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Life London's best tour guide? Paddington Bear, of course

Paddington Bear with Paddington statue in Paddington Station. (Barbara Ramsay Orr)

London, it would seem, is in the grips of Paddington Mania.

The beloved storybook character is everywhere you look in this capital city – from the National Gallery to Hyde Park, from Notting Hill to Knightsbridge. This holiday season the plucky bear from Darkest Peru serves as a signpost for visitors, showing them the special sites of London in a style that both children and grown-ups can love.

Until Dec. 31, 50 different celebrity-designed Paddington statues serve as guideposts for the Paddington Trails, four touring paths that loop through London. Each bear – including a shiny Rolls Royce interpretation, a patchwork version by singer Rhianna and a golden one by supermodel Kate Moss – is placed in a must-see location. The trails were launched by Visit London in conjunction with the big-screen version of Paddington, starring Hugh Bonneville and Nicole Kidman, that hits theatres Jan. 16 in Canada. (Since its premiere in England in November, the film has topped the charts and received a 97-per-cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

A still from Paddington, the feature film. (eONE Films)

It’s a perfect fit because no one knows London better, or appreciates it more, than Paddington, who arrived in the city as a stowaway with a sign around his neck reading: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” He was rescued by the Brown family and named after the train station in which they found him, his Peruvian name deemed unpronounceable. That’s the fiction. The source of it was a lone stuffed bear on a shelf at Selfridges that Michael Bond, then a BBC cameraman, bought as a Christmas gift for his wife in 1956. Shortly afterward, in the span of just 10 days, Bond wrote his first children’s book, inspired by the bear, and the legend of the ever polite but accident-prone Paddington began.

The many stories that followed – 150 published titles – relate how Paddington discovers the sights and sounds of London, falling into one calamity after another. When he accidentally invites a tour group home to tea, he manages to lose them in the Hampton Court maze. At Buckingham Palace, he attracts the attention of the Queen and makes friends with the notoriously stand-offish guards. On each of his daily visits for “elevenses” with his best friend Mr. Gruber, an antiques dealer on Portobello Road, he bumbles from one sticky situation to another, usually with a marmalade sandwich in hand.

What is constant about Paddington is his sense of wonder and delight at the great city in which he washed up. He is a true connoisseur of London and as such, the perfect companion for exploring it.

(Alex Carter)

I set out on the Paddington Trail with two young friends: Millie, 5, and Eddie, 2 and three-quarters, who brought his stuffed Paddington along and found the ursine icon to be a terrific tour guide.

Of the four trails, the Paddington Christmas Trail is the most festive, but also a possibly financially risky one for those visiting over the holidays. It leads past some of the best shopping opportunities in the world – including Selfridges, Harrods, Marks & Spencer and the many stores along busy Oxford Street – as well as cultural landmarks and historic sites.

The logical and organic beginning for the trails, and where we started our Paddington journey, is the Museum of London: On display until Jan. 4, 2015, is the exhibit A Bear Called Paddington. “The objects in this collection tell the story of Paddington from page to screen,” curator Hilary Young says. “From Michael Bond’s daughter, Karen Jankel, we have her own copy of her father’s first book, as well as Bond’s typewriter, several versions of Paddington from different countries and time periods and fan mail, addressed to Windsor Gardens, sent from children all over the world.”

Eddie’s eyes widened when he saw his bedtime bear’s familiar belongings. “That’s Paddington’s suitcase,” he whispered as he looked at props from the new movie. Right beside it was the bear’s signature blue duffel coat and red hat.

Paddington, as part of the Selfridges Collection, designed by Kate Moss. (Alex Carter)

We followed the trail through the centre of London, passing a sparkly Paddington in front of the Bond Street Tube station, a bow-tied model called The Bearer of Gifts in front of Hamley’s Toy Store, and Mayor Boris Johnson’s Bear of London in Trafalgar Square. Eddie introduced his stuffed bear to the lion at the Natural History Museum (a key location in the new film), and shared with him many sights along the way – Trafalgar Square, the Serpentine Bridge near Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace.

The statues of their favourite bear delighted the children. Other A-listers tapped to play designer include Benedict Cumberbatch, David Beckham and Emma Watson. Eddie liked Hugh Bonneville’s “marmalade” version – decked out with a gingham hat and a citrus-covered jacket – the best, even though he’s never tasted marmalade and insisted on calling this one the “Jam Bear.”

“Does he really have a marmalade sandwich under his hat?” Millie wondered. The shiny red coat and hat on the Beckham’s Golden Paws bear in Green Park got her vote. “But I liked the one at the Queen’s house too!” (That would be the version painted with the Union Jack near Buckingham Palace.)

“Why can’t we visit all 50?” she asked.

From left to right, Paddington Shakesbear by Michael Sheen, Paddington Bear by Michael Bond and Paddington Sparkles by Frankie Bridge.(Joe Pepler)

A selection of the statues are being auctioned off online (bidding ends Jan. 7, 2015) in support of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a prominent children’s charity based in Britain. It’s a coalition that holds special meaning for Jankel, Bond’s daughter. “The Browns take in this lost bear, Paddington, and provide him with sanctuary and a family,” she told me. “They love him despite his sticky fingerprints, his unfortunate accidents in the bath and his frequent spills of tea and droppings of cream scones on the carpet. Not all ‘lost’ children are as fortunate – they don’t all find a loving family or safety. The charity helps those children.”

So now Paddington can add philanthropist to his many achievements, alongside flying with Richard Branson to break a flight-speed record, visiting Buckingham Palace and attending a conference as a guest of prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He’s also been the subject of a Google doodle and featured on a Royal Mail stamp; when the Chunnel was completed, he was the first object passed through to French workers by their English counterparts.

If you follow the Paddington Trail, you will not only be acknowledging a truly important charitable endeavour – you will be keeping company with an exceptional bear.

To miss it would be unbearable. (Sorry.)

In Paddington Station. (Barbara Ramsay Orr)

IF YOU GO

Brush up on your Paddington Bear history at paddington.com or stop by the Paddington exhibit at the Museum of London until Jan. 4. A family activity space lets kids and parents experience the bear’s most famous capers. (Also worth checking out is Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die, on until April 12, 2015.) museumoflondon.org.uk

The London Official City Guide app features maps for the Paddington Trail, which runs until Dec. 30. visitlondon.com/paddington

Where to stay

The Draycott Hotel is offering Paddington packages that include a family suite, afternoon tea, a take-home stuffed Paddington, breakfast and more, starting at $1,270 a night. 26 Cadogan Gardens, London; draycotthotel.com

For a good cause

Fifteen of the Paddington Bear statues were sold at a gala auction on Dec. 10, raising $835,000 for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Action Medical Research, a children’s charity for whom Paddington has been the official mascot for more than 35 years. Hugh Bonneville’s bear sold for $47,000, while Millie’s favourite, Golden Paws, went for $29,000.

The 35 remaining statues will be sold in an online auction through Christie’s. This is the opportunity to score a truly remarkable Christmas present. You can register your interest at christies.com/paddington; bidding runs until Jan. 7 and starts at £500 ($910).

If that’s beyond your means, other bear-inspired goods are available at Selfridges. You can pick up exclusive prints, a toggled wool coat like the one Paddington wears or a jar of Robertson’s Paddington marmalade. selfridges.com/content/article/paddington

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