Scenes from the start of Christmas

by Stephen Tall on December 23, 2006

Catching the train is when it starts for me.

Somehow – regardless of the railway’s attempts to put its passengers in a bad mood by jacking up the prices, cramming the carriages with cattle customers, and ensuring we’re all late for wherever we’re meant to get to – the mood is more cheery.

It’s one of the only occasions in the year you’ll be on public transport when almost everybody is heading for family and/or friends to begin their holiday.

I had a momentary panic yesterday. My iPod has decided to become erratic, telling me the battery is knackered when I’d only just charged it. In itself, that’s annoying. That it should give up the ghost five minutes before I’m about to board a train, and endure three hours of the ‘family carriage’ – the noise of which I can survive only with musical accompaniment – is not my idea of good irony.

(Thankfully, after a few minutes’ rest it got up enough puff to see out the rest of the journey … before conking out again.)

Chugging into Newton Abbot (left) is when I know I’m on holiday, just half an hour from my parents’ home (or one hour, as First Great Western contrived it to be).

The whole journey had been swathed in a thick, ethereal mist – like something out of The Dark Is Rising – until we reached the coast, and the stretch of track that winds along the stunning Devonshire coast by Dawlish and Teignmouth. It’s a route I know well; but it still takes my breath away.

Last minute Christmas shopping is something I love. I’m sensible enough to have bought most gifts months weeks days beforehand – but nothing beats the slightly giddy, slightly frantic atmosphere of hunting for presents to beat a deadline.

And, almost excitingly, Plymouth’s city centre has had a makeover since last year, with the smart new Drake Circus shopping behemoth (right) replacing its drab predecessor – though, unfortunately, the contrast with the municipal greyness of its concrete neighbours is now quite painful.

It may not have been his most heinous of crimes, but the dreary and characterless architecture of post-war Britain is one that Hitler still inflicts on us today.