It’s Chrisssssssssstmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas! Let’s ride The Polar Express!


*Attention passengers; you may wish to take the express route to trip relevant information only, if so, please proceed to paragraph 14. For those who like the ‘leisurely’ scenic route (the ‘all-around-the-houses-to-cover-all-bases’ route) you may start your journey here. Whichever route you choose, I hope you enjoy your trip*

The Guinness Book of Records is a thing of wonder to many people, but to children it’s almost a rite of passage to pour over the pages of whatever edition happens to first catch your attention.  I doubt you were a very imaginative child if you didn’t start immediately plotting what record you could break or skill you could showcase! Before memes reminded you of the ridiculousness of people, (and cats) there was the Guinness Book of Records illuminating fabulous feats such as:

Ann Atkin’s four-acre “Gnome Reserve” in West Putford, England, (which has swiftly been added to my ‘must see’ list) had 2,042 gnomes and pixies gathering there, in 2011.

36 consecutive stairs climbed on the head, (imagine getting this wrong) achieved by Li Longlong in Jiangsu, China on January 5, 2015.

A marshmallow soaring 5.46 m (17 ft 11 in). when blown out of a nostril and into the mouth of a catcher (Gagging just thinking about it!) which was achieved by Paul Prado and Sophia Rojas on the set of ‘Guinness World Records Gone Wild!’ in Los Angeles, on July 2, 2012.  (Obviously, it was the woman who caught the gelatinous mess)

In 2006 The Polar Express became the “first all-digital capture” film, (where all acted parts were done in digital capture) and chugged its way into the lime green edition of the book; along with the introduction of free trading cards to entice new readers. If, like me, you’re not au fait with 3D motion capture techniques then a little Google will tell you it’s to digitally record the physical performances of actors before “skinning” them with their animated forms. In the case of The Polar Express, all the children’s roles were acted by adults using oversized props to get the movement right.

This Saturday, the only oversized adults were myself and Georgia. If it seems odd to you that a 33-year-old woman would get tickets to ride the Polar Express for her birthday, would travel 2.5 hours there and back to catch said train, or would spend over £30 on merchandise to honour the absolute beauty of the trip, you might want to stop reading here, otherwise, “all aboard!”

Christmas may belong to everyone, but I’ve always thought it belongs to me a little bit more. This sense of entitlement stems from a childhood spent in Santa’s Grotto from 15th Nov, when decorations would be put up in accordance with my birthday, and January 6th when all cheer had depleted. Children of couples who have not had close familial relationships or grown up in poverty, can probably identify with me here, your parents wanted to reclaim every disappointing, bitter or lonely Christmas. They wanted you to know the wonder they’d only heard stories about and then share that wonder; just like a scene from the Waltons (whose family they used to crave so fiercely to be part of).

Even now, my mum spends a full 2 days decorating the house with a slew of kindly eyed characters and so many strings of lights I’m not quite sure how she doesn’t end up spending the rest of the year untangling them all. It is a tradition to be gifted a festive ornament on every single birthday, whether I’m residing in a 2-bedroom house or a tent. I am devoutly devoted to the spirit of Christmas. Call me a Custodian of Cheer, if you will. Hence the gift of the tickets.

It’s only possible to ride the Polar Express because of those earnest Elves (not, “anoraks” thank you very much) at Telford Steam Railway who volunteer to tinker with the engines and tussle with the lines all year around. When December pulls in, everything train related is in tiptop condition and you can buy a ticket to ride, a golden one, which the conductor will ticket punch with your very own initial whether you are an adult or a child.

It’s not an underpaid or overworked conductor either; that initial will be punched in a manner that makes it look like golden snow is swirling down around you.  He holds your ticket aloft and up close to his twitching moustache, twinkling eyes and the broad smile of satisfaction you only see on employees who know they are appreciated. We were 2 such appreciative customers, wearing a dressing gown (with a Rudolph head for a hood) and a fluffy onesie (adorned with bear faces) grinning up at him along with our table mates; an angelic small girl, with earnest round eyes straight from a Pixar production, and her devoted dad. We were the only people who boarded sans children.

The only people without children who stood excitedly gloating about being in the Comet carriage (because that meant we were in the first carriage, the one furthest from the beginning of the platform, meaning we got to go under the arched bridge to wait for the arrival and would get to see the steam shroud the brick and orange glow of outdated bulbs that lit it.) and the only people without children that bought a clear balloon wrapped in tiny battery powered fairy lights and then wound it into the dressing gown ties for an extra wow factor. All of this might sound indulgent. It was. But if you’re lucky and you know it… Appreciate it.

My nan had died quite suddenly in the early hours of the morning on the day we went on the Polar Express; so, the whole experience was tinged with a strange purposefulness: Live well now. Celebrate life not death. Don’t just slip into the pull of fear and sadness.  Nan had been expecting to hear lavishly detailed descriptions of the trip, I had this overwhelming feeling I couldn’t disappoint her even though she’d never now hear them.

Enough preamble, from here on in, I will provide a direct narrative line and not go on any diversions.

Paragraph 14: Embark here for your direct trip to the North Pole.

Georgia scouted my sublime gift through the following website: all answers to logistical queries and booking info can be found there.

