A night out with the ladettes: Stella, a packet of 10 and the bus home

They're bored, boisterous, and smoke and drink. And most surprising of all, they're girls as young as 15. Andrew Johnson follows a night out in Essex

It is Friday night in Romford, and while the pubs and bars are filling with young lads and women dressed for an Essex night out, Amy and her friends are hanging around outside Primark in the rain.

The group of 15-year-olds - there are about 20 of them, girls and boys - are drinking cans of Stella and bottles of WKD and many of them are smoking cigarettes. There is a faint whiff of something more exotic in the air.

It is 8.30pm and the brightly lit pedestrian shopping precinct provides a perfect playground for the boisterous and exuberant teenagers, who say they have been drinking since 6pm. They run, split into little groups and reform, and show little respect to any unfortunate adult who gets in their way.

They all agree that girls are smoking and drinking just as much as the boys, but the boys dispute they stay in more.

"I started smoking about a year and a half ago," says Amy. "I thought I was hard. I'm addicted now and want to give up. It is a girl thing, though. I only know about five girls who smoke cannabis. They smoke it out on the street somewhere.

"A lot of the girls are drinking," she continues. "They go out every Friday and Saturday night. We can't get into bars, so we just hang out on the street. Or if someone is having a party we go there. Some of the boys look older, so they can get served in off-licences. We drink Lambrinis, vodka and Cokes, alcopops, Jack Daniels and Coke. We'll be out until about 11."

They all dispute that boys are better behaved. As far as the girls are concerned, it is the boys who egg them on, but they get drunk more easily. Drinking, the girls say, makes them more "vulnerable" and they say that most girls have their first sexual experience when they are drunk.

"People start drinking and smoking when they are 12 or 13," chips in Amy's friend, Cara. "It's peer pressure that makes you do it. Your friends are smoking, so you start."

But they are not completely the wild children they would appear to be, even though the boys are, during the interview, content to jostle, throw insults and vulgarities, slap my head and pinch my ears, all of which they find hilarious.

"I want to go to university and be an impressionist," says Cara.

Amy says she wants to go to university, but isn't sure what she wants to do after that. The girls are also reading, they say. One is reading Gone With the Wind for school, another A Child Called It.

The boys do play computer games, Chris says. He once played for 10 hours in one day. But they are adamant they are not the stay-at-homes the report suggests.

"I want to be a drug dealer," chips in one of the boys. Ben Clark, 14, says: "I prefer going out drinking. It's funnier. Buy a packet of 10 goldies, meet my mates, find a bit of gash."

But take the boys out of the group and they are more thoughtful.

"There's nothing for us to do," says Ben. "If there was a youth club or something for under 18s to do at weekends, or a skate park, we wouldn't be out on the streets." His friends snort at this suggestion, but he is serious.

"Ask them to open Rom skate park later," he says.

"We do go shopping," adds Steve. "I go shopping for jumpers, clothes, hats, things like these," he says pointing to his trainers and jeans.

"I only drink on a Friday because there's no school the next day. I smoke cigarettes. I started at 14. I'm 15 now, and smoke about 10 a day.

"I started because all my mates did. We get our money from parents, from working. I work in a shop for £3 an hour. It's rubbish money."

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