I hope you're all sitting comfortably as this is a long story. We start back last year - December 7th to be precise. I was just back from Chard, pleased with the idea that I had a clear day or two before I was due over at Leeds Castle for my first Santa-ing of the season. I got in and was presented with a phone message from St Saviour's School on the Isle of Wight asking if I was still coming tomorrow morning for their banquet. Huh? I had been contacted by someone from a school on the Isle of Wight about possibly visiting them on this date about two months ago, but nothing had been confirmed and I didn't even have the name or address of the school. I took the phone number from the message and called the lady in question. I explained quietly and rationally that I in no way could make it to the Island the following day, apologised and ended the call. The lady seemed OK, if a little upset. About five minutes later she called back, virtually hysterical, telling me all the children were coming in in full costume, there were caterers doing a banquet and was there anyway I could just "pop over" for an hour or so. Call me old Mr Softy if you wish, but I soon found myself phoning Wight Link ferries and booking a ticket for the following day. I drove down, thinking to myself it would be an easy day - turn up, shout a bit, eat a banquet, pose for some photos, then go home. But life is never that easy, is it? I was due to get the 10.55am ferry, but due to being stuck at a level crossing for what seemed like a lifetime I managed to drive into Lymington harbour just in time to see my ferry steaming out into the Solent. Arse. I therefore popped into the ferry office and picked up my tickets to be told I now had a 45 minute wait for the next one. Oh joy.
I got back in my car to see that I had three missed calls on my mobile, all from the same number. I called it, it was the school. A very snotty sounding lady demanded to know where I was as I was supposed to be at the school at 10am. I told her as politely as I could that as far as I was aware I was only due at the school at 11.30am, I had just missed my ferry, and if she spoke to me like that again, I would turn the car round and drive straight home. The next ferry finally arrived, I was soon on my way. The school was only about two miles from the terminal the other end, so I was soon there, but there was nowhere to park. The only space stated it was for "AXIS ONLY". I assumed this was for Taxis who's T had fallen off, and nothing to do with German WWII forces. Daring to stand up to irate cabbies and Hitler's forces, I parked in the spot and was soon inside the school. Everyone was in the main hall, and I mean EVERYONE. Teachers, kids, dinner ladies, the lot. From the smallest to the largest. But there didn't seem to be a table or chair for me. I enquired where I was supposed to go. Apparently all the food had already been served, but there was none left, and I was now expected to do a one hour talk to the kids. Well I started and I tried, I really did. But the room was packed to the rafters with some really very excitable very young children who honestly could not have cared less if I was there or not. I played some music, posed for loads of photos and was then on my way. My main thought on getting home was that was 12 hours of my life I will never get back.
Off to Kent. This was to be my fifth year of being Santa for Leeds Castle and this year, rather than freezing my baubles off out in the old tennis pavilion turned into a grotto, I was instead in the much warmer and central Dog Collar Museum - which had been cunningly disguised as a grotto. I have often wondered about the Dog Collar Museum - who actually thought of it in the first place? Did someone just wake up one morning and think "blimey, Leeds Castle is one of the most beautiful castles in the whole of Britain, but it appears to be lacking something.... I know - a Dog Collar Museum!" I know down this neck of the woods there is a "Barometer World" which takes some beating, but I think the whole idea of a Dog Collar Museum runs it a close second.
Well the whole few weeks at Leeds being Santa was quite entertaining. Once more we got swamped with snow halfway through the run, with the castle actually closing on the middle Saturday. I was trapped in the castle for a few days unable to get back to my sister's place near Sittingbourne where I was due to stay. Thinking I would only be trapped for a couple of nights I took only a small amount of clothing with me. I was eventually stuck at the castle for nearly a week which necessitated frequent washing and drying of my clothes in the rooms I was staying in each evening. Seeing my grotty socks steaming on the classy rooms radiators was like finding Worzel Gummidge dossing in the Savoy. I was not the only Santa this year, we had Castle employee Alan Cheeseman working in a twin grotto which meant we could take more people in at peak times. Apart from the day times I was also due in the Castle for four evenings meeting children who had been on tours of the place. These were mostly charming as the children were so in awe of being shown round the castle by actors dressed as Panto characters and then to meet Santa in his study at the end and get a present - most were either beside themselves with excitement or gobsmacked into silence. However, one American family arrived. The parents were of the "Yo! Dude!" species normally associated with skateboarding, surfing or the west coast. Their precocious son of about 8 years came in. "What's your name?" I asked. It sounded like he replied "Lost in Chaos". I chuckled a little. Perhaps he was nervous and had mumbled. I asked again. "LOST IN CHAOS!" he roared, and fixed me with a stare as if to say I was some sort of imbecile. "That's nice for you..." I muttered. "And what would you like for Christmas?" I asked. "I already wrote you a Goddam letter two months ago!" He snapped. Bless. His parents smiled and laughed at him being so big and clever, and snapped a few photos. If he carried on like this they could get some pleasant shots of him being throttled and then chucked out the battlement window down into the icy moat 40 feet below. He was the exception though, most of the kids this year were a delight.
It was great to be back at the Castle again and seeing everyone again. A roll call of honour reads thus: Darlene - as ever, brilliantly leading from the front; Becky - her lieutenant, wonderful and ever helpful; Alan - deputy Santa, well played old chap!; Amy, Sarah, Sophie, Becky, Jen, Pippa & Adam - the finest Elves any Santa could wish for; Jeanne Beaton - just the most wonderful human being on Earth; and to all the other staff and volunteers at Leeds Castle, many thanks for making this one of the most pleasant Santa sessions ever.
Christmas Day was spent with my wife Amanda and my son James at their new home in Basildon, and Boxing Day down at my sister's place in Sittingbourne. 2010 came to a rather muted end as, on the 30th December Amanda's lovely Aunt Margaret finally lost her long battle with cancer and passed away. It was not unexpected but still very sad.
I finally got back to Somerset today, the 1st January. It felt like I had been away for a lifetime. My next Henry show is on Wednesday 5th when I am giving a talk for Sherborne Probus Club.