Hunting for the Spirit of Christmas in the City of London

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Annemarie is a writer, walker and digital storyteller who is based in London. Recently, she created London Christmas Treasure Hunt, through which you can discover some of the ancient places, events and traditions that still influence how we celebrate Christmas today.

If you’re quick, you can download the experience to your phone for free. If you’re not so quick, we have a few freebies to give away. Give us a shout if you’re keen.

Here, Annemarie talks about her work.

After many years living in London, I still like to be a tourist in my own city, exploring hidden corners and discovering the layers of the past. When I was asked by the Questo App to create a Christmas Treasure Hunt, I chose to set it in the City of London. The City is best-known as a global financial centre with over five-hundred thousand people commuting in to the city every day, to work in banks, offices, cafes, and shops. But it is also the oldest, most historic part of London. Among the skyscrapers and multinationals, you will also find Roman ruins, ancient churches and medieval markets. 

Part of the reason I decided to set my treasure hunt in the City was that I wanted to explore the Square Mile in more depth. I’m a big fan of Ian Sinclair, the great chronicler of walking in London as a sort of mystical practice, a way of tuning into the energy of places. His writing piqued my desire to look for the magic in the City. It is an area rich in symbolism, with signs inscribed into the facades of buildings, coded messages invoking God and money. Where better to look for the spirit of Christmas! 

I’ve worked on other walking games for Questo, and the process of constructing them really trains your eye to look at your environment differently – the city becomes a mystery, an adventure. I wanted to turn that gaze on the City, to uncover another side of Christmas from the one you find in the consumerist frenzy of Oxford Street.

When I plan a walk, I usually don’t have an exact route mapped out or precise story in mind. I find the city has other ideas. This time I began with a theme and a starting point. That theme was Christmas, how it was celebrated in the past and how that influences how we celebrate today. The starting point was the Smithfield area. I chose this spot because of two locations I was drawn to. The first was the Smithfield Market. 

The market building you see today is from Victorian times. It will soon be redeveloped into a new Museum of London, but there’s been a market of some sort on this spot for at least 800 years. Throughout this time, it has been a hub, a meeting point for commerce, politics and religion. Nowadays you have to get up early, or go to bed late, to see the market in action (the meat traders work from midnight to 7am), but I like walking through it when trading has stopped. 

There’s a wonderful central avenue that runs through the market, made of cast iron columns painted bright blue and purple, a row of old red telephone boxes on one side. If I walk along it, stop, and close my eyes, I can hear echoes of the past. There’s a passage from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist that describes that past – ‘butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds’ mingled there; the cacophony of ‘whistling drovers, barking dogs, bellowing oxen, bleating sheep, grunting pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, the quarrelling, the ringing of bells and roar of voices; the crowds spilling out of pubs, pushing, driving, beating, whooping! Listen and you can hear the echoes of that time, people coming together haggling, buying, selling. That’s certainly an aspect of how we experience Christmas now. But the market also has its own special Christmas traditions, which you’ll discover on the walk. 

Only a few steps away from the market you will find its opposite, a haven of calm and reflection, St Bartholomew the Great. The church was built as part of a monastery and hospital for tending to London’s poor and sick and has stood on this spot for 900 years, surviving fires, wars, bombings and Henry VIII (just). As London’s oldest Church, it seemed like a good point to reflect upon the original meaning of Christmas. There’s something about this incredibly atmospheric church, its simplicity and peace, that allows you to imagine the sacredness and significance of those early celebrations hundreds of years ago. In the serene, Romanesque interior, infused by the scent of incense and lit by a few candles, you can sense the power of that message of hope, a birth in the heart of winter. 

After leaving St Barth’s I came across a statue I’d heard about, but never seen before. It marks the spot where the Great Fire of London stopped in 1666. It’s less than 200 metres from St Bartholomew the Great and shows how close the flames must have got. The statue is accompanied by a message warning against gluttony, for reasons that will be revealed on the walk. By now, it was clear, the city was whispering, wanting to tell me a story. 

On I went, stumbling upon places I knew I must have walked past before but never really noticed. I heard the ringing of bells that belong to a famous nursery rhyme. I found an old meeting hall for one of London’s oldest guilds, a winding passageway led to hidden courtyard, nearby a chandelier-lit pub sitting on Roman ruins. Soon, I realised I was tracing a path through the locations of one of our best loved Christmas tales. 

At moments like this, it seems as if the act of walking is a ritual for invoking stories. It’s as if by plotting points on a map you are mapping the plot points for a tale. The story emerging was an old story. It is one that contrasts the materialism of Christmas with its spiritual meaning. It is a tale often told, but as you walk this path through the City of London, it becomes new again. Walk, listen, look, and you will find the spirit of Christmas still lingers here.   

You can find out more about my Christmas Treasure Hunt: Ye Olde London. Currently free on the Questo App for a short time.

Annemarie Lopez

Annemarie Lopez

Writer, walker, digital storyteller, psychogeographer.


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