Bluewater: A decade before Westfield Stratford City came along, the largest shopping centre in Europe could be found in a quarry in Kent. Bluewater opened in 1999, buried in a chalkydip near the A2, and millions of punters duly drove in. The site's mostly car park, with a few scenic lakes around the circumference and a huge curved triangular mall in the centre. Ideal for walking an entire three-part circuit with an armful of shopping, then changing level and all the way round again. Throw in a meal somewhere, maybe a film, maybe a round of 18-hole pirate-themed adventure golf, and that's an entire day consumed.
Only on a Saturday does Bluewater dare to open as early as nine. The buses are nigh empty as they pull in, and the car park's mostly empty apart from staff. On the ground floor of the Rose Gallery, youngsters drafted in to run the trolley concessions are unwrapping the spa treatments, pricing up the the handbags and rearranging the cuddly monkeys. Nobody's interested yet, but give them time. Many shops haven't even bothered to raise the shutters, but a few are open, lights blazing, awaiting custom. Even the restaurants are ready, tables laid, happy to serve up a coffee or breakfast to earlybird couples and the occasional family. Entire sub-galleries echo to a single set of passing footsteps. Won't be long now.
Downstairs in ThamesWalk, loud junior screaming can be heard. To blame are a handful of six year-olds at the Build-A-Bear Workshop, being whipped into a frenzy by an employee before they all run into the store to stuff a teddy. Upstairs, in a quieter corner, the Past Times Christmas gift store closes on Monday. There's 50% off gift books and Union Jack cushions, but no takers. In M&S the mannequins outnumber the shoppers, spread out among criss-crossing racks of primary coloured blouses and knitwear. Slowly the day's customers arrive, emerging from the multi-storey with eager smiles and loaded cards. They spread out and head clockwise or anti-clockwise - twice round should do it - hunting bargains and early caffeine. The bus to London leaves in five minutes, so I leave them to it. 96>>