How to improve holidays with children
Hey mum, let's take another look at Devon
Sunday 23 April 2006
We're just back from a few days' skiing - in Devon. The views from the pistes were lovely, and conditions were good; my younger son Stan reckons he did some of his best snowploughs yet. As he put it himself: "Who needs to go to the Alps when you can go to Torquay?"
We were staying at Barton Hall, home to Britain's first dry-ski slope, on a "family active" holiday, where you can do pretty much everything you never thought of doing. Abseiling, quad biking and jumping out of a three-storey building attached to nothing but a zipwire. You can chance your arm at fencing or walk tall on a tightrope. And all in the glorious grounds of a stately home-cum-holiday-camp that once belonged to Fred Pontin.
When it was built 200 years ago, Barton Hall had little to offer the young at heart. Its original purpose was to provide a seaside home to a rich aristocrat, who kept the joys of his 46-acre manor all to himself. But everything changed when it was taken over by Sir Fred, who wanted to let "the public" have a taste of its splendour. He put the butlers in blue coats, made cheerful waitresses out of the chambermaids, and rounded up enough glamorous grannies and knobbly kneed contestants to keep 'em coming for years on end.
But that was then, and this is now. A few years ago, the family holiday company PGL took over Barton Hall and turned it into a "children's activity centre", which basically means it has lots of scary things to do involving ropes and jumping and plenty of screaming.
Apparently, PGL (08700 507507; pgl.co.uk) stands for "Parents - Get Lost". Stanley thought this very rude to poor old me, but I wasn't offended - getting lost sounded much more fun than being dropped from a great height in a giant swing. So it came as a shock to discover that I was expected to join in all the activities, whether I liked it or not. To the delight of my little treasures, I nearly broke a trampoline, bottled out of abseiling down a wooden tower, and lost very badly at archery. I sprained my ankle on the dry-ski slope, fell off a climbing wall, and became hysterical at the sight of a tiny Stanley as he jumped on to a trapeze 60 feet in the air - and missed.
The idea of all this bonding stuff is to prove to your kids (and yourself) that you're not a complete stick-in-the mud scaredy cat. I think I failed that task too, but at least my boys had a good laugh.
I did get to the bottom of the "parents get lost" slogan, though. During term time, this is where your kids come on their school journeys with their teachers. The company owns several sites in the UK and France as well as Barton Hall, and it opens the doors of all of them for families in search of adventure during the school holidays. It also runs summer camps for children without their parents.
As far as accommodation and food go, it's still very much Hi-de-Hi!. (The original lord of the manor will be turning in his grave.) But it beats anywhere else hands down for keeping the family occupied, at extremely reasonable prices. And quaking in your boots can be fun. Go on, you know you want to try it.
Katy's top tip
For a whole range of similar family activity breaks, check out the British Activity Holiday Association (020-8842 1292; baha.org.uk).
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