Much as I adore all things bovine, never in my life had I imagined myself driving to a place named, of all things, Cow Palace! Thank goodness it had nothing to do with cattle but it was instead, a huge arena for concerts, games and strange events. Down the gloomy freeway, onto the ashen streets of Daly City – which is sandwiched between San Francisco and Silicon Valley – we drove on, blinking through the blinding rain trying to find this odd-named venue. The elements belonged to quintessentially gloomy British weather, and yet we were here very much in California, the land of eternal sunshine, as a lifelong diet of rock and roll and pop culture had brainwashed us into believing.

Sometimes things just match. Odd was the synchronous theme throughout. The peculiarity of the name Cow Palace and the odd weather matched the quirkiness of the event we were headed to: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair. The name says it all.

A fair dedicated to the world of the great writer, which, like a marvellous genie in a bottle, comes alive every year just before the Christmas season. This is a dream come true for us wannabe time travellers, since you are essentially driving into a time warp with family and friends, and you can plan it, like a regular picnic!

We parked in the giant parking lot and, like many others, walked bravely through the gusty, almost opaque curtain of freezing rain, to the building. Our heads were bowed, we were unable to look up due to the ferocity of the wind until a firm tap on my shoulder made me look up.

“Milady! Milady?” It was a moment! A strange lady was talking to me. She seemed to have popped straight out of a novel or a film, dressed in a Victorian working class costume: bonnet, a dark-hued fluffy Victorian skirt, sensible black shoes and a grim umbrella. “Milady, have you bought your tickets yet?” She was actually talking to me...I was “Milady”.

“Umm, what...umm no, not yet!” I muttered, trying to digest this surreal moment. “Wonderful Milady! They are free for you today!” she said, hurriedly placing two tickets into my palm for my husband and me (our toddler boss had a free entry) and disappearing into the fog like a ghost as I muttered, “Wow! Thank you so much.”

At the entrance, a man in a tailcoat, a top hat and fat grey whiskers glanced at our tickets and rushed us in saying, “Let’s get you folks warm indoors.”

Inside, were tented acres transformed into living, breathing Victorian London, with all of its hustle and bustle. Women whirled around dressed like the mysterious one we had met outside. As did hundreds of costumed men and children amidst vintage lamplit streets, boisterous pubs and quaint little shops. There weren’t just gentlemen and ladies, but also swearing sailors, aristocrats, the working classes, street urchins, chimney sweeps, doppelgangers of Miss Havisham doing tarot readings and selling a whole bunch of stuff from pies to petticoats.

Just as I was taking it all in, two lads ran parallel to each other screaming on top of their lungs to be heard above the noise of the crowd, “Telegram! Telegram!”.

“For whom?” My husband asked one of the boys.

“Not for you sir. Not today. But you can if you go to the telegraph office,” he said pointing us to one of the dozens of shops called Central London Telegraph Co. A polite little costumed shopgirl, who spoke with a British accent, like the lad and practically everybody else at this fair, explained how you could pay and two calligraphers would write down your message to somebody – preferably accompanying you to the fair – which would then become a telegram with the boys screaming and delivering them to whoever you pleased. You could send the messages from yourself or even from Father Christmas. It could be a possibly wonderful way to make a marriage proposal.

We walked on, taking in the numerous shops selling antiques and one-of-a-kind treasures that would put both present-day flashy malls and Tutankhamun’s tomb equally to shame. There were handmade fairy gardens, delicate Christmas ornaments, colourful vintage violins, violas and cellos, treasures made of pewter and wood and even magic wands. There were hilariously racy Victorian lingerie, feather creations, headpieces and hats, all of the beautiful, cumbersome layers of Victorian women’s clothing, and beautiful Victorian children’s wear screaming innocence.

Corset shops had moved from Britain to “the boom town of San Francisco” and their wares were being modelled by live human performing artists posing as mannequins in shop windows who wouldn’t budge no matter how many funny faces you made at them. There were antique games, portrait studios, dart parlours, tearooms, cake shops, wondrous theatres, music halls, dance halls, random stages here and there.

Amidst all of this old worldly abundance, to keep things real – because there was so much poverty in Victorian London, much of which Dickens’ work is known for – were a bunch of street children immersed in their slates like we are in our mobile phones, writing with slate pencils. Opposite them, a few tarts with fake, loud red cheeks went about their business. A gang of sleazebags who looked like Fagin walked by.

They looked good, healthy and happy though, unlike Dickensian characters.

Still, it felt like Wonderland and I, like Alice in it.

A crowd had gathered around a random stage, around which were piles of shipping boxes with East India Company stamped all over them. Nautical riffraff sang away loudly, and continued to sing for anybody if you bought them a pint or two. Out of the blue, a seemingly impromptu parade took place with half a dozen British Royal Guards marching in, forcing them to sober up. The Queen came and gave a speech and everybody behaved until she and her royal parade left.

“Sometimes you don’t need passports to travel,” said my husband. “Or time machines,” I added.

We moved on to the tea room for high tea. At the shop, heirloom teapots were being sold and the vendor – costumed as they all were all over the fair – told me she had purchased them from “The East Bay Corporation”, which, upon being badgered some more, she revealed to be Victorian speak for good old eBay!

Outside were countless food carts, shops and dining parlous, some with delightfully English names like The Tippling Toad and Mr Barker’s Bangers! They sold classics like roasted chestnuts, cinnamon almonds, fish and chips, pudding, cakes and pies, cookies and milk, and so on. A meat pie shop catered to classic British tastebuds but also had, as its signboard informed, “New exotic savouries inspired by journeys to the extreme edge of the Empire,” flavours like curried lamb and macaroni and cheese.

A Greek food stall, a misfit in this miniature Britain, was like a reality pinch in the arm reminding us that we were still in America. Other reality checks were these Dickensian characters bringing out iPads to process credit card payments or when they were briefly immersed into the 21st century tradition of gazing into smartphones.

These apart, it was pure time travel, authentic enough for me to recommend that Oliver Twist be reborn here, where he would never have to say, “Please sir, may I have some more?” ever again.

Neil Gaiman reads Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"