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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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Travel

A Wild and Wet Weekend

Is it possible to go to Center Parcs and not get wet? That was the question I asked myself as I checked into Sherwood Forest for the weekend with three novels, two weeks’ unread Sunday papers, and a VAT return to be filled in?

Other members of our seven-strong party, however, were rather more in tune than I with the Center Parcs ethos of wholesome outdoor fun for all the family, so my mission was more or less doomed from the start. I had barely picked up a Sunday supplement before I was dragged into the hot tub by my four-and-a-half year old daughter Ruth.

In the normal run of things, I am not really a hot tub kind of guy. Being neither Scandinavian nor a footballer’s wife, my experience of such devices is limited, but we were staying in one of Center Parcs’ four-bedroom exclusive villas, with built-in sauna, steam bath, and the tub beckoning just outside the back door, and for Ruth the novelty of having a bath in the back garden was just too, well, novel to resist.

Ruth is not, I ought to say, the audience at which these villas at Sherwood Forest are primarily aimed. Families may find the cost of the accommodation prohibitive; but four couples sharing, possibly on a so-called Pamper Break, might, according to the Center Parcs people, find one of the 15 newly-built villas just the ticket.

While eight grown-ups will undoubtedly find it something of a squeeze in the hot tub - although my understanding from some of the more lurid satellite TV channels, is that some adults do like to cosy up in such situations – the villa itself is sufficiently spacious, and generously enough equipped with ensuite bathrooms and bedroom TVs, to accommodate people who might not want to be in quite such close contact when dry.

There is definitely a touch of decadence about an outdoor hot tub, which led me to wonder, as the warm bubbling waters lapped around what warm bubbling waters are prone to lap around, whether Center Parcs was evolving from its ecologically sound, mildly spartan, politically correct beginnings into something rather different.

They are certainly laying special emphasis these days on the pampering, whereby the aforementioned healthy outdoor fun on which Center Parcs built its reputation can be combined with a degree of self-indulgence in the lavishly equipped Greco-Roman style Aqua Sana spa baths.

My wife had signed me up for a back, neck, and shoulder massage – mint body scrub does not count as getting wet in my book - combined with a face and scalp treatment, all said to be pretty effective in relieving stress. She had probably decided I was unduly stressed when, deep in thought one morning, I chewed clean through three pencils, before being thrown out of W.H.Smith’s stationery department.

There are people, I know, who swear by massages, but I am not one of them. I do not know whether it is the smell of lavender, which bears Proustian reminders of the furniture polish my mother used to use when I was little, or the ambient new age tinkling, which always sounds to me like musicians not trying very hard, but I never find stress levels falling significantly in the massage chamber.

When I asked my masseuse Luisa if she had any Thin Lizzy tapes she could put on for me, she apologised profusely – charm and professionalism seem to be inbred in Center Parcs employees, giving the place a definite edge over, say, Blackpool – but said she did not object to the new age tape loop herself, which surprised me, because an assistant in my local Morrisons once told me around Christmas time that she intended to smash all the speakers the next time Jona Lewie’s Stop The Cavalry came round, and hang the consequences.

The massage must have worked for me, though, because I nodded off, and awoke fairly refreshed, although now with the added stress of wondering whether I had been snoring, or calling out the names of other masseuses in my sleep.

My wife went for a more elaborate pampering – two hours, rather than my one – described as “a complete journey to sensory heaven,” which is quite a boast. She looked good, though, and bought a box full of rose petal, ginseng, and apricot stuff to keep her skin fresh and glowing; or in different circumstances, possibly help out with a trifle that needs livening up.

Waiting for my wife to emerge from sensory heaven, I whiled away an hour in the Aqua Sana reception watching a tape advertising the benefits of all the treatments I could have had, several of which seemed to involve being wrapped in tin foil like a freshly poached trout.

The pamper market is clearly being vigorously pursued, but the joy of Center Parcs is that however sybaritic the Aqua Sana threatens to become – the brochure talks of a “hedonistic paradise, drenched in sensory indulgence,” making it sound more like the flakiest, crumbliest chocolate – you will almost certainly be brought down to earth by the bicycle chained up outside.

There is something bracingly old-fashioned and definitely not drenched in sensory indulgence about riding a bike around the place, and for my money, it was the strictly car-free environment at Sherwood Forest that helped me wind down more than anything.

Not to be in charge of a cycle on a weekend in Center Parcs is folly – pre-book them or bring your own - as they are easily the most convenient way to shuttle between your accommodation, the various sports facilities and the swimming pool – sorry, sub-tropical paradise – that will be Center Parcs’ raison d’etre for younger members of the family. But when you are booking your bikes, try and resist the temptation to frontload too many other activities into your portfolio, as modern business parlance might have it.

It was not a mistake I made, but my wife Janet did find herself at times imitating a Tour de France cyclist, without the drugs, ferrying children of various ages round to different activities, which all looked most enticing in the brochure but formed too intensive a programme to pack into a weekend, and may well have undone all the de-stressing work of Janet’s ginger and avocado back scrub, or whatever it was she had.

My 14-year-old daughter Martha and her schoolfriend Rachel did, however, enjoy the Action Company Challenge she packed them off to uncomfortably early on Sunday morning. It is a kind of team building exercise involving walking along planks and climbing ropes to complete a task, a little like the old television programme The Krypton Factor, and the kind of thing you do not normally get the chance to take part in unless you are in the SAS, or work for a large corporation trying to improve staff morale.

For myself, a little light Sunday morning tennis was about as radical as I wanted to get. With a box of receipts and invoices looking at me reprovingly from the bedside table, and only two of Richard Yates’s collection of short stories finished, I remained reluctant to invest too much time in the healthy outdoor stuff. And besides, I figured that riding down to the village square to buy another Sunday paper I would not have time to read, would be exercise enough.

The village square, a feature of all the Center Parcs, does have the unfortunate effect, for those of us old enough to remember, of reminding one of the set of the TV series The Prisoner. With its quaint waterfall features, and little own-brand shops and restaurants replicating the ones you might see in your high street, it seems just like the sort of place MI5 might send a recalcitrant agent to be brainwashed.

Mind you, what goes on at Center Parcs could be considered a little akin to brainwashing. The very fact that the majority of your fellow inmates are riding round on bicycles just like yours, and spending large parts of the day in swimwear to derive the maximum value out of the sub-tropical paradise, becomes a kind of social leveller.

In a way, you leave your real life as a bank manager, freelance journalist – box of invoices notwithstanding – or MI5 agent, I suppose, behind when you park your car on the Friday afternoon. If they had you for longer than a weekend I am sure they could get you working for the other side, whoever they may be these days.

Not that Center Parcs is about to embrace any extremes. It is undeniably a favourite haunt of middle class, middle income, middle-of-the-road families, who want to be together to escape the shackles for a weekend. If you were looking for the Middle England that politicians keep talking about, you could do worse than show up at Sherwood Forest for a weekend.

I was probably a little too much like Patrick McGoohan in my reluctance to surrender to it all, but I have to say it worked eventually even for me. On the final afternoon, I was lured into the sub-tropical paradise, and spent at least two hours longer in there than I intended. I had forgotten how much fun those water slides can be, and as for the Customs and Excise, well, they can wait.





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