(or What I did on my summer holidays)
Today I have returned from my first ever visit to a Centre Parcs. My previous experience of Centre Parcs consisted of people telling me that they were going there, that they’d just been there, or that they went there every year. Often in that order, over a period of a couple of years. The progression seemed inexorable. Once you’d been it was only a matter of time before it became your sole holiday destination.
I have now been. If you haven’t then let me help out.
It’s a bit like the Green Party started designing a Utopia, but then out-sourced the economic policy to the Tories. Or maybe it was a white, middle-class UKIP dream, but they needed Lib Dem votes, so agreed that everyone would walk or cycle everywhere.
More likely the place was designed by a feral group of children who wanted to do all of the things that kids normally do – to swim, to shoot bows & arrows, to ride bikes or horses, to climb through trees – and they were sick of the adult excuses; it’s too far away, I tried to book but they’re closed, there’s nowhere to park, it’s not open today, etc.
These children set up the world’s slickest operation for removing these excuses. I have never seen commerce work as efficiently when it comes to separating people from their money. There is no air of malice to it, it simply removes every possible barrier between a child wanting to do something and an adult handing over money for them to do it. The only excuse left is that something it too expensive, and what kind of middle-class parent pleads poverty to their children under the gaze of other middle-class parents whose children are engaged in fun activities? It is the leisure-themed weaponization of keeping-up-with-the-Jones.
This slickness comes at a price, of course. The accommodation costs more than you’d pay elsewhere, the activities cost more than you’d pay elsewhere, the food costs more than elsewhere, the supermarket certainly costs more. You could, in theory, leave during the day and just go elsewhere, but the entry procedure – with the bay you drive your car into, automatics doors sliding shut behind you – seems to wordlessly inform you that if you should leave then getting back in will involve some modicum of hassle, and the car-park is so remote that even the thought of getting to and from your car is enough to dissuade you.
Plus, you’re paying a premium for the traffic-free roads within the parc…if your idea of traffic-free is roads populated entirely by people who seem to never have cycled before and are entirely unfamiliar with ideas such as cycling on a particular side of the road, giving way, looking before they change course or giving the slightest indication that they are, without apparent motive, about to come to a complete stop.
What you’re really paying for, the only gratuity in the whole experience, is limitless access to the swimming pool.
And swimming pools are dreadful, dreadful places.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against swimming. It’s way better than, for example, drowning needlessly, but I like to swim in the sea. The sea is interesting. It has unexpected waves. Mysterious things brush over your feet. There is joy to be found in floating on your back, letting the current gently bob you. There is tranquillity. There is endless space to choose to be near only the other humans you wish to be near (as I predominately swim in the North Sea the nearest they normally get is the shore, and that suits me fine).
The Centre Parcs swimming pool has none of these things. It has manufactured features – waves and rapids – that are carefully regulated. It has so many children per square foot that it feels like that old Star Trek episode about overpopulation. You cannot swim, because to do so would almost certainly involve giving another 3 or 4 holiday makers a hearty kick. You cannot float on your back, because 0.4 seconds into the experience a pre-teen child will cannonball onto your head.
They do have waterslides, of course; the sea doesn’t have them. This is because nobody has ever looked at a beautiful beach and thought, “Hmmm, what we need here is something that combines the joy of queuing, while cold and wet, with the thrill of being waterboarded”. Not that I imagine Professor Alvin ‘Splash’ Waterslide was thinking that when he invented them. No, I imagine he was thinking, “What could I get swimming ladies to do that might make their boobies fall out of their costumes?”. How terrible, then, that morgue-chic sterile tiling and omnipresent life-guards should conspire to suggest that simply spending a whole day hanging around the bottom of the waterslide for that happy eventually will be frowned upon.
The worst part is that the hellish pool, the suicycling, the sensation of spending every waking hour shovelling bank-notes into a furnace, didn’t stop us having a lovely time. Before we were even two days into our stay my wife was making comments like, “A lot of the girls at work come here for winter breaks”, “I bet it’s lovely in the winter”, “They give you a discount if you book within 28 days of your last stay” (I assume 28 days is the median length of time it takes for Stockholm Syndrome to wear off).
So, doubtless, we’ll be back. Joining the throngs of people who go there every year. Well, at least it will give me a chance to improve my bowling score.