THE COUNTDOWN to Christmas is in full swing at a leading North East shopping centre, with gifts, events and a very special visitor.

Sunderland’s the Bridges has revealed a packed programme of festive activities in the run up to the big day, along with the return of late night shopping.

Shoppers looking to gift everything from tech to toys can make the most of the centre’s extended hours from 9 to 20 December, with free parking on weekdays from 5:30pm to 9pm.

And children can share their Christmas wishes with the man in red himself, with the return of Santa’s Grotto from 14 November until Christmas Eve.

Entry to the grotto costs £2, which includes a present from Santa, and 50p from each visit goes to Rotary SR1 to help support a number of local charities in Sunderland.

The centre has also teamed up with Sunderland BID to give families and youngsters a day out with a difference, with the return of the popular Reindeer Dash, which takes place on Sunday 8 December.

Runners will receive reindeer antlers and noses for a lap around the centre, with a whole host of character appearances and fundraising activities in aid of the Foundation of Light and the Children’s Heart Unit Fund, based at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital.

And Christmas will come early for businesses in the city, with exclusive deals and offers at a VIP shopping night on 5 December.

Andy Bradley, centre director at the Bridges, believes the centre comes alive at Christmas.

“The festive period is a hugely busy time for us as people shop for food and gifts and there’s a fantastic atmosphere in November and December,” said Andy.

“Santa’s Grotto is always very popular and we’re also hoping to see lots of people get in the spirit of the season at the Reindeer Dash, to help raise money for two brilliant causes.

“And because the big day will be here before we know it, we’re trying to ease the stress of buying presents for those with busy schedules by inviting our shoppers to make the most of our late night opening hours.”

Tickets for the Reindeer Dash, which is supported by SR1 Rotary and Sunderland Empire Theatre, cost £3.50 for children and £5.50 for adults.

They can be booked at https://sunderlandreindeerdash.eventbrite.co.uk and the race is scheduled to take place between 9am and 11am.

For more information about the Christmas events, visit www.thebridges-shopping.com.