This trip was slickly operated. Confounding, considering it’s run by volunteers and Southern can’t get their trains to run to time, so, I’m baffled why unpaid enthusiasts should be able to manage it!

You get your tickets in advance, through the post, and all vital information in an accompanying letter: There’s a free shuttle bus from the free park and ride; you need to bring waterproof shoes and not be tempted by slippers as the platform is likely to be wet, icy or both; you will be served a hot chocolate and a cookie if you are in the common carriages (£13 cheaper because you don’t get to keep a mug which is on sale in the shop for £10); you can bring a copy of the picture book so you can read along as the story is played overhead; you don’t need to rush off when your journey is over as there’s activities in Santa’s Workshop, you can write a letter to the jolly man himself or make your own Christmas decorations and finally, everyone is encouraged to wear pyjamas, “even grandparents” so that it really feels like the film has come to life.

The parking was ample; the shuttles frequent; the atmosphere on them jovial; chatter abounding despite rain; little sideways glances being sneaked at fellow passengers’ pyjamas; a welcoming, if slightly frazzled, host to signpost us all to: toilets, a café, a burger stand, seats for grannies, access for the disabled, and strict instructions on how the platform was inaccessible until we were called forward.

What’s wonderful about the waiting area is that it’s not dead space; it felt like a place of communion where an electric anticipation linked us all as we milled around scoffing on gingerbread men; taking pictures among the fairy-lit entrances and counting out coins for balloons that twinkled. All of us carefully monitoring the clock. Tick. Tock. The hands edged ever closer to our designated departure time.

I’m not old enough to remember the days of steam trains; that didn’t stop nostalgia sweeping over me as the train finally pulled in and the smokestack exhaled his plume skyward… I imagined an outward breath of relief that for once, everyone was exactly where they wanted to be and going exactly where they wanted to go.  Who doesn’t want to be whisked away to the North Pole?

In a very British manner, despite not being able to board without a reservation, a fizz of panic forced us all to swell forward as the train slowed, each of us jostling for space as if we may somehow be denied, or swindled out of, our seat. Snapping our heads left and right proffering conciliatory smiles to others. Secretly eyeing up whether our neighbour would be the sort to dump their bags on a seat and refuse to move it while we shuffled awkwardly in the aisle, quietly fuming.

The moment the steamy carriage windows revealed cherished characters from the film, all suspicion dropped and we floated onto the train. When the bustle had subsided and each of us was bundled into our allocated seats the odyssey finally began. Roving chefs, rollicking guards and the roaming conductor immediately made spirits soar; our own energy was as high as their legs that kicked and arms that flung roofwards in celebration. Not one set of lips resisted belting out every single line of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. We could have all been extras, given exactly the same brief, because we played our parts flawlessly. Everyone cradling hot chocolate. Everyone snapping selfies or candid shots with the Conductor. Everyone beaming. It was this collective ability to suspend our own disbelief that marked this trip out for me, no matter what age, we were all at play.

I’ll admit, a tiny bit of cynicism had remained, I’d been muttering my judgements about the little boy at the next table who seemed apathetic to dancing waiters, sandwich board sized pages from the gorgeously illustrated storybook and even his cookie (which lay abandoned, much to my distrust and horror) but, it turned out, he wasn’t proof of the younger generation having gone to the dogs. The moment the driver alerted us to look to our left and a rainbow of colours appeared lighting the banks of the line, the child went slack-jawed and his mouth formed a beatific o shape the exact same moment as his pupils dilated in wonder; for there was Father Christmas, bathed in light, surrounded by snow, waving at us. I am certain that boy will grow to be a man who guards that memory of that feeling closely. His mother, swaddling a breast-feeding sibling, had embraced the struggle of mittens and moans, parking and prams, reservations and rain, to give him this moment of magic.  If the story of the Polar Express teaches us anything, it’s to believe in the spirit of Christmas.

When the bearded man himself boarded the train, he amiably ambled down the aisles and assured children their virtuous attempts at being good had been noted. Each child, is presented with ‘the first gift of Christmas’; an individual sleigh bell. If, like us, you whispered in the ear of a portly, red-faced, dancing chef how crushed you’d be to leave without a few kind words from Father Christmas himself, adults may leave with a jingle in their pockets too.

The journey’s termination point, afforded us the space to linger and watch the steam spiral overhead, photo opportunities with signs and finally, a barn type structure to purchase gifts or simply extend the merriment with free activities: long picnic tables for colouring or making paper decorations and a room full of fluffy, soft and ice free snowballs to throw at each other (which was great until my appalling aim landed said missile on the chin of a man holding his baby, who did not crack a smile, and Georgia said I had to cease and desist)

Looking back to catch a final glimpse of the station, a final glimpse of the lit tree, a final glimpse of the train, a final glimpse of the conductor, a final glimpse of the lit balloons all clamouring together, a final glimpse of exhausted tiny faces; I felt that tug of love for being part of something that will inevitable resonate with me for so much longer than one day. It’s rare we realise that’s happening in the moment we later recall, that we recognise the significance of a moment as it unfolds and savour it, trying to store it up for black dog days.

I believe.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight.



Unless that is, you want an excuse to find more info about ridiculous records broken, and stay awake all night, then here’s the click-bait of dreams just for you:

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