Early start to holiday as thousands fly to winter sun: Norwich is favourite for white Christmas followed by London as bookmakers shorten odds

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The Independent Online
THE GREAT Christmas escape began early yesterday for the record 500,000 Britons travelling abroad this year and for thousands more visiting friends and relatives at home.

Yesterday more than 40,000 left the recession behind at Gatwick, bound for holidays in Spain, the Canary Islands, Tunisia and Cyprus, this year's most popular short-haul destinations. An airport spokesman said that by 27 December more than 160,000 will have followed or gone further afield to the Gambia, in west Africa, Florida or Australia.

By the end of Christmas Eve, Heathrow will have handled about 650,000 passengers in five days - 3.5 per cent up on 1992, while the number of passengers passing through Stansted over Christmas and new year is expected to be 100,000, almost double last year's.

Those not heading for warmer climes have also made an early move with main roads busier than usual. 'It was a quiet rush hour this morning which suggests that a lot of people have started their holidays ahead of time,' said an AA spokeswoman.

Those travelling by road and train between England and Scotland had their journeys disrupted yesterday when one of the main cross-border gas pipelines developed a large leak.

The west coast railway line to Glasgow and the main A74 were closed immediately on Wednesday night after a 60ft gash was blown in the ground near Beattock, southern Scotland, at a point where the pipeline runs close to both the main road and the rail track. Repairs to the pipe, buried 12ft underground, are under way but a British Gas spokesman said that routes were being reopened and would not close again for at least 72 hours.

The odds on a white Christmas have shortened following forecasts that much of eastern England will have snow on 25 December.

William Hill the bookmaker has made Norwich favourite at 6-4 to have snowfall on Christmas Day. London is next favourite at 2-1. Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle are 7-2; Nottingham and Birmingham 4-1; Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton and Glasgow 8-1 and Plymouth, the outsider, at 20-1.

William Hill stands to pay out pounds 120,000 if it snows at the 12 towns it is quoting. Graham Sharpe, spokesman for Hill's, said: 'You could have had 20-1 on any of these towns just a few weeks ago.

'If snowflakes fall in the 24 hours of Christmas Day, and they're officially witnessed, that'll be enough for us to pay out. We don't need the snow to settle.'

Ladbrokes snow bets require a snowflake to fall on the roof of the London Weather Centre at noon on Christmas Day. The company stands to pay out pounds 50,000 in bets. The last time that London had a white Christmas was 1970.

A record 1.7bn Christmas cards and letters - 120 million items more than last year's record - have been sent in December, the Post Office has reported.

Christmas mail volumes reached a peak on Monday 13 December when a record 122.9 million cards were posted by customers - breaking all previous records and double the amount handled on an average day during the rest of the year.

Trains on many of the busiest InterCity routes were reported to be fully booked over Christmas. British Rail warned that only passengers holding seat reservations will be able to travel on them. There will be no BR trains running on Christmas Day.

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