Hen parties used to be fairly quiet occasions but more and more of them are becoming alcohol-fuelled debaucheries. Womens' Editor Christen Pears reports on a growing phenomenon.

JULIE straightens her skirt and adjusts the plastic L-plates hanging around her neck. The matching veil has been lost, probably trampled underfoot in one of the pubs she visited earlier in the evening.

She totters over to the bar, looking back at her friends for reassurance, before approaching a group of men who are talking and drinking at the bar. She's never met any of them before but after a few seconds, she steps up to one of them and kisses him. It only lasts a few seconds but the others roar with delight.

Back at Julie's table, her friends are whooping and squealing and banging their glasses on the table. Everyone turns to look at them, some smiling, others casting disdainful looks.

Julie is getting married in three weeks but tonight she's on a mission to kiss ten complete strangers. This one is number two.

The 28-year-old secretary has travelled from her home in Penrith to Newcastle's Quayside to celebrate her hen night. They're making a weekend of it, staying overnight in the city to maximise their drinking time.

They've seen the Millennium Bridge, opposite their hotel, but they haven't ventured beyond the Quayside. "We're not here to sightsee, we're here to enjoy ourselves," one remarks.

It's only 9.30pm but the women are already quite drunk. Their table is littered with empty bottles and their conversations are loud and lewd. One of them already looks as if she's had too much, leaning against her friend's shoulder, her head lolling to the side as if it's too much of an effort to hold it up.

In the past, hen parties were quiet affairs with the bride-to-be enjoying a few drinks with her friends while the groom and his mates got paralytic. It wasn't a proper stag night if he didn't end up stark naked and chained to a lamp post or fast asleep on the night train to John O'Groats. But now the fairer sex are giving the men a run for their money.

"We just want to enjoy ourselves. It's celebrating my last days of freedom before I get married. Blokes do it, so why shouldn't we?" says Julie.

There's no stripper, although it was considered, but her friends have bought her a set of L-plates and a veil and dared her to kiss ten men by closing time.

Julie denies it's embarrassing or demeaning. "It's a bit of fun. It's just a dare and it doesn't mean anything," she says, although she admits she's not sure whether she'll furnish her fiance with all the details.

"I'm not sure what he would say although I dread to think what he'll be getting up to with his mates on his stag night. People seem to think it's okay for men to do that sort of thing but not for us. I don't see why it should be any different."

Julie is the second in her group of friends to get married. When 27-year-old Louise tied the knot last year, the girls partied in Penrith.

"It was a good night - what I can remember of it," says Louise, "But we thought we'd do something different this time. It's a special occasion so you have to make the most of it."

She and her friends were contemplating going abroad for a weekend - "Amsterdam's supposed to be fantastic" - but a lack of money meant they had to stay in Britain. They chose Newcastle because of its reputation as a party city.

"There's loads of bars and clubs here and they're really close together so it's perfect," explains Louise. "There's a real buzz and I think that helps you enjoy yourself."

The Penrith party is fairly quiet compared with some of the groups that make their way to the Quayside. Hen parties are big business, with some venues offering special packages. But others want to keep the women out. Some bars, restaurants and hotels have had problems with groups of rowdy brides-to-be and their friends disturbing the peace, even smashing up furniture.

But according to Dr Joan Harvey, a chartered psychologist at Newcastle University, the raucous night out is just the latest incarnation of a centuries-old tradition.

"The hen party goes back years," she explains. "Women used to sit at home and talk about lace and their trousseaux but things have moved on now. Women like to go out and have a few drinks and the style of hen party people have now reflects that."

High profile 'ladettes' like Zoe Ball and Denise Van Outen set the agenda for young women up and down the country with their hard-drinking, hard-talking behaviour and the idea of a hen party seems to amplify these tendencies.

"People are always looking for an excuse to have a good time," says Dr Harvey. "To go out for a purpose is much more fun than to go out for no purpose. People feel they really have to make the most of it.

"The hen party is a rite of passage like your 18th or your 21st birthday. It marks the change from one stage of life into the next and people see it as their last night of freedom.

"In reality, the amount of freedom you're losing might be very little. If you've been living with someone for five years, getting married could just mean a name change or perhaps not even that but symbolically, it's very important."

Of course not everyone resorts to snogging strangers and drinking 20 pints, but it's a fairly common occurrence. "All that stupid behaviour is down to the old group psychology," explains Dr Harvey. "People take greater risks when they're in a group than they would individually, especially when they're fuelled by drink.

"It can also become quite competitive. Each time you go to a hen party, you do something more outrageous, more uproarious. That can end up getting very silly but people do it because their friends are doing it and they don't want to be left out."

Julie, who says she's normally fairly quiet, agrees. "You just get into the mood. Everyone's there, having a laugh, and you just go along with it. I'll probably look back tomorrow and think I've been really stupid but it's not like it happens every day."

With that, she stands up to survey the room. She has another eight men to get through before the night's over.