A PLUNGE INTO BLAIR'S BRITANNIA
The British middle classes are flocking to Longleat Center Parc. What makes this arboreal Butlins a New Labour paradigm - and paradise?
Sunday 09 August 1998
No. They like ice-cream, beaches, jumping, running about, quarrelling, making friends, swinging, chips, splashing, baked beans, shouting, playing inane board games and TV. And these are activities, of course, that sensitive adults have put away. Worse, children simply do not know how to compromise. You cannot say to them, "How about a morning of Giotto, and then an afternoon of mindless physicality?" Either you send them away to camp or something, and use that precious time when you're both not working to visit the Prado or New York, or you have to try and find a way of accommodating the little ones that is bearable to you.
Which is why the British middle classes have discovered Center Parcs, an arboreal Butlins for men and women of taste. And why we, alongside so many others, packed the nappies and the Barbies in the 4WD, and set off for the midwest, and the Longleat Center Parc. Here, according to the brochure, happy campers cycled their easy way on a pretty raised boardwalk, between Heaven and Nirvana, sunlight slanting through tall pines and dappling their shoulders.
The brochure told the truth. But it wasn't until we were deep inside the village that I realised the significance of the place - it is the future. Center Parcs, dear reader, represents a New Labour paradigm. When Tony and Blunko and Prezza and Jack Straw go all misty-eyed over what Young Britain might look like, and how its denizens might behave, the vision they conjure up is of Longleat Center Parc on a July morning.
Inside the forest is a village that resembles what Milton Keynes was supposed to be in all those misleading ads showing kids on bikes, countryside and clowns with balloons. Discreetly set away from small tarmacked service roads are little strings of beige bungalows (which are, naturally, called "villas"). The backs of the villas have patios that rapidly become grass, which in turn rolls down to small, reedy ponds, around which fluffy bunnies with white bobtails hop, and upon which dark moorhens, er, moor. Tinky Winky hides behind a tree. It is nature pink in tooth and claw.
And there is nothing plutocratic about the accommodation. Even the Executive villas (less cramped) are unflashy, clean and functional. The furniture is not sumptuous, and the management appears to believe that cushions and pillows inhibit comfort and has - for the most part - done away with them. Pillow dependence would lead to idleness. Fridges, showers, baths, cookers and a TV that shows a cartoon channel (note from Blunko, only to be switched on after the kids have written up their Nature Study notes), are OK.
Let's move on to Prezza's department: transport and the environment. Only 10 per cent of the area of each Center Parc is developed in any way. (This, of course, is their statistic. I did not get up at dawn and overfly the area in a helicopter, taking measurements. But it tallies with what I did see.)
But it's their transport policy that is really progressive. "Cars are," as my eldest daughter wrote, "not aloud." And, in both senses, they aren't. You can drive to your villa to load and unload, then you must return your motor to the carpark which in some cases is the best part of two miles away. If you do not take it back quickly you get - as we did - a sticker slapped on your windshield saying "THESE ANTISOCIAL ELEMENTS HAVE PARKED THEIR DANGEROUS VEHICLE ON OUR NICE ROADS AND MAY BE HUNTED TO DEATH THROUGH THE FOREST. " No, we didn't. But in this communitarian utopia, we might as well have done.
The result of this restriction was to get our two oldest kids on bikes. It has been a problem for us London middle classes, this bicycle thing - the prospect of our precious girlies weaving their drunken way on two vulnerable wheels down a street through which no vehicle is ever driven at less than 40mph, has led us to discourage such independence. But in Center Parc, with no cars at all, and with bicycles of all sizes and types rented out, this quickly changed. Soon we were charging about on bikes as though we were veteran members of Greenpeace: sophisticated Mum, portly Dad (with baby in tow), and the two older kids.
Not that pedestrians are entirely unimperilled. On the boardwalk that zigzags down the hill towards the boating lake, the liberated young bikers dodge each other and you. On my first negotiation on foot of this route I began to envisage a headline running "Journalist killed by nine-year- old demon cyclist on camp boardwalk. Colleagues devastated." Then I rented my bike and joined the throng.
As if all this was not sufficiently Blairite, what quickly became clear was how many happy, undivorced, unseparated families there still are in Britain. As giggling, chattering groups of parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren walked, cycled, swam and activitied around us, we felt as if we were in an animated version of one of those government brochures about making things better.
What was truly remarkable - and rather worrying - was the absence of those entertaining moments when you hear other couples bickering. This usually takes place in supermarkets, and the pretext is usually disagreement on comestibles ("Derek, we've already got three jars of turmeric, which you would know if you ever bothered to poke your nose into a cupboard!"). Airports, stations and hot, dusty places abroad are also good places for a little schadenfreudian eavesdropping. Being an inveterate bickerer myself, bickering in others makes me feel better. But here there was none.
On the contrary, everyone was spookily friendly. "Try the champagne truffles," said the grandad next to me in the chocolatier's where I had dropped in to buy a few fattening yummies when I thought no one was looking. I captured the spirit at once. "OK, I will!" I said. (Sadly they were found by my Tessa Jowelly co-bickerer before I could eat them.)
By this time, some of the more Sixties, hippy types among you are beginning to get restive. It may all seem rather reminiscent of The Village, where The Prisoner was incarcerated along with 100 smiling, lobotomised chess- players and golf-cart drivers. You imagine yourself standing by the edge of the Center Parc boating lake, shaking your fists at the sky and shouting, "I am not a happy parent, I am a free man!" Then the big white bouncing ball comes and gets you, and you wake up back inside the villa, with the cartoon channel on, and a bunny looking in through the window.
