When I was a lad, a freckle-faced chubster with translucent skin and NHS specs, Butlins, Pontins or Blackpool were the places to go. My parents were from working class stock and money was tight. It was 1990…
The spectral figure of the 80’s loomed large. Grunge was bubbling away in the garages of Seattle but hadn’t yet vanquished the era of big hair and power ballads. Madonna was busy violently shagging herself with a crucifix on stage and Gazza’s tears brought a nation together. Shellsuits were definitely a thing – the more fluorescent, the better as I recall – and Su Pollard may have had an ailing TV career, but Butlins kept her fading dreams flickering ever so. I say this as I distinctly recall her beaming, idiot face smiling at me during one of the Holiday Clubs. In retrospect, what a genius move from Mum and Dad, sending me to that