All aboard the Christmas Cracker

Tamsin Growney joins a trainload of Northern folk for a capital day out as they make their seasonal pilgrimage to the bright lights of London
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It's 7.25am, still dark and drizzly on Chorley Station but June Hornby is wide awake and looking festive in a bright red hat and matching earrings.

Elderly but very sprightly, Mrs Hornby is the first of 20-odd women to board the Capital Christmas Cracker, an old-fashioned compartment train chartered to bring those drab Northerners on their annual pilgrimage to the fun and sparkle of the West End shops.

Once settled in her compartment, Mrs Hornby turns to her companion, a neatly dressed woman of about the same age: "Didn't it say mince pies and sherry, Cicely?" Her companion smiles: "I'm sure it did." She leans out of the carriage and peers down the corridor. "There's meant to be a Santa .It did say there was a Santa, didn't it Cicely?"

Cicely nods, not really bothered. The prospect of a train journey and an afternoon in our glittering capital city is enough to keep her spirits up.

In the next carriage, Jean Hart, a housewife who turned 60 two weeks ago, is on her way to London for the first time. "Well, I thought it was about time," she laughs. She is with her son's girlfriend, Bernadette. They plan to go to Harrods, but to look rather than shop. "It's purely for ourselves we're going, a day out, an adventure," Jean explains.

At Bolton they are joined by two surly men in anoraks. They obviously feel out of place. "You going to do your Christmas shopping?" Bernadette asks. "No chance," the bearded one replies grimly. An awkward silence ensues which is finally broken by his clean-shaven companion. "If I have to shop I'll do it at home. There's nothing wrong with shopping up North."

From the corridor we overhear the guard answering queries. "Sherries and mince pies on the way back, ladies." He is handing out maps showing our route through the Midlands to London, and sheets of information on shopping and transport for when we get there. The two men immerse themselves in the railway maps and mutter.

Up in coach D, three middle-aged couples are busy unpacking their vast alcohol-based picnic. They offer coffee from their flask, and then, laughing uproariously, a nip of whisky to go with it. I tell them that by the time they get to London they'll be completely pissed and in no fit state to shop. "Oh we're not going shopping," exclaims Mrs Nurse. "You'd have to be mad to go shopping in London. We've got a perfectly good shopping centre in Bolton."

So why are you going all the way to London?

"I'm going to see Princess Di," chuckles Mrs Nurse. Mrs Francis smiles indulgently. "We go every year," she explains "We'll do some sightseeing, watch the crowds, compare the prices. I can't believe some of the prices you get down there. D'you remember that bikini in Harrods?" she asks Mrs Nurse and Mrs Stewart. They burst into laughter. "Two hundred pounds!" gasps Mrs Francis, tears rolling down her cheeks. "For a bikini!"

They all agree that London's fine for a day out but people in the North are a lot more friendly. "My niece who lives in London came to stay a couple of weeks ago. We were out in the garden and I waved at someone in the street. She thought I'd gone mad,"

says Mrs Stewart.

"People get attracted to London because they think it's special. But when they get there they find it's not so easy," says Mrs Nurse. "So many end up begging. We can't believe it when we get there - seeing them in their cardboard boxes."

Out in the corridor I encounter Santa, clutching a sack of colouring books and balloons, in search of children. We both look in at a party of women popping open bottles of ready-mixed Buck's Fizz. They hold up their paper cups in a toast. Santa moves on disconsolately.

At Macclesfield, three glamorous, giggling young women, Debbie, Debbie and Angie, climb aboard. They've done this trip many times before and know exactly how their day will go.

"We'll go to Covent Garden, have lunch and look around. Then we'll walk down to the Embankment, and go to this pub on a boat, the Tattershall Castle. We'll be there a few hours probably," says one of the Debbies. "We might not remember that much about it, but we're going to video it all."

"We won't go up the West End," says Angie. "Not on a Saturday. It's not a shopping trip, more a mini-version of one of our holidays abroad. Shopping in the North's fine. If we were rich then we'd be missing out on Harvey Nicks - but we're not."

At Congleton they are joined by Arline Peover-Lock, immaculate in pale yellow cashmere, purple lipstick and lots of gold jewellery. She and her friend, the equally immaculate Brenda Conway, are the first real shoppers I've met. "We'll lunch in H.A. Rods,as I call it, then we'll get down to business. You get so much more choice in London," explains Arline. "Much as I enjoy Congleton, I do like to spend time in London. I like to go to the theatre, for example - I think I speak for Brenda here." Brenda nods vigorously. What about Manchester?

"Oh I don't go into Manchester - it's dirty," Arline says.

It's now 10am. Three couples from Bolton have opened a bottle of peach schnapps and insist that I sample it.

Back in the corridor, I see Santa has found a child. Six-year-old Luke is travelling with his mother, Diane. Santa, uninvited, takes a seat next to him. "What do you want for Christmas then, young Luke," he says with as much jollity as he can muster.

"Dunno," says Luke. Diane smiles brightly. She repeats the question to him in a voice of treacle. Luke is stony-faced. Santa pulls a colouring book and a balloon out of his sack. "What d'you say?" asks Diane. "Thank you," answers Santa, absently.

I go back to Jean and Bernadette. The two men have by this time confessed themselves to be train-spotters. The clean-shaven train-spotter is warning Jean of the hazards that London presents. "There's a lot of nutters down there. You couldn't take a childinto the West End. You'd have to have them on reins. And then there's all the beggars. You have to ignore them. It's a business now, big money to be made. Don't take any notice."

We pull into Euston at 12.15. A toilet door flies open. One of the women from the Buck's Fizz compartment is on her knees, vomiting. A train-spotter begins to take pictures of the InterCity 125 on the opposite platform. Passengers wander to the Underground in varying states of intoxication, vivacious and relaxed amid the grim-faced Londoners.

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