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It’s their busiest time of the year. Nik Brear visits the Royal Mail in Sheffield as it deals with a deluge of festive post

sparkling on the surface of rows of steel machinery that fill the factory floor.

Christmas Mail Operations at the Sheffield Mail Centre, Brightside Lane.

Christmas Mail Operations at the Sheffield Mail Centre, Brightside Lane.

“It’s from the Christmas cards,” explains Sheffield’s Royal Mail plant manager Jon Adams. “Everything and everybody on the plant floor ends up littered in glitter at this time of year – occupational hazard.”

It’s Royal Mail’s busiest season and, with tens of thousands of letters and parcels working their way through the Sheffield plant every single day throughout December, it’s all hands on deck to keep the mail flowing.

“We have 3,300 collection points across South Yorkshire, many of which we collect from more than once a day at Christmas,” said Jon.

“We have to bring in around 220 additional staff just to deal with the increased volume of post which has to be collected, sorted and distributed.”

Christmas Mail Operations at the Sheffield Mail Centre, Brightside Lane.

Christmas Mail Operations at the Sheffield Mail Centre, Brightside Lane.

Lincoln Wilson is a Royal Mail Quality Manager in Sheffield, but in December – like many managers across South Yorkshire – he puts in voluntary hours on the plant floor, to keep the Christmas mail moving.

“We’re a big team at Royal Mail and many managers and department heads volunteer to come to the mail centre at Christmas and make sure we stay on top of delivering Christmas for our customers,” said Lincoln.

“I’ve been doing this every year since I began at Royal Mail 13 years ago, usually for two weeks in December.

“I enjoy the change of pace, keeping my hand in and helping to get the mail out – it’s an important job and very satisfying.”

The volume of mail sent at Christmas rises every year, with the average person expected to send 19 cards this festive season.

The mail centre relies heavily on four intelligent mail processors on the plant floor, which are capable of processing 25,000 pieces of mail every hour.

The machines filter the larger items, sort letters by addresses, separate the first and second class mail and assign each letter a code.

If it cannot identify an address, the machine takes a photograph of the letter and sends it to a coding centre where workers manually identify the address and send the correct code back.

“They’re a fantastic piece of technology and the software is constantly advancing,” said Jon.

“We couldn’t do without them, especially at this time of year.”

As mail arrives at the Sheffield plant, it goes through between four and seven ‘checks’ – depending on the item and the detail given – before it is ready to be put back on a van and distributed.

The turnover is fast, with last collections of the day needing to be sorted and back out of the plant, either in vehicles or on planes, by 10pm so the receiving mail centres can distribute it by 6am the next day. But there are things that can slow the process down.

“At this time of year particularly, we receive an awful lot of letters that don’t have postcodes,” said Jon.

“Luckily we have incredible employees here who, after years of practice, can identify the most obscure addresses and fill in the blanks.

“It’s the same with illegible handwriting. This is our core business so we’ve developed skills in interpreting even the most hard to read writing.

We make it our mission to connect every letter with its recipient.”

In among the Christmas mail mayhem, Royal Mail also finds time to take on the most important, and most rewarding, seasonal job of all – Santa’s helpers.

“Every year we receive thousands of letters addressed to Santa and we make sure he receives them all,” said Jon.

“Those that were posted by Friday, December 14, this year, and that have a return address, will receive a reply from Santa.

“He’s very busy preparing for his own massive Christmas Eve delivery, so we’re happy to help out.”

Royal Mails Christmas tips

* Take extra time when wrapping items, using bubble wrap where appropriate and extra tape to ensure your parcel doesn’t burst open on its journey.

* Seal envelopes, rather than tucking the flap in, so it can be processed by the intelligent mail processors.

* Write addresses clearly – including the postcode – and always print a return address on the other side.

* Send items and cards as early as possible. The last recommended posting date for First Class UK Christmas delivery is Thursday, December 20.