This is, of course, nonsense. There is nothing to stop you riding your bike to the carpark, getting in the car and escaping to historic towns, ruined abbeys and stately homes. The area is dripping with them. But you won't. Because, from dawn to dusk, you will be relentlessly involved in Activities.
Activities like the 8am Woodland Walk, which I and my five-year-old got up for on the Sunday morning. They were all there: the waterproof family, covered in Gore-tex lest the heavens open; the Scouting family with haversacks, shorts and hiking shoes; the Sporty family in stripy rugby shirts; the "do everything on the menu" family, with keen smiles and frightening hair. We walked about 150 yards in a lazy circle, found no deer, and listened to a decent talk from a Northern gamekeeper type, who described the flora and fauna of these Isles from earliest times, through the "Insurgence of the Angles" to the modern day. The families then all went to have a good breakfast at the Grand Cafe. I read the papers while Lily scampered about in the adventure playground next door. Hooray.
9.30 and a big Activity. Our eight-year-old was down for a three-hour session in water-sports on the little lake. This cost 21 quid, and saw Rosa - a city child if ever there was one - capsizing canoes, rowing, sailing and rolling in her little helmet and wetsuit, as though she'd been born in Falmouth. Her instructress, Daphne, was straightforward and patient, but - key point this - still regarded it all as an exercise in achieving something. We in Middle Britain demand improvement for our money. Meanwhile Lily and I took out a canoe and played Pocahontas among the reeds. Social skills were practised when the two older children went to a kid's party at the kindergarten, where they made crowns, friends and a mess under the benign stewardship of three highly qualified nursery nurses. A profession that will soon take over the country.
The children were not, however, the only ones covered in gunk. I had booked into the "Aqua Sana" health club (all potted plants and imperial busts), to have what my chaotic mind kept telling me was a "seafood wrap". In fact I was led by a beautiful young woman in a white coat into a cubicle with a shower and a padded table, and told to wash myself all over with exfoliating gel, dry myself and then to pop on a pair of paper knickers, and jump on the table. On my own in the room I examined myself in the paper knickers and wondered what they were for. Being almost completely transparent, especially where pressed against, they actually made my middle section look like a primitive offering at the temple of Priapus. I closed my eyes, lay down and thought of the 1967 Spurs FA Cup winning team. Whitecoat came in and - completely unfazed - covered every unpapered part of me in thick green goo, explaining how seaweed would detoxify me. Then I was wrapped up like a mummy, heated up, showered, wrapped up again, showered, rubbed in cooling gel, showered again and sent about my business healthier, more centred - and ready for the next Activity.
On my way out I saw that the sauna section had a mixed session with - said the notice - "costumes optional". Would I ever, I wondered, be man enough to try that out? Was there a dark, crepuscular, Clintonesque side to Center Parcs? Or was there, far more likely, a collection of pink, naked, sweating grandparents swapping recommendations for champagne truffles?
All other Activities we indulged in took place collectively in the large, heated indoor dome that is the trademark of Center Parc. One half is The Plaza, which contains a winding path downwards, round a fish-filled stream, fringed with tropical plants. On the non-stream side are various shops and restaurants. There is a goodish supermarket, a tacky knick-knack shop, a toy-shop, a swimwear emporium and - of course - the chocolatier's. My favourite putative purchase (from the Knick-knackerei) was a CD entitled Gentle Interpretations of John Denver. This could only be, I imagined, a cure for hyper- activity - the really difficult trick would be Dramatic Interpretations of John Denver.
At the bottom of the path is the entrance to the "Subtropical Swimming Paradise": a large landscaped pool area, with toddler's bits, loungers, a wave pool (it's got waves in it, dopey), a passage outdoors to a heated external area - so you can commune with nature from the warmth of the pool. Magical on winter nights.
But, best of all, it has flumes and rides, which send the risk-taker hurtling along at vast speed, and then deposits him or her with a satisfying splash in a deep pool. At least that's the theory, which works for most. For me it was more complex. On the Wild Water Rapids I found myself stuck in the bends, unable to move. I half-expected Dyno-rod to be called, and for future notices to specify - as in Greek lavatories - that certain bulky objects aren't allowed to enter. In the flumes, the same thing happened initially. I floundered, unmoving in the emerald tube, like a blockage in a bile duct as filmed for The Human Body. Soon, however, I got the hang of it, and was shooting along the tunnels and sent hurtling out of the end - the best orgasm the Jolly Green Giant ever had.
That night the missus and I went out, leaving the children in the care of Valerie, the Queen of Babysitting. She played games with them, she made them drinks, she sent them to bed, all three. And that was of a piece with the staff at Center Parc, who were - almost universally - older, family orientated, reliable and sensible. We wended our way back to the villa at the unearthly hour of 10.30pm. The walk was silent - even the teenagers were quiet. There are no noisy Parcers at Longleat.
But tell me, you ask, is everything perfect? Is life there completely safe for the educated bourgeois? No, it is not. The great stain on Center Parc's party dress is the Country Pancake House. My eldest is as omnivorous as human beings get (she will eat broccoli, for instance), but she will not tolerate a Center Parc pancake.
But everything else she loved. And I found it quite tolerable. So we'll be going back, and if Center Parcs opens a Tuscan village, within cycling distance of Giotto, and offering the Chianti version of Valerie, we'll be among the first to book. As, I suspect, will Tony Blair. It is the future, and it works. !
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