Simon Calder reports on a travel city
You may once have taken your holidays in Croydon; now you probably take them in Crawley. To be correct, that statement requires only that "take" be substituted with "start" or "book". Improbably, the accident of post-war town planning known as Crawley is the hub of Britain's holiday industry.

First, we must dispose of Croydon (insert suitable Betjemanesque joke here, if you wish). There has always been a tension between the two conurbations. Most of it has arisen from citizens weary of being asked "is that Crawley in Surrey?" by those who cannot tell the West Sussex new town from the garish London borough 20 miles to the north. But there is a big difference: in the galaxy of Greater London, Croydon is a minor satellite; Crawley dominates West Sussex like Bill Clinton dominates American politics..

A glitter gulch is carved by the A23 as it rolls through the north of the county. This prosperity is largely thanks to Crawley's very own international airport - Gatwick. Croydon's aerodrome has long since vanished, to be supplanted in travellers' affections by Gatwick - older, wiser and nicer than Heathrow (founded 10 years later, in 1946).

In the early days of the new town, though, the young airport was nearly concreted over with the rest of north-west Sussex. When Thomas Bennett, the creator of Crawley, unveiled the master plan in December 1948, the airport was barely mentioned. It was hoped, he said, "that some arrangement might be made which would enable the airport to continue". It has, and every day, the entire population of Crawley - or at least the numerical equivalent, around 70,000 - flies in or out of Britain's second-busiest airport. Someone has removed the "Welcome to Crawley - a Nuclear-free Zone" signs that used to greet airport users, but you're still welcome to Gatwick, Crawley's gateway to the globe.

Before you even get to the airport, your holiday may well have already started in Crawley. The list of airlines and tour operators based in the town has grown to implausible proportions. Richard Branson decided to set up Virgin Atlantic Airways in the high street. Even though most Virgin flights now use Heathrow, the airline's HQ retains its roots in Sussex. Mr Branson can clearly see the attractions of Crawley over, say, Hounslow.

Perhaps the draw is County Mall, splodged across the middle of town like an Arndale Centre on steroids. Or Tilgate Forest, where the lake on which the Campbell family used to get up to speed is now the centre-piece of a country park. More likely these than Town Meadow, which sounds like a pastoral idyll but turns out to be the home ground of Crawley Town FC. Once, the Red Devils were called "the sleeping giants of non-league football". But only by the manager of Eastbourne United.

No, probably the reason Richard Branson stays put is to keep an eye on the competition. Caledonian Airways and Air 2000 both have their headquarters in Crawley. The latter is part of Britain's third-biggest tour operator, First Choice. Across the road, British Airways flexes its corporate muscle from the heavenly surroundings of Astral Towers. When you book your British Airways Holiday or call the airline's Air Miles subsidiary, you are talking to someone in Crawley. Inspirations is just across the Surrey border, and Unijet resides a dozen miles south in the (even) leafier surroundings of Haywards Heath.

The town's only problem (leaving aside drugs, delinquency and drizzle) is that many of those who run the travel companies commute to Crawley rather than live there. Among senior executives, there seems to be a competition to see who can live furthest away - currently held by a chap who drives daily from Aylesbury, a 140-mile round trip. Even loyal sons and daughters of the town, who once made Crawley maternity hospital the most productive place in Britain, have moved away, returning only at Christmas to drink in the past at a succession of imaginatively named pubs.

Our family is no exception. So, Sarah, Penny, Jo and Kate - Christmas Eve as usual at the Charcoal Burner?

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