A working Christmas in Wales

The small Welsh border settlement of Montgomery has been described as a town which time forgot. Founded in 1227, it managed to avoid many of the uphea vals of the next seven centuries. It was bypassed by the railways and subsequen tly by the canals. Today it is only dissected by a winding, mud-spattered road. This isolation has preve nted it becoming a haven for commuters and has enabled it to retain its sense of community. Many believe it is one of the last unspoilt towns in Wales, which may be why a fe w years ago a BBC crew chose to shoot much of "A Child's Christmas in Wales" he re. At first glance, the town seems tranquil, sleepy even. Sheepdogs lollop acr oss the cobbles in the quiet main street. Shop doorbells tinkle as elderly wom en leave laden wi th bags. But behind Montgomery's sedate appearance is a flurry of activity. For the town's hoteliers, farmers, vets and GPs it is the busiest time of year... By Matthew Brace
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The Independent Online
Dr John Wynn-Jones, GP

"I'll be on call this Christmas. I do three Christmases out of every four. I've got about 7,000 patients in the practice area, so things can get quite busy."Every year we have a flu epidemic, so you have to be prepared for that. Christmases have got busier and busier and I think that's connected to the commercialisation of Christmas. People put so much into Christmas now, financially and emotionally, because so much is expected. Buying the best presents, the best trees. I'm not being bitter about this, but all these things can add up to people's stress.

"I do feel that country people seem genuinely upset about calling you out at Christmas. They're always very apologetic. But that's what this town is like. It's human. People feel human living here.

"I think Dylan Thomas would have liked Montgomery. I can just see him holding forth at the bar in the Dragon, making fun of the Welsh. This place is full of characters. One Christmas Day I went down to the surgery and set the alarms off by mistake. The police arrived and I said how sorry I was for troubling them. One policeman said: `Oh, don't upset yourself doc, as a matter of fact I've got this terrible ear ache, you couldn't look at it for me could you?'

"I'm the rural medical advisor for The Archers, so that keeps me busy, too. I remember one of my first Christmases doing this, I had to advise on a storyline about Mike the milkman who was severely depressed after his marriage break-up. Everyone thought that he would commit suicide on Christmas Day, but in the end he didn't. It was quite a big story, that."

Frances Butler, vet

"Christmas varies when you're working - sometimes it's really quiet, other times you can be rushing around. When I work over Christmas I stay by the phones to take the calls. You can be out in the car for most of the day.

"We can get a lot of sick dogs over Christmas because they've been eating the chocolates off the tree. There's a chemical in some chocolate that can kill them. I've had to put dogs down over Christmas, which is not very nice. But generally there tends to be more common sense in the countryside about pets than you might find in the big towns.

"One of the worst things about working at Christmas for me is that I can't do my carol singing. I sing alto in the church choir, but it makes it a bit difficult getting to rehearsals and services when you're on duty. The rector's very good though. I brought my mobile phone in to church once. I felt really bad sitting there in my pew with it, but it only went off once.

"I remember my first Christmas here. I'm not one for going into pubs on my own, but here I was made to feel really welcome. Christmas is like that here. For a lot of people, especially those who don't get out much, it might be the only time they see a lot of their friends in a year. I'm sure a lot of odd things go on around here at Christmas as well, but it's the men who'll know about them, the naughty stories. There's a certain aspect of rural courtesy here which means that women don't get told the more risky stories."

Mark Michaels, hotel owner

"It's going to be busy this year. We're fully booked, Christmas and New Year.

"This is always our busiest time of year, and I think it's my favourite as well. Christmas comes to us, you could say. You get to see all Montgomery's wonderful characters in the bar if you're here around Christmas time. Someone once said every place has its village idiot, but Montgomery seems to have six. The bar is very busy most nights with carol singers, local people from the town or those who are just visiting.

"We get people from all over the country - London, Scotland - and a lot of them are return guests. Over this New Year, 80 per cent of them will have been here before.We are usually the last stop for people on New Year's Eve, because then they go outside and link arms around the Town Hall for Auld Lang Syne at midnight.

"We have to plan Christmas Day quite carefully. My wife and I and our two daughters have breakfast first, then the guests, then it's time to open our presents, then on with the lunch... It's quite hectic and it's very much a full working day. We've got to make sure the staff get off early to go and have their Christmases too.

"My wife and I are both from London originally, so Montgomery was quite different at first, especially at this time of year. Much more relaxed. It's a very special place. It's slower in the caring sense, in that we've got time for other people, but it's not slower in a boring rural sense."

Ted Edwards, dairy farmer

"We're usually up and milking by 5am on Christmas morning. We've got a dairy farm here, a 56-acre smallholding, and we've been here 20 years, so we're used to getting up early in the morning.

"Usually the milk tanker comes at about 6am, but on Christmas morning the tanker driver wants to get home for his lunch, so he comes even earlier. That early start means you have to take it a bit easy on Christmas Eve and get to bed at a good time.

"One Christmas it was so icy we had trouble getting the tanker up the drive. Took us three quarters of an hour because it was slipping and sliding so much. We could have stayed in bed. Christmas is a special time for me. We go to our Chapel on Christmas morning after the first milking and then come back for lunch. My son and daughter come home, which is nice. It's always been a family day - I wouldn't want it any different. I've never wanted to go awayfor Christmas. Wouldn't seem right

"Montgomery is like that, a family place with an atmosphere of togetherness. You've got your rogues, like any place but mainly it's a good town - the odd poacher.

"One year we had a calf born here on the farm on Christmas Day. It was quite a surprise, but it brought the Christmas message closer to home. It was a Christmas present I suppose.

"I miss the Christmases I had when I was young. We would do all our own plucking and feathering and take in birds from our neighbours. There was so many feathers floating about, you had to strain your cups of tea so you didn't get down in your mouth."