Even real-world superheroes like myself need time to relax, to kick back, to chillax, as the youth of today wouldn’t put it (chillax, like ‘bling’, being a term that was dead to youngsters – if ever considered alive – by the time it entered the lexicon of the over-30s). I needed some time away from being a leader of men, and where do high rollers go to ease the muscles fatigued by carrying the world’s burdens? Center Parcs, of course. Or, to be more precise, Center Parcs Whinfell Forest, on the edge of the Lake District. Two nights and three days with my girlfriend and seven of her family, ranging in age from 2 to 60.
Center Parcs is a woody resort of trees, forests, paths and lodges. The leisure area, with its swimming pool, restaurants and bowling alley, operates vaguely as the centre around which the rest of the complex orbits.
You are allowed to drive to your accommodation to drop off people and bags, but then the car has to reside in the car park, staying there until it’s time to go home again. Travel within Center Parcs is by either foot or bike, so at check-in time the place is filled with the low drone of cars moving at ten miles an hour. Then, just when you get used to the sound, it evaporates, with nothing taking its place. I’ve been living in the suburbs for a year now; I’ve grown used to quiet. But for the inner-city dweller, the absence of noise can be eerie and unsettling, like the silence in a horror film used to amplify the shriek as a blade rips a throat. No vehicle noise, no blaring TVs, and surprisingly little child noise either.
When you do notice children at Center Parcs, the most striking thing is the age of their parents. Center Parcs is quite expensive, so the parents that can afford to bring their children here are generally a little older, having a higher income and more savings than their younger counterparts. I noticed a number of parents who looked to be in their mid-40s, which didn’t seem that strange until I realised that the kids were just a few years old. Or maybe the stresses of parenthood were bad for the skin and these were 25 year-olds with hyperactive offspring.
On the first night we conformed to a modern staple of British family holidays: we went bowling. There are a few notable moments often seen during bowling when both adults and children are involved:
- The mostly hidden irritation of the overly-competitive adult when a child insists on taking the adult’s shot, usually at a critical juncture of the game, costing said adult a chance of victory
- The ego dent after the adult celebrates a strike, only to see a child also get a strike on the next shot. In contrast to the adult’s thunderous, violent roll which obliterates the pins, the child’s score is achieved by using a stand to place the ball, then nudging it off, the ball hitting the bumpers on both sides and taking 15 minutes to reach the pins, yet still producing the same score
- A constant recalibration of social circles. Every bowling alley is short of seats, so groups gather where they can. Whoever stands to take their shot will undoubtedly have their seat stolen and be forced to sit or stand with a different clique. So, on every shot, group dynamics change. After a few drinks, recognition of these changes becomes more difficult. A drunken adult may launch into the retelling of a bawdy tale, unaware of a new member joining the group. As he finishes the story his eyes are met by those of a confused seven-year old with a lot of questions
Despite the time I just spent explaining these situations, none of them occurred. I was only too happy to pass my shot off to any child in the vicinity, using them as an excuse for my unimpressive score.
No bowling trip would be complete without a visit to the arcade machines. I was elated to see my second-favourite arcade game of all time: Silent Scope EX (my favourite being the first game in the series). The Silent Scope collection are sniping games, with a model rifle mounted atop the arcade cabinet. I have so many good memories of these games: hiding under a truck and taking enemies down at the ankles, memorising the locations of potential assassins at a presidential parade, trying to kill the final boss as he plays a piano, the notes detonating a nuclear weapon (if memory serves. And yes, even in games that’s a ridiculous finale). Silent Scope 1 was the first game I remember that carried over to real-life; I left the arcade and imagined where the best sniping spots would be in the flats across the street.
Happy headshot memories flowed as I approached, but then I was devastated, taking an emotional bullet of my own as I approached a darkened screen. EX was OOO, Out Of Order. And someone was playing the basketball game too. Life just isn’t fair.
One does not simply walk into Mordor. And, at Center Parcs, one does not swim in a swimming pool. One swims in a ‘Subtropical Swimming Paradise’. A stupid name, yes, but calling it a swimming pool would be doing it a disservice. It is a collection of pools, with rapids and a wave machine and a couple of flumes. Two of the flumes gave me the fear.
I’d been a regular swimmer when much younger and was mostly comfortably in water. But, after not swimming much for a few years, I went on holiday and went to an aquapark. On one slide I’d been thrown about, slipped and flipped, spun every which way. Since then I’ve been wary in water. I can swim in the deep end, but I won’t stop there. Because I’ll die. Instantly.
So when I was coaxed into trying one of the two faster slides, ridiculous visions of fear and panic came flooding back. This fear was in two forms: of the known and the unknown.
The known was an outdoor flume. It exited into a pool, so I had already witnessed people’s reactions afterwards. They all looked the same: dazed, stunned, they wiped their faces and tried to regain their bearings, to figure out which way round they were. Some complained of sore knees and elbows for banging against the sides. Some mentioned being flipped over. Flipped over? Smashed against the sides? In water, at high speed? Fear
The unknown was an indoor flume one, which was suspiciously separate from the rest of the poo…Subtropical Swimming Paradise. All I knew of it was from description. It was “fast…really fast”. It was enclosed and dark. A blind, rapid descent into hell? Fear.
