Alastair is careering around in a toy car, no time to talk. He cuts between a family playing football, steers past a climbing frame, narrowly missing the snooker table. His father, Mike, who's close behind, catches the car. 'Let's try the slide, it's safer,' he coaxes.

Around them other youngsters laugh, play, scream and cry. It could be an ordinary parent and toddlers group - but it isn't. Almost all the adults here are men.

This is the Child Contact Centre, Nottingham: neutral territory, where children from broken homes meet the parent they no longer live with. When couples split up, nine times out of 10, the mother has custody. It is no surprise these facilities are used predominantly by men.

The centre - the first of its kind in the country - opened in 1985. It was the brainchild of Mary Lower, a Nottingham magistrate.

Mrs Lower had a simple but brilliant idea, which caught on. She now presides over a national network of 100 access and child contact centres. They are run by church groups, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, court welfare services and other community groups, and are staffed by volunteers.

Families need the centres for a variety of reasons. Some couples, who are locked in custody battles or who cannot agree access, are referred to the centres by the courts. A man living away from his children may not be welcome inside the family home.

Sometimes there is a fear, real or imagined, of violence. In a minority of cases the courts recommend a parent is supervised by volunteers because he has been accused of child abuse. But more often relationships have broken down to such a degree that parents simply hate the sight of one another. Then children become pawns in a power game.

'The cinema is expensive, coffee shops are boring. You can only walk around the town for so long. We offer a cheap, practical alternative,' says Mrs Lower. 'When couples part it can be so bitter, there are rows and trauma, and often the real victim is the child.'

Mike, 38, travels from his home in Gloucester to Nottingham to see his son for three hours, once a fortnight. They meet here on a Saturday afternoon, because, like the other families on the books, they have nowhere else to go.

Mike is a slightly nervous, soft-spoken man, who hovers near his son as he sails down the slide. 'I like it here, it's really good - the best thing is all the toys,' says Alastair, with enthusiasm.

'But what about seeing your dad? You like seeing your dad, too, don't you?'

The boy's eyes narrow at the question. He gives his father a long, meaningful stare. No one else fully understands his expression, but it makes Mike blush deep red, and brings tears to his eyes.

As Alastair wanders off nonchalantly in search of another game, his father confides, in a choked voice: 'Did you see that look? I felt he was saying, 'You bugger - why couldn't you be around a bit more? I hardly know you.' Yes, that's what that hard look meant . . . and I feel so guilty.'

Mike and Jo split up when their son was just seven months old. They had been married 18 months. Although they live separately they have never divorced.

Like most separated couples, each tells a different version of events. Mike insists the relationship cracked under financial pressure when he was briefly unemployed in 1990.

Jo insists it was him: 'He could not cope with the responsibility of a wife, child, mortgage. He kept running home to his parents. The pressure got to him as our relationship disintegrated. He became violent towards me, so I really didn't want him to visit our home.'

Mike admits he struck her. 'I slapped her once and restrained her for three or four minutes. That's the truth. She will tell you it was worse than that.'

As acrimony and recriminations between the couple intensified, and Mike moved first to Scotland then to Gloucester to work, arranging access became more difficult. Then a welfare officer told them about the contact centre. Father and son have been 'clients' since December 1990.

Many parents suffer humiliation and embarrassment when they first use a contact centre. They are all too aware of an 'artificial atmosphere'. Mike was no exception: 'I felt stigmatised, ashamed at even being here. But Alastair actually enjoys it. He plays with me and meets kids he has got to know well.'

Unlike a number of parents at the centre, Mike and Jo are on speaking terms again. But she still feels protective towards her son. Until February this year, she attended the Saturday sessions, too. 'Because,' she says. 'I worried that Alastair might knock a hot cup of tea over himself or put the wrong thing in his mouth. Mike would never hurt Alastair but he is so absent-minded; I didn't think he could protect him from that sort of mishap.'

Now she feels confident to leave them to play and goes shopping instead.

'I think the centre was a lifeline. Mike and I have reached the point where we will occasionally go to McDonald's together after access, or even on the odd day trip. We should not have got married, I have my regrets, but time does heal the hurt.'

