparkly numbers. They took in my jeans and woolly polo neck jumper with sympathetic looks that clearly said, the Brits have gone to the dogs a bit, haven’t they?
The other thing I remember was a drunk bloke walking around in the freezing, starlit nights picking up live fireworks and throwing them around like sparklers.
Tromsø and the aurora: if you’re very, very lucky
Back to 2009/10. Also in Norway, but miles and miles up north and, according to one usually reliable source, the 5th Most Sublime Place in the World.
I went for The Sunday Telegraph on one of those See the Northern Lights at Christmas trips. As the piece makes clear, the skies are rarely clear at this time of year and you are much better off, aurora-wise, going there at the beginning or end of winter (or head somewhere reliably cloudless, like the Abisko park).
So it could have been dismal. I mean, when you go away, it’s usually nice to see something. In Tromsø at New Year, that’s tricky: you get about two hours of a charcoalish twilight around 10am, then it’s Amy Winehouse time: back to black.
Here’s what you do (at least, here’s what we did). Stock up on small bottles of champagne at the airport. Keep said bottles in the snow piled up outside your hotel room window, Create a first-class cabin vibe in your room with armchairs, rugs, cosy socks and old films. Have a party. And then, at new year in Tromsø, join everyone else for a really big party on the quayside.
Ullapool is a whitewashed, lochside, rollicking little fishing down in the Highlands. We’ve been going there for 30 years, usually to The Ceilidh Place a very Scottish mixture of hotel, pub, music venue, art gallery and Independence politics. It looks from the website as if they have done the place up a wee bit, but otherwise, and quite properly, it’s not much changed from the seventies.
With dear friends from Edinburgh, we had a seven-course dinner one New Year’s Eve at the restaurant there, then went out, whiskies and lumps of coal in hand, for the first footing and a bit of Auld Lang Syning. But here’s the thing: as tourists we didn’t really feel it was our place to knock on the inhabitants’ doors expecting strong drink in return. The phrase ‘acts of cultural appropriation’ had not yet come into general currency then: but I guess that was what we were afraid of committing. So it was that 11.30pm saw us wandering around the quayside wondering what to do next.
A man called out in a strong Central European accent. Hi! Come on board! Come join!
Sensible people, fearing mugging, kidnapping or worse, would have carried on along the quay. We weren’t, and didn’t. So it was we saw New Year in with a group of Romanian sailors on a fishing boat. In their tradition, you start your dinner after midnight. So having already consumed seven courses of soup and fish, beef and haggis, cake and pudding, champagne and red wine and whisky, we politely agreed to sit down to a feast of various bits of pork stuffed into cabbage washed down with sparkling perry out of a box. I think we lasted until 2am. I felt sick as a dog, but wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The next day we climbed Stac Pollaidh and slid back down on bin liners.
The Cross Keys as I remember it
My teenage years were a time of shifting allegiances. While the country was locked in a struggle between Left and Right that makes today’s apparently polarised world look positively equatorial, we had more important issues to resolve: The Cross Keys or The Anchor?
The two principal pubs in my home village of Burbage, Leicestershire went in and out of fashion among our not-always-legally-entitled-to-drink set. The Pedi’s crap at the Keys! Not going to the Anchor, the bitter’s gone right downhill. But when I think back, the beer is always clear and clean and good. The head is half an inch of beery froth that makes a latticework on the side of your pint glass (a straight glass, of course) as you sink it. And we’d sink a few. Nostalgia. Those Christmas week nights were always loud and hilarious and wonderful. I never got sick, even after six or seven pints. Well, maybe once. (I was, in fact, sick out my bedroom window. I blamed it on the dog. This is a bit of a sick-dog special).
Once, my Dad came to pick me up from university at the end of term. We were having tea in my rooms as he arrived. In our little group were two American students, Kae and – oh, I've forgotten her name – on secondment from Vasser. They were due to spend their Christmas in college. My Dad, always warm, always impulsive, wasn’t having that. They were invited – ordered – to Burbage.
On NYE in The Anchor, I warned Kae about the Pedigree. She, a veteran of New York cocktail bars, scoffed. She was halfway through a detailed scoff when she stopped. She stared wide-eyed for what seemed several minutes. Ohmygod I just literally lost the POWER of SPEECH. What IS this stuff?
If you look up the The Anchor and The Keys on The Hinckley Times website, you’ll see past reports of both pubs getting a ‘fresh new look’ from time to time. That was shorthand for ‘let’s take an honest village spit-and-sawdust pub and make it look like a brewery's executive’s living room’. But I can still remember the days of bar billiard tables, snugs and bare boards. I hardly dare go back; but they’ve probably ripped out the carpets and horse brasses by now and got the designers in to give the decor that fashionable spit-and-sawdust vibe.
