Santa Claus is obviously busy in the run-up to Christmas. He’s got all the toys to source, the reindeer to prepare and the sleigh to load, and this year he also had an interview and photo shoot with Lancashire Life.

The arrangements were made via a series of phone calls and text messages which at one point involved a conversation with Santa’s wife, who said she was busy making him a new suit and would make sure it was ready for the photographs.

We agreed to meet at Barton Grange, the expansive garden centre north of Preston, where the Christmas displays have been in place since September and we could be sure of a festive backdrop for the photographs.

Great British Life: Santa does his Christmas shopping at Barton Grange. PHOTO: Kirsty ThompsonSanta does his Christmas shopping at Barton Grange. PHOTO: Kirsty Thompson

He arrives incognito, with his familiar red outfit in a suit carrier slung over his shoulder, along with his large sack. But he attracts quite a few inquisitive glances as we move somewhere more private where he can get changed – who is this chap with a white beard, glasses and a big sack who makes a tinkling sleigh bell sound as he walks?

When he’s ready, we’re back on the shopfloor to take the pictures and he receives excited waves and cheery hellos from people of all ages – particularly older women with whom he regularly stops to chat. Children tend to be struck dumb and stare wide-eyed and open mouthed as he gives them cheery waves and jolly hellos.

One boy shocked into shyness by bumping into Santa on a Friday afternoon near Preston eventually gathers the courage to speak. ‘I’m going to see you in Lapland,’ he says.

‘Well,that’s wonderful,’ Santa beams back at him before checking he’s been a good boy and coaxing a few more words out of him. ‘Ilook forward to seeing you again,’ he says with a merry chuckle and a ho ho ho.

As Santa poses for another picture, and the boy looks on awestruck, his mum and grandma comment in a stage whisper: ‘Well, I never knew Santa was a Geordie.’

The accent is warm, sing-songy and exotic enough for most young Lancastrian children to recognise it is different to a voice they’re used to, and could conceivably be the way everyone speaks in Lapland, or at the North Pole. Where exactly do you live?

‘Thornton,’ he says, slipping out of character for a moment before genially greeting a group of elderly women who’ve stopped to see what’s going on.

Great British Life: Santa does his Christmas shopping at Barton Grange. PHOTO: Kirsty ThompsonSanta does his Christmas shopping at Barton Grange. PHOTO: Kirsty Thompson

Our Geordie Santa is Alan Appleton, a 70-year-old retired police officer originally from Tynemouth in Northumberland. This will be his second year as one of the Santas who work shifts at Barton Grange in the run-up to Christmas, but it’s a role he’s been playing for a few years at the Derby primary school where his son is headteacher.

‘It’s a lovely time of year and I love doing it,’ he says. ‘It adds that bit of magic to Christmas and it’s such good fun. You get the energy and adrenalin from the children. It’s such a buzz. I really enjoyed my 30 years with Northumbria Police and I love retirement, but this is great. You have to keep up with the latest trends and toys.I get a toy catalogue every year so I know whatthings are when they get mentioned. LOL Dolls were the big thing a couple of years ago and then they made a come back. When the film Frozen came out lots of children wanted things to do with that so I needed to know who the characters were. And when the floss dance was a big thing I learned how to do that. There’s something new every year and you can’t be caught out.’

Alan’s preparation for role begins in August when he stops shaving and his goatee grows into a full beard. ‘It’s not the right colour though, so I have to dye it,’ he adds. And while he obviously revels in being Santa for other families, he doesn’t want his own four grandchildren to know – he’s a real secret Santa. ‘That would ruin the magic for them if they saw it was me dressed up.’

Other children though clearly believe. ‘They often ask “Are you magic?” but I say the magic comes from them. If children don’t believe in Father Christmas I wouldn’t be there,’ Alan smiles.

‘You quite often get asked how old you are. I tell them I’m 786-years-old and I’ve lived so long because unlike their mams and dads who work all year, I only have to work one day.

‘Another frequent question is about how many languages I can speak. I tell them the main two we use are English and Elvish. The elves get blamed for a lot – if I make a mistake or if someone got the wrong present last year, it’s always the elves’ fault.

Great British Life: Enjoying a virtual reality sleigh ride at Barton GrangeEnjoying a virtual reality sleigh ride at Barton Grange

‘One child once said to me “You’re not the real Santa, he wears round glasses.” I told them Cupid had sat on my round ones and now he has a plaster on his bottom.’ But not every conversation ends with the rolling ho ho ho. ‘When one girl at my son’s school came to talk to me I asked her what she wanted for Christmas and she said she just wanted me to make her mummy better,’ Alan says. ‘You really have to think on your feet at times like that. I told I’d do my very best but I couldn’t always do everything.I spoke to my son afterwards and he said the girl’s mum was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

‘When I went back the next year the girl gave me such a big cuddle and thanked me for giving her presents as well. Then her mum hugged me and started crying. And then I started crying.’ Alan is one of seven Santas working two hour shifts at Barton Grange this Christmas where visitors can take part in a 20 minute interactive adventure that leads to his grotto, or join Santa and his helpers for a meal at the Ocean Restaurant. And when the last visitor has left on Christmas Eve, what do Alan’s family celebrations look like? ‘We do a secret Santa among the adults but we concentrate on the children – that’s who Christmas is for.’.

Great British Life: Brian Porter, Father Christmas at Barton Grange Garden Centre. PHOTO: Kirsty ThompsonBrian Porter, Father Christmas at Barton Grange Garden Centre. PHOTO: Kirsty Thompson


Chorley-born Brian Porter trained as a dancer at London’s Laban Centre with critically-acclaimed director and choreographer Matthew Bourne.

Now 64, Brian lives at Cleveleys and his dancer’s frame and smooth chin mean he needs padding under his suit and a false beard, although the moustache is his own. He says his science degree and experience as a dancer and as performer at the Blackpool Tower Dungeon and in theatre for schools have prepared him well for being Santa.

‘It’s all physics,’ he says. ‘When children ask how I get round the world in a single night, I have the answers. ‘I’ve been Santa for about six or seven years in shopping centres. I love children and I love being Santa. ‘A lot of children fall into one of two categories – they’ll either be nervous of you and stay close to their parents, or they’ll charge at you and hug you. The look of sheer joy on a child’s face when they meet you is wonderful.’

Great British Life: Brian Porter and Alan Appleton, Father Christmas at Barton Grange Garden Centre. PHOTO:Kirsty ThompsonBrian Porter and Alan Appleton, Father Christmas at Barton Grange Garden Centre. PHOTO:Kirsty Thompson


Take part in Santa’s Christmas Journey at Barton Grange from November 25 to Christmas Eve, with cheeky elves, a sleigh ride and fun challenges to complete. Or, from December 9-24, enjoy a Christmas party with entertainment, a visit from Santa, and breakfast, lunch, tea or a fish supper. And a virtual reality sleigh ride will take visitors on a magical journey to Lapland. Barton Grange will close at 8pm until December 16 with festive food and drink on offer in the Riverside Café and Willows Restaurant.