AT this special time of year I’m usually cosying up in front of the fire at my Exmoor farmhouse and opening up a nice bottle of claret.
But I had one of the best nights of my life sinking four-pint pitchers in the company of elves, dinosaurs and Vikings.
No, I haven’t lost my marbles.
As soon as I entered the arena I could feel an electric energy emanating from the crowd.
Fans were packed into narrow rows, jumping to their feet and cheering — holding up signs with the famous “180” written on them.
Trestle tables groaned with giant pitchers of beer.
I was there on Thursday, the first night, the early heats, with 3,000 wild darts fans.
My first order of business? Naturally, I headed to the bar and ordered a pint.
It was a surreal scene as I spotted fighter pilots, dogs, jockeys, choirboys and all manner of cartoon characters refilling their four-pint pitchers.
I asked some in the fan zone why they were there.
Francesca Hobson, 34, a sales director from South West London, said: “I love to come — but not to watch the darts, it’s to get loose.
“You know in rugby how everyone cheers like crazy when they score a try? Well, darts is like that, but you get to go crazy every minute.”
“Loose” is not a term I’d heard before.
Tom Webb, 28, from Upminster, East London, and dressed as a dartboard, set out the appeal.
He said: “I haven’t had a chance to watch any darts yet, but we’re planning on getting drunk.”
And so, to the darts.
As I headed back into the arena, pint in hand, I was greeted by a chant from chaps dressed as Christmas.
“Stanley, Stanley, give us a wave.”
I was more than happy to oblige and thrilled to have a darts chant of my own.
The players entered the arena like boxers, to their signature music.
There was something gladiatorial about the spectacle.
Except, if this truly was like the Colosseum in ancient Rome, the players would be throwing darts at each other.
The word “arena” comes from the Latin for sand.
They needed sand to mop up the blood. No blood that night, just beer.
I tried to focus on the game itself.
It’s not just the physical agility you need, or the amazing hand-eye co-ordination.
It’s also the sheer mathematical brilliance which enables you to calculate at the speed of light the quickest and most effective route from 501 to zero — and end on the mandatory double.
Nothing prepared me for the astonishing spectacle at Ally Pally.
The players have extraordinary precision. Every 180 was met with a booming cheer from the fans.
But the biggest cheers seemed to be unrelated to the darts.
At one point, a man stood up and finished his pint in one gulp — while the crowd chanted: “One more beer! One more beer!”
As The Sun’s wildlife correspondent I have tracked tigers in India — but this was definitely my wildest assignment.
One of the dancers, Sophie Lambert, 29, of Portsmouth, explained that the spectacle is about so much more than the sport.
She said: “Of all the sports, darts is easily the most fun for us dancers — the atmosphere is incredible.
“The crowd goes wild, you can tell everyone is having a fantastic time. I could teach you a few of our moves.”
Growing up in Exmoor in the 1950s, the dartboard was a central part of rural life in local pubs.
Of course, you had to watch out for ricochets if you were standing too close to the board, otherwise you would get it in the neck — in the most literal sense.
But these pub games were rarely watched by more than a handful.
At Ally Pally, the 85,000 tickets for the PDC World Darts Championship sold out, 75,000 of them going in 48 hours.
The popularity of darts as a fun, booze-fuelled night out has done wonders for the sport.
The top prize has rocketed from £60,000 in 2005 to £500,000 today.
But I can see why it’s so popular — the darts is true entertainment.
Freight worker Charlotte Wheatley, 28, of Basildon, Essex, dressed as Daphne from Scooby-Doo, joked: “You see a lot of mad sights at the darts — but I didn’t imagine I’d see the former Prime Minister’s dad.
“Is Matt Hancock here somewhere too?”
And Zach Morgan, 44, a derivatives broker from Surrey, dressed as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, said: “There aren’t many British legends here tonight, but we found one — Stanley.”
There seemed to be people from all different classes.
Working class, middle class and upper class — I met someone who went to school with one of my grandsons.
At its heart, the darts is about people gathering together to enjoy themselves.
If you’ve never made the pilgrimage to the spiritual home of darts, then put on the fancy dress, grab a pitcher of beer and prepare to enter the arena.
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