We went swimming three times in as many days, and only on the last day was I brave enough to try a death-flume. I opted for the unknown, the closed slide. I figured that, as bad as it may be, it would only be so for 20 seconds. The outdoor flume would presumably take longer. So off I ventured.
Waiting in the queue made me restless, I wanted it over and done with before I changed my mind. And then I was up. And then I was down. How was it? Fine, of course. Nowhere near as scary as I’d built it up to be. A gradual build up, a bum-tightening speed increase, a few seconds of blind confusion, and…done.. Not the experience akin to tumbling off a cliff that my mind had formulated.
Emboldened, I considered tackling the other flume. But, you know, it was nearly time to go, and there’d be a queue, and I’d probably have to go on my own. After facing one challenge, I punked out of the second. One for two was as good as I could manage.
As if my bravery on the flume wasn’t badass enough, I also faced another terrifying activity that weekend (that kids can easily handle): abseiling.
Lots of activities are available at Center Parcs. When we first decided to go I checked the site and made a list of six or seven I’d like to try. Then I saw that they cost about £25 each, I quickly cut my list to one. Abseiling it was, then.
With a helmet on, one harness around my chest, and another to presumably stop my buttocks falling off, five strangers and I headed to the bottom of a wall to climb to the top before throwing ourselves off again.
The wall was about 35-feet high. With my girlfriend watching from outside I tried to look brave and offered to be the first to try/die. I ascended a ladder, came out at the top and holy shit when did this get so high? There must’ve been some vertical Tardisian quality to it, it was much higher at the top than it looked from Earth. An instructor talked me through technique while my brain helpfully informed me You are going to die. I was close to copping out. Mentally I saw myself quitting, rehearsing how I would say I can’t do this and skulk down the ladder and leave. But handily, this mental weakness encountered another, and the two cancelled each other out. I blindly deferred to authority. When the instructor told me to go, I went, and inched off the edge. At least with my back to the drop I wouldn’t see death until it was on me.
Next thing I know I’m hanging in the air holding a blue rope and a black one. “Loosen your grip on the black one to move down”, the instructor shouts. Let go? We’ll see about that.. Letting go means falling and gravity and pain. Grudgingly, I begin to let the rope slide through my fingers, maybe an inch at a time, and I move down the wall at a geriatric pace.
After an eternity of vertical baby steps I’m on the ground and definitely not dead. Others take their shots. One man goes up but can’t bring himself to leap off. He returns to the ground in tears. Well, we can’t all be brave bad-asses, can we? That he’s 12 years-old makes no difference, some people aren’t just cut out for this.
Unfortunately, the other three kids involved take to abseiling like…lemmings. By their second and third attempts they’re doing the bounding SWAT jump you see in films and computer games. After getting the first attempt out the way I’m buoyed with confidence, and ascend with ideas of doing some of my own leaping on the way down. But the view from the top is as scary as it was the first time, and again I shuffle my way down, still struggling to relax my grip on the rope.
Four more shots later, still the same outcome. My hands are already stinging because of how tightly I’m holding the rope. The youngsters have no such problems. They’re still hauling ass, getting down in five jumps, then four. I get bored and want to leave, but no staff are around to collect my stuff from.
Then an instructor challenges me and it all clicks: the others are making it down in four jumps, can you make it in three? I finally relax and start to loosen my grip on the rope. I take four jumps to get down (we call it three-and-a-half), but manage it in three the next time. Then down to two. The fear is gone.
Our numbers dwindle to three people, and for the remaining hour I’m an abseiling madman. I barely get a minute of rest before I’m back up the ladder and throwing myself off. The short breaths caused by fear are now due to the cardio workout I’m getting.
And then we’re done. I smell of smelly sweat, my knees are sore from banging them as I climbed up the ladder through a narrow space, my hands still sting. But fun was had. Can I imagine abseiling 400 feet from the roof of a Hilton now? Hells naw. But from a second floor window? Yes, definitely.
On the Sunday afternoon I pass the closed Mini-Mart and see a lot of adults staring forlornly through the bars that keep them from the delicious booze inside. It seemed many were – understandably – not expecting the only shop in all of Center Parcs to close at 4pm. The horrible reality was dawning on them: they were going to have to spend an evening with their family, on holiday no less, while sober. Instead of enjoying a drink in the lodge while their kids played, parents were now left with less-desirable options:
- Go to the pub. Pay over the odds for both alcohol and whatever soft drinks the kids will have. This would require getting the kids ready, then finding ways (and spending more money) to keep them occupied. Soon, of course, the kids will get tired and want to come home, while you’re mid-drink and just getting into the flow of a drinking session. And once you do get back to your lodge, guess what? You’re dry again
- Walk to the car, drive to the security office, lie to the guard and and say you have Something Very Important to do, because you definitely wouldn’t do all this travelling just to go get booze. After a 40 minute round trip you’ll return, your plastic bag full of food to disguise the fact that you left the complex purely to buy alcohol. You park your car and walk back to your family, displaying the bread you didn’t need and biscuits nobody wanted. Your booze will be laced with shame
After laughing at these people and the unexpected Prohibition they found themselves in, it was time to hit the road. While the rest stayed one more night, it was time for us to get to stepping. Center Parcs was a thoroughly nice place, and far too big to come to terms with in three days. We drove, a solitary car among walkers and cyclists, got our bags and left Center Parcs Whinfell Forest and headed back to the real world.