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think: Comares at dusk
Another sublime place, and where we saw the new millennium in with another two dear friends. The great thing about being in the hill villages of southern Spain rather than Britain was the last light of the 20th century didn’t begin to fade until well after 5pm: so it was quite in order to crack open the champagne without fear of peaking too early.
Annie, Mark and Pete: woosh! – there goes the 20th century
The mountains of Axarquía are wonderful in late December. You’ll often have sunny days in the early 20s, then freezing, starlit evenings. But if it’s parties you want, New Year’s Eve is lively, but El Día de los Reyes, Twelfth Night, is the biggie.
Not a bad venue for a party
Let’s end on a mad note.
Concorde wasn’t just a scheduled service ferrying people between London and Paris and New York. You could hire it – or ‘charter’ it to use the posher word the travel industry favours.
In 1992, a company called Time Travel, or something like that, chartered Concorde for a New Year’s Eve celebration. Tickets for the three-day trip cost £12,000. That’s quite a lot of money now. Then? Well, the same year I bought a two-bedroom flat in Islington for £73,000.
To cut a long and (honestly) not very interesting story short, I managed to get two tickets for £1500.
Why ‘time travel’? We boarded the plane at Heathrow Terminal 4. Canapés, champagne, goody bags. We landed very soon after at Shannon on the West Coast of Ireland. Glitzy reception, lots of riverdancing and champagne, local dignitaries etc. Saw 1993 in, then we were quickly urged back on board.
Concorde was so fast it could skip over international datelines. So it was we flew backwards in time (sustained by more champagne and nibbles) to Bermuda. We landed at around 11.30pm, back in 1992. Glitzy reception, lots of steel drums and champagne, local dignitaries etc. Saw 1993 in all over again. Stayed a day in Bermuda, then flew to the New York and the World Trade Center. Glitzy reception at The Windows of the World, lots of showtune classics and champagne, local dignitaries etc. The next day, back to London, champagne, nibbles etc.
We have literally seven photos from this once-in-a-lifetime experience (who said mobile phones were a bad thing?) Round glasses, curtain hair and fancy waistcoats were all ‘things’ then
I suspect the company behind this venture was already bust by the time we were in the air: hence the fire-sale price we paid for the tickets. There was no point in me writing about the experience, as it was one never to be repeated. Concorde stopped flying in 2003 (I was on the last-but-one flight: another long and slightly more interesting story). The twin towers, and the Windows of the World with it, were brought down on 9/11.
The end of any year is an odd time, a mixture of celebration and melancholy. But that New Year in 1992 – those new years, if you like – really feel as much like elegy as celebration.
Talismanic (as napkin rings go)
A couple of new years that didn’t quite work out as well…
Costa Rica. Squid in peanut sauce (a truly disgusting dish) in an empty hotel restaurant. Bed by 9pm.
West Cork, Ireland. A very dysfunctional night at a new seaside resort and spa which ended with a drunk woman nearly drowning my wife.
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol and the Albert Bridge, Chelsea. It sounds like a great idea to see the new year in on a bridge. It’s not, really
Songs that take you places
Sweet Bells is my favourite Christmas album and the first of several Christmas records made by Kate (‘the Barnsley Nightingale’) Rusby. There are songs of celebration and carols, but also laments for a disappearing way of life. We are in the spiritual land of Thomas Hardy rather than Charles Dickens here: sweetness with a bitter tang, jollity and melancholy hand in hand.
Candlemass Eve is February 2nd: the day in some Christian traditions when you are meant to take down your Christmas decorations (Down with the rosemary and bays/
Down with the mistletoe). It’s twelfth night in others.
The song is adapted from a lyric by the 17th century poet Robert Herrick. Like much of Herrick’s work (Gather ye rosebuds while ye may) he captures the transitoriness of life through ritual and festival. But we are not to wallow in a sense of loss, but to accept with grace that objects, like experiences, keep to their own significant time and place. He’s a kind of 17th century Marie Kondo.
Kate Rusby delivers the lyric with a voice clear as frost on a Dales morning. It’s a bit of shame we get a brass band in the last part – northern folk music cliché alert. But you’ll forgive her.
I’d usually point you to Spotify at this point; but there’s not a trace of Sweet Bells in their Leviathan back catalogue for some reason. On the MARKLANDS playlist, I’ve put in an interesting jazzy version by Kate Bunce instead. It’s pretty, but no match for the strange thrill of Kate’s original:
Thus times and seasons oft do shift; each thing his turn doth hold
New thoughts and things now do succeed, as former things grow old.
There’s a thought for 2021.
Happy new year
I launched my blog in February. Thanks so much to everyone who has read, subscribed and commented. Some of those comments have been among the nicest and most encouraging things I’ve had said to me in a long writing career. It’s been worth it for those alone.
Big love, Mark
December 31, 2020