Didcot is a commuter belt town with a couple of large housing estates (one built on a flood plan, one a work in progress). It is twenty miles from the M4 and sits on a junction, with trains going in all directions near the railway visitor’s centre, which hosts three Thomas & Friends days a year and any number of other steam-related events. Didcot has a pedestrianized shopping precinct, an about-to-be-decommissioned power station, a multiplex and a theatre.
It also has no soul and relatively little community spirit. This is largely because of its makeup: people who work in London and Oxford and who presumably do much of their shopping in both. The Orchard Centre is usually reasonably busy but the high street itself is a long stretch of charity shops – almost as many as nearby Headington – and cafes, with a couple of local businesses thrown in. It’s also my favourite part of the town as it’s the only place where you can go into a store and actually chat to people without being made to feel like you’re just lining their pockets. If people do come together, it is to complain about the housing expansion or the fate of the aforementioned power station, which may or may not be bought by English Heritage.
But once a year, for one evening, like Brigadoon, this sleepy little town comes to life a bit. The streets are lined with overpriced funfair rides that come flat-packed in lorries from the nearby A34, sandwiched between stalls manned by East European olive salesmen, teenage church volunteers giving away free jacket potatoes, and elderly ladies running the tombola. The parade starts at seven, give or take, and the procession wheels round the corner by the Orchard Centre before wandering up Broadway, with the pipers leading. Then we all go off and watch the barrel organ, which was last night playing a mixture of Disney tunes, Beach Boys classics and the theme to The Vicar of Dibley.
Last year, we encountered a Dalek in Cineworld. This year the Nation’s finest were sadly absent, but there was plenty more to do. For one thing, the fairground signs were hysterical.
Oh, and this.
I know I shouldn’t mock. They’re barkers; they don’t worry about how things look. But honestly, they make it so easy.
We strolled down to the grotto in the Methodist church, although I don’t know why we bother. It gets worse every year. Last Christmas they’d set up a display of Victorian-dressed mannequins with an unintentionally gruesome twist – a Grinch was hiding under the dining table, one of the children sitting playing with dolls in the nursery was missing her head, and there were bloody footprints leading down the Yellow Brick Road. They sorted out the missing head as soon as we brought it to their attention, and the Peter Pan display inside the back room was quite good, but that didn’t stop me having nightmare.
This year, they’d set up a selection of that-was-the-year-that-was nostalgia, complete with Mork and Mindy annuals, old toys and pictures from Doctor Who, which greatly pleased Thomas, who had until that point been sitting in the chariot, completely disengaged. He’d refused to get out and look at anything, and had sat there, staring off into space as if anxious to be somewhere else. I’d rather have had that than a meltdown, but I wished he’d interact. As soon as he’d left the buggy, though, there was no going back, and he was lively and chatty for the rest of the evening, whooping with delight when he saw his teaching assistant while waiting for the steam train ride to start.
Back to the church. When we eventually reached the grotto itself, it was in a curtained back room, sparsely decorated, and with an open partition where piles of empty cardboard boxes lay strewn across fold-up tables, and other church users stood about chatting. Magical and wintry it was not. Father Christmas sat silently in his chair while Mother Christmas fussed around and did all the talking. She was played by the bearded lady who works in the Railway Centre so there was a little gender confusion going on – they both wore long red robes and it was occasionally difficult to tell which was which. They did, at least, allow us to take our own photos.
Emily and her mother queued for doughnuts and then we wandered down to the soft play area in-a-truck that is set up just outside Next. Joshua assisted Daniel, who had been observed standing on the top balcony, wailing that he couldn’t get down. Thomas, meanwhile, would do a circuit and then run outside and check to see if we’d let him back in again, an action that he repeated for about ten or fifteen minutes. It was rather cute, and it gave me time to notice this.
I mean, it’s such a pain. I had my ancient texts ready and everything.
We couldn’t have asked for a clearer, brighter evening, but the starry skies brought bitter cold, so at quarter to nine we decided it was time to head for home. We wandered back up past the fire station – offering home delivery from Santa on the back of a fire engine for £10 – and a sea of stall owners who were now packing up their goods. My father-in-law noticed the giant elephant was missing from one of the sideshows and wondered who’d had the good fortune to win it, and whose poor parents had the misfortune of having to carry it home. We examined our tombola prizes – a mint Aero, a glittery wig, a photo frame and a copy of Interesting Facts About Your Birthday (April 23rd, which is all well and good but we don’t know anyone whose birthday falls on April 23rd). As we were passing the final hook-a-duck game, I noticed this.
I suppose it works. Technically. But still.