Mike is less optimistic: 'Alastair feels I have rejected him. And I feel desensitised by it all, desensitised about his well being. There is a distance between us, and I don't know how to bridge the gap.'

The Nottingham Centre is held in community rooms at the rear of St Andrew's with Castle Gate United Reformed Church in the city centre. There is a sports hall, a tea room packed with baby toys, jigsaws and cuddly animals. Upstairs and in the basement there are waiting rooms used to separate warring parents who don't want to meet.

Today's volunteers, Elizabeth and Norman Thompson, a retired couple who have been with the project from the start, are glad of the facility.

Upstairs an angry stepfather is ranting. He doesn't want his six-year-old stepdaughter to see her natural father. 'He gave her and her mother a rotten life. That man hasn't seen her for a year.'

The child starts to cry. She is coaxed downstairs to the tea room where she spends five minutes doing a jigsaw with her father, then asks to go back to her mother. 'That, whether you believe it or not, was a breakthrough,' says Mrs Thompson.

In the sports hall a mother has arrived to collect her three-year-old daughter to discover her enjoying a game of catch with her father. 'How could you? I don't want you near me,' she screams at the girl. Then hugs her and carries her home.

A father who wants custody of his seven-year-old asks anxiously: 'You want to come and live with me, don't you?' The child replies: 'I want you and Mummy to live together.'

The centre is hectic, packed with human heartache. It is enough to try anyone's patience, including Mrs Thompson: 'If I had the time I could get really

annoyed with these adults who manipulate their children and use them to score points. There are times when I could bang the parents' heads together.'

But should a child be forced to re-establish contact with a parent who has lost touch? What's in it for the child? Mrs Lower is convinced that contact with a poor parent is better than no contact at all.

'When you lose touch with a parent you lose half of your identity. Preserving that contact is every child's right. My own husband did not see his dad for 34 years. It meant that he had no pattern to work on for being a father himself when we had children. If a father isn't a good father, a child will work that out for themselves. It is better to have a bad pattern than no pattern at all.'

The number of child contact contres in Britain has grown rapidly. In 1991 there were just 26 groups in the national network; now there are 100. To be part of the national Network of Access and Child Contact Centres every group must agree to a strict code of conduct and volunteers must always remain neutral.

The rising divorce rate and increase in one-parent families is one obvious explanation for the proliferation of centres. Another is government legislation, in particular the Children's Act 1989, which sought to promote greater rights for the child, and the Child Support Act 1991.

Dr Bob Simpson, a social anthropologist at Durham University, worked for two years as a volunteer at The Meeting Place, a contact centre in the city.

'If you were cynical,' he says, 'you could say that the growth of this service in the voluntary sector is to do with the marginalisation of fathers as much as the growth of divorce. There may also be a backlash phenomenon. Under the Child Support Act, fathers are under pressure to maintain an economic tie with their child, so they want better access.'

There is a crucial redefining of the father's role outside the nuclear family and contact centres have become one arena where this is being worked out. Sometimes this restructuring can involve the in-laws.

Christine, 21, stopped her three-year-old son Tim (not their real names) from visiting his father because he lives with his parents. 'Tim and his gran were getting too close. It was like he was becoming her son. I know I am a jealous person, but it was all really getting to me. I need to get on with my life.'

Now, until a compromise can be reached, Tim sees his father and grandmother at the contact centre.

Most couples eventually benefit from the 'breathing space' provided by the contact centre. They go on to make more amicable access arrangements and regain some of their lost trust. Norman and Elizabeth Thompson have even seen some parents reunited. But the system cannot guarantee a happy ending.

In one corner a smartly dressed man sits with his mobile phone. He turns up every Saturday, but his ex-girlfriend frequently fails to arrive with the children.

He may be blameless, he may be a rat, no one knows his background. As he sits self-absorbed in his own misery you can just hear him murmur: 'It shouldn't be like this'.

Further information from the NACCC, St Andrew's with Castle Gate United Reformed Church, Goldsmith Street, Nottingham, NG1 5JT (0602 484557).

(Photograph omitted)