As a couple of non-drivers, his family in Edinburgh and mine on the Sussex coast, Christmas for my boyfriend and I has become synonymous with train journeys. Very long train journeys. Laden with bags, clinking bottles and extra jumpers, we spend the festive season shuttling the length of the country in a way that makes Gavin & Stacey look amateur league. Some years we do the full stretch in seven hours, arriving at the other end with the air of the three wise men fresh off a rail-replacement camel.
Sure, public transport has its downsides. Juggling buckets of hot coffee with a ticket in your teeth while trying to talk a drunk Santa out of your seat. Cramming the vase from Great Aunt Maud into the luggage rack while 12 people harrumph behind you (the person to launch ‘Uber, but for driving your Christmas presents back from the provinces’ will make millions). The risk that at any moment, with no warning, someone will start a sing-song. And worse, you may join in.
But I love them, those pilgrimages. Amid the chaos and battles for armrests, good cheer flows as thick as Baileys. I’ve seen people pass round snacks to strangers, or give up their seats to sit happily on the floor. One year I talked to a woman about her grandchildren the whole way from Victoria to Worthing, and we hugged goodbye at the end. The next, after we stupidly missed our train, a Virgin Trains angel in glittery antlers conjured up seats on the next one. “You’ve saved Christmas!” we wailed, proffering mince pies. It couldn’t have felt more festive if it had a John Williams soundtrack.
There’s reflective romance to those journeys. A few precious hours to take a breath and prepare for the family onslaught. ‘Out of office’ auto-reply on, the year wrapped up, in the warm glow of a carriage bound for home, it feels as though nothing can touch you. Time pauses, years melt away. I board the train a responsible adult and I get off feeling 15. Then on the journey back comes the final indulgence: a little cry.
So yes – when Chris Rea wrote Driving Home For Christmas, he didn’t know what he was missing. Because while he’s top to toe in tailbacks, I’ll be cracking open a chocolate orange and watching 500 miles of familiar fields rush past the window. If you close your eyes and ignore the announcements about the toilets being out of order, it could almost be the Polar Express.