And so it came to pass that in the cold dreary days of late January, a darkness came upon me and I found myself booking a mid-week family break to Center Parcs.
Honestly, I don’t know how it happened—one minute I was researching family adventure hikes in the Andes and contemplating the correct size of crampons for a four-year-old, and the next I was booking an Executive Woodland Lodge in the forest of Longleat.
Of course deep down within me the urge to go to Center Parcs has been festering away for years. I blame it on a particularly cultish marketing campaign that I and millions like me were exposed to in the late 1980s. There I was; an impressionable, basically accepting of-my-humble-lot-in-life teenager, slumped in front of The Russ Abbot Madhouse on a Saturday night, when all of a sudden the ads come on, and glittering before me and my three younger siblings are mouth-watering images of the most mega swimming pool we’ve even seen. It has a wave machine and slides and palm trees, and there are glamorous people drinking cocktails on sun-loungers around its exotically landscaped rim. But most amazing of all is the huge space-age dome over the whole place, going on for miles, rising up like something out of Westworld to protect the chosen ones inside from the hostile environment beyond. Then, as the soundtrack swells the voice of John Hurt, redolent with Newspeak associations after his recent role as Winston Smith in 1984, calls on us to ‘Put aside all pre-conceived ideas about holidays in Britain. Center Parcs is here. Center Parcs is a completely new holiday experience from the continent built around an amazing subtropical swimming paradise where the temperature is 84 degrees, whatever the season.’
The buzz-words here are of course ‘tropical paradise’. Who cares, if it’s only sub-tropical—it’s the tropical part that has us down on our knees begging to be taken into the dome.
‘It’s too expensive.’ My dad says, and that is that. Besides, he’s already booked us a week’s self-catering in the New Forest and that has trees, doesn’t it?
‘But it doesn’t have a dome!’ we implore.
Even today I still meet people who think that Center Parcs is a kind of gigantic Eden Centre you can live in. Well sorry to be the bearer of disappointing news—but that dome is only over the swimming pool, and those ads have a lot to answer for.
In more recent years, I’d forgiven this massive deception and begun to allow myself to dream once again that the Center Parcs experience could be mine. I heard rumours that it was especially good if you had a young family, so I waited, I bided my time and told no-one of my secret urges, until finally, FINALLY, I got myself a kid—and the excuse I needed.
The other commonly perceived wisdom about Center Parcs—see my Dad’s reaction above—is that it is very expensive. Except for admittance to the dome (the dome! The dome!) and its ‘subtropical swimming paradise™', you do pay extra for almost all the other activities on offer. (I added the ™ there for comic effect, but when you’re in the middle of a CP ‘experience’, there’s a definite feeling that the S-T SW is very much the spiritual epi-centre of the place—as though Center Parcs have the copyright on paradise.) We hadn’t even unpacked properly and we’d already shelled out to hire bikes, play badminton, take Dexter on a teddy-bears’ picnic, hire a mini-ten-pin bowling lane (worth every penny—because I won!) go horse-riding (bit of a rip-off, but I did get to see some giraffes when we rode past Longleat safari park), take a peddalo out on the lake, leave Dexter at the crèche where he was made-over as a miniature chef complete with kid-sized apron and adorable hat (again, worth it!) and pet some baby owls.
We did all of this during our first twenty-four hours on site because we thought Dexter was about to go down with Scarlet Fever and we wanted to get our money’s worth before being thrown into quarantine or worse, cast out altogether. At this point I’d just like to reassure any Center Parcs representatives who might be reading that the Scarlet Fever was a total false alarm and your S-T SW™ has in no way been compromised.
Anyway, this sudden rush of exercise was a bit of a shock to the system—and by lunchtime on Day 2 I could hardly move I was so stiff. My soft writers’ body wasn’t used to all the running around, cycling and swimming—I’d pulled a muscle in my neck doing the mini ten-pin bowling and just looking at the saddle of my hire-bike was making me queasy. It was at this point that I had a bit of a brain-wave. What if Center Parcs could see their way to offering a few creative writing courses in among the archery and the crazy golf? Get Martin Amis or Hilary Mantel down to lead a seminar or two in the upstairs room of The Pancake Hut, or Will Self to provide one-to-one mentoring adventures in among the giant Redwoods? A couple of hours spent teasing out a sonnet, or working up a short story could be the perfect antidote to all the mindless fun of bombing down a waterslide or hanging out of a tree on a zip wire. I’d get the kids involved too—as well as the little chef experience and the pirates and princesses party I’d introduce Epic Poetry for the under-sevens and how-to-get-an agent for that difficult to please 11-13 age-group. Woods are the perfect places to be if you want to write, and the great thing about the woods at a Center Parcs is that they’re positively littered with Starbucks outlets and other equally popular branded eateries, so they’d be plenty of opportunities to fire-up the laptop in a café atmosphere, or get some inspiration from a triple-choc milk-shake with added cake. Anyway, it wasn’t long before Dexter and his Dad were whisking me off for more action and adventure in the air-hockey lounge, and then there was the tennis, and the father and son football academy and then some more hills to cycle up and down, so I never really got the chance to put my idea down in writing, but if you are listening, Center Parcs—and I can’t help thinking that Big Brother-like, you might be, Think on it. Will we be back, creative writing classes or not? Hell Yes! Your waterslides rule!
You can check out the epic Center Parcs ad for yourself on Youtube.