Simon Wittenberg gets into the festive spirit by enjoying a smallcarBIGCITY tour of London’s magical Christmas lights in the comfort of a chauffeur-driven classic Mini Cooper.
smallcarBIGCITY was founded by Robert Welch on the 26th of August 2009 – exactly 50 years to the day that the first-ever classic Mini rolled off the production line. Robert’s love of all things Mini began in 1974 when he was given one for his seventeenth birthday, a car called Jules that is still used today.
It now forms part of a London-based fleet of nine classic Minis (including one that runs solely on battery power), each carrying its own name.
As well as supplying cars for filming and photoshoots, and self-hire, the business offers a variety of chauffeur-driven tours, spanning the Beatles to Harry Potter, and has hosted over 45,000 customers in the last 14 years, bringing a glowing reputation with a plethora of complementary reviews online.
The subject of our review was the two-hour smallcarBIGCITY Christmas Lights Tour, available from the beginning of November, come rain or shine when some of the capital’s major thoroughfares are decorated as the clock winds down towards the holiday season.
Accommodating up to three guests per Mini at a total cost of £349, the pick-up location can be anywhere in Zone 1 of Central London, and we started our journey in the quiet cul de sac of Park Place in front of St James’s Hotel & Club in Mayfair.
Timings are also flexible, and with sunset around 4 pm on the day of our trip, which boasted clear skies, we opted to encompass the autumn sunshine, dusk, and darkness to capture the sights at these different times.
Climbing into the beautifully-maintained 1992 golf-inspired British Open Classic Mini Cooper called “Lilibet”, a car which sports a British Racing Green exterior with elegant gold pinstripes; you’re greeted with a surprisingly spacious interior for what is quite an intimate cabin compared to modern-day examples.
However, being so compact, and thanks to its go-kart-like character, it’s the perfect car for zipping around the streets (some of which are very narrow) and navigating some of London’s most frequented roads.
The other quirky feature of this classic Mini is its electric retractable roof, which was duly opened as we set off to deliver a full open-air experience.
With some Christmas tunes playing through the stereo to get into the festive mood, it was time for our well-spoken, knowledgeable, and London-born and bred guide to drive down Pall Mall to take in some historical facts about the surrounding area.
The first stop is at Carnaby Street, where there is the opportunity to walk down the pedestrianised area and stretch your legs before rejoining Lilibet at the Liberty London department store.
On this subject, this is another bonus of the tour in that you can get out at key points to actually enjoy some of the sights, which is especially useful if you’re not familiar with some of London’s most renowned tourist areas.
Even before the Christmas lights are illuminated, it’s still a spectacle to peer upwards and admire the architecture of buildings and landmarks – both new and old, and to look at the passers-by who stop to admire and take photos of Lilibet.
Oxford Street is only open nowadays to buses and taxis; it is not on the route, so it is best explored on foot. Therefore, the Christmas Lights Tour circuit then takes guests down Regent Street and to Piccadilly Circus (for a gander by day) before looping around past the periphery of Leicester Square and on to Trafalgar Square with a few more interesting bits of trivia along the way.
A little detour behind the Strand at dusk then took us for a spin through a little-known tunnel that emerges near the back of The Savoy – something akin to escaping from the enemy in the Italian Job.
With the light falling and the sun setting over The Thames, it was time to drive by Big Ben and across the river on Westminster Bridge to go south to another little gem under the sprawling Waterloo Station that goes by the name of the 300-metre Leake Street Tunnel.
Since 2008, it has been home to little eateries and graffiti artists who create artworks over a changing canvas as individuals come and go with their spray cans. The only rule here is that you have to wait for another person’s work to dry before starting yours.
It is fascinating to meander up and down to peer at the masterpieces before climbing back into the Mini to explore the “East End of Waterloo” – the charming 19th-century brick terraced houses that make up the Roupell Street Conservation Area and where old metal boot scrapers can still be seen by the front doors.
With the sun officially set, we went back north over Waterloo Bridge and through the tightly bending Kingsway Tunnel to emerge onto Kingsway to catch the first glimpse of the many illuminated Christmas lights as the night sky arrived.
With an outside temperature of just nine degrees during our trip, smallcarBIGCITY warms guests through the provision of tartan blankets for all passengers, as well as hot chocolate and a truly delicious Konditor mince pie – something we were treated to as we reached Covent Garden.
It’s then on the historic Seven Dials and the quaint surrounding streets to see the sparkling lines of bulbs overhead before arriving on Shaftesbury Avenue to see this bustling district fully lit up.
However, where the smallcarBIGCITY Christmas Lights Tour really comes alive and gets even more festive is when you pass by the large Christmas tree adjacent to the Sofitel London St James hotel prior to coming back up Regent Street Saint James to see the spectacular angels overhead and Piccadilly Circus in all its glory.
Crossing over to Regent Street, passing by famous stores, such as Hamleys, is one of the true “highlights” of this tour in the truest sense of the word. Large artistic light structures in the form of angels, constructed with hundreds of bulbs across shaped netting, tower overhead, and thanks to the retracted roof, you can look up and appreciate the displays in full, especially when against the backdrop of a clear evening.
More sparkling shapes, such as crowns lined with different coloured jewels, catch the eye before a quick drive around Berkeley Square to arrive at Annabel’s private members’ club, which treats passers-by to an illuminated annual holiday façade – this year themed around a hot air balloon as a symbol of hope and inspiration.
And with that as one of the crescendos of this tour, our two-hour whistlestop visit of the capital came to an end at Burlington Arcade – the ideal end-point to explore the illuminated boutiques around the corner, such as Cartier and Dior, which are even more of an attraction in themselves at this time.
As the evenings draw in earlier at the tail end of the year, the smallcarBIGCITY Christmas Lights Tour is a unique way to enjoy one of the spectacles of the festive season with friends, family or colleagues, to soak up the Christmas atmosphere and to sit back in comfort and relax without having to navigate through the crowds.
With tales and facts to regale you throughout, and the chance to discover new nooks and crannies in London, or simply to re-acquaint yourself with some of the capital’s most famous landmarks and areas, this is a “mini adventure” that is worth every penny.
smallcarBIGCITY – Where and How?
See a video of our smallcarBIGCITY Christmas Lights Tour on the Luxurious Magazine Instagram page.