Last Christmas, you'll remember, was brutally, fabulously cold.
A real winter that turned lakes, lochs and meres into skating rinks, people into woollen bundles and the sky crystalline. Work commitments meant I couldn't leave London to join my family in a house on the shores of Loch Maree in north-west Scotland, where the snow lay deep and the temperature plunged to -16C. Instead my wife and I put up in the Charlotte Street Hotel.
On Christmas Day I spoke to my siblings. "I'm sad not to be there," I said. "But on the upside our bathroom has got its own steam room." There was a long silence. One brother finally replied. "Great! The only steam I can see is when I breathe out."
There are myriad reasons to find yourself adrift at this most otherworldly time of year. It has happened to me before. My second-worst Christmas was in Washington DC where I was caught alone in an apartment devoid of furniture or food, save a Terry's Chocolate Orange my sister-in-law had kindly sent. After I devoured it, I collapsed with a massive allergic reaction. My worst Christmas was in Zaire during the 1996 war, when I was caught in the jungle between the deranged and terrified Zairian army and the approaching Rwandans. That was ... what is the right word? Oh yes, shit.
Finding myself in the Charlotte Street Hotel with my wife was the opposite. It was luxurious, safe, welcoming, delicious, romantic and an adventure in a way a stay in a hotel so rarely is. Because at Christmas everything is different. It's ever so slightly surreal.
The hotel is owned by Firmdale, which has created a gorgeous line in boutique hotels, in London – including The Covent Garden Hotel and the Soho Hotel – and now in New York, with the Crosby Street Hotel.
The Charlotte Street Hotel looks pretty from the outside, with striped awnings, flags and, in summer, tables on the street. This frontage, and the low, rich lighting, also feels warm in winter. We checked in on Christmas Eve, the staff telling us that they would be with us all the way through until Boxing Day. At once it felt a little less formal than usual, as if we were all on a boat, somehow adrift.
The hotel was almost empty and we were to stay in the penthouse. That delighted Alison. There was a sofa, a TV we could only dream of owning, a big bed and, oh the decadence, even the steamy bathroom had its own television. The best of it though was that the windows looked out over the London roofscape and in the centre was the BT Tower, with its vast liquid display showing smiling snowflakes dancing through the night.
That evening we drank cocktails at the hotel's long zinc bar, the Christmas spirit making the barman almost a member of the family. We bumped into people we knew, in town for a last bit of shopping, and who were also in a festive, relaxed state of mind. Come 11pm, and bolstered with booze, we slipped round the corner for midnight mass at All Saints, Margaret Street, a gothic revival explosion of a church. When I told a friend of my plan, he guffawed despite being the most high Anglican I know. "That's the campest church in Christendom," he cried.
And it really is. The story goes that the choirmaster had to complain to the minister because his singers were choking on the industrial quantities of incense being flung around. The minister knew Alison because of a painting she had made for the memorial chapel of a sister church in Edinburgh. Again, it felt familiar, despite our usually non-churchgoing ways. We walked the 10 minutes back through the frozen streets full of goodwill.
Christmas Day in London feels like being in one of those disaster movies where everyone has disappeared. The streets are deserted. The hotel, having sent up breakfast to our room, quietly began preparing lunch. We struck out to build our appetites. There is a picture of me in Soho, in the middle of a road that on any other day is alive with life, but is empty. Alison says I look as if I own the place.
We kept going, down to Waterloo Bridge, which offers London's greatest view, the full achievement of the city's generations laid out up and down the river. And then back, a change and downstairs for Christmas lunch. And now, all of a sudden, the hotel was full. From the streets around people had descended on Charlotte Street's dining room, every table a family celebrating or bickering, couples laughing and fighting and wearing hats and being brilliantly human.
Oddly, it was at this moment that I felt a little sad. I thought of the lunch that was happening far in the north. My parents died before I was 21 and so I am close to my siblings. Even in the most Arctic conditions, ultimately it is with them that I want to be, or else with my in-laws, who were in a house overlooking the Firth of Clyde. But sometimes that is impossible (and for some people even undesirable), and the Charlotte Street Hotel offered the finest alternative imaginable.
Come the evening, the bar was empty apart from Kevin Daum, an American self-help guru who was in London researching a book. We chatted for a while and he showed us a tattoo on his chest which read, in reflection, "New York Times Best Seller". Perfectly illustrating the sense of the surreal, he told us that this was so that each morning he could remind himself of his ambition as he shaved at the mirror.
We left Kevin and slipped into the hotel's private lounge, making ourselves drinks from the honesty bar. The paintings in this room are real Bloomsbury Group and very good. My wife recognised originals by the likes of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. We finally returned to the bedroom and fell asleep to the dancing snowflakes outside the window, with the wrapping paper still on the bed.
The following morning I dressed quietly for work. As I let myself out, Alison was still asleep, but smiling.
• From 19-30 December doubles at the Charlotte Street Hotel (020-7806 2000, firmdalehotels.com) cost £258 a night. Christmas Day lunch costs £95pp
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