It's a Mann's World: Pubs and playgrounds

Olly Mann

Olly Mann appreciates the finer points of a weekend break at Center Parcs.

Back in 2005, I was a researcher on the TV series This Morning. I was charged with putting together an item about the trend for “staycations”, and the revival in British holiday camps.

I say “trend”, but as far as I recall we didn’t have any data demonstrating more people were remaining in the UK for their holidays—still less that they were flocking to Burnham-on-Sea to watch the Bluecoats. I suspect my producer just wanted to re-broadcast those wonderful archive films of knobbly knees competitions and the Minehead Monorail.

Anyway, one of my tasks was to call up the holiday companies and ask them for some contemporary footage to accompany the discussion—the big waterslides being built at Butlin’s, the “luxury” bungalows being pimped-up at Pontins, that sort of thing. My producer suggested we should include Center Parcs, too, so I called their press office and requested some similar material.

I was met with hesitation. “Um, we’re not really a holiday camp,” said the lady from the press office. “We’re a forest villa village.”

"Surely, I thought, if holidaymakers could afford something more luxurious, they'd just go abroad?"

This distinction struck me as absurb. As a child, my sole experience of British holiday camps had been a 1980s trip to a (now derelict) Warner’s holiday park, where underemployed club comedians unconvincingly attempted family-friendly material as their audience devoured the all-you-can-eat pasta buffet. It was fun, but it certainly wasn’t sophisticated.

The idea that any holiday camp— sorry, “village”—should wish to be seen in a more upmarket light utterly bemused me. Surely, I thought, if holidaymakers could afford something more luxurious, they’d just go abroad?

Fast-forward to 2017, and here I am, writing this column from the patio of my three-bed “executive lodge” at Center Parcs Woburn Forest. In front of me is a charming woodland view—or at least, that’s the impression; in fact there’s a cluster of neighbouring lodges cunningly concealed within it. There’s a barbeque to my left and (implausibly, since we’re in Bedfordshire) a sauna to my right— both reserved for our exclusive use.

We’re sharing the lodge with friends, who’ll split the bill with us, but it’s not exactly cheap: by the time we’ve covered our activities and food, this weekend will cost around £1,000. And this is our second trip to Center Parcs this year.

You see, when my son was born, travelling became rather challenging. Packing to take a one-year-old on holiday is like preparing for battle. It’s a little easier now we no longer sterilise his bottles, and he eats the same food we do, but still—he requires too many toys and trinkets and clothes to be casually compressed into a cabin-size suitcase for a weekend away. It’s worth the effort for a big annual holiday—just—but the idea of properly packing all his stuff together just for a mini-break is unconscionable. It’s much easier to chuck everything in the car.

The clever thing about Center Parcs is you can drive right up to your chalet— sorry, villa…sorry, executive lodge—then park outside, dump your luggage, and put your wine in the wine cooler. (Yep, there’s a wine cooler. Take that, Butlin’s!) However, aside from unloading, cars are prohibited, so you then wake up in the park —sorry, village— with a sense of fresh forest air, and not a vehicle in sight: even the cleaning staff commute about on bicycle. That’s relaxing, not least because your kids can run, scoot or cycle without fear of running into a motor.

The other clever thing—the really clever thing, much more important than all the admirable nonsense they promote about outdoor adventures and family bonding and holistic therapies—is that they have a lot of bars. After all, when British adults want to let their hair down, they like to have a drink; and when they want to keep their kids alongside them, there are very few advisable places to go.

"Packing to take a one-year-old on holiday is like preparing for battle—he requires too many toys and trinkets and clothes"

At Center Parcs, I’ve observed, playgrounds and pubs are almost always paired; sometimes to the extent that it’s hard to decipher if you’re drinking in the soft play in the Sports Bar, or the sports bar in the Soft Play. It’s liberating to heat up baby bottles and buy a lager shandy in the same venue, all while enjoying the bucolic benefits of feeding baby owls or treetop pony rides or whatever it is you’re supposedly doing.

Then there’s the heated swimming pool—sorry, “Subtropical Swimming Paradise”. I don’t quite know why it is that, 25 years after Center Parcs first landed in Britain, these biodome-type structures haven’t been widely imitated all across the country. It’s heated to 29.5C, so you can parade about in your swimming trunks, in the middle of winter, without concern that your toddler will shiver to death. Oh, and there’s a poolside bar, too. Ready-mix cocktails! Try finding that in your local leisure centre.

I realise I sound like an alcoholic now. But it’s not just the wine cooler and the pubs and the cocktails that make it a good holiday, I promise. It’s what all that booze represents: a break that’s been designed to make adults and kids feel good at the same time. I’ll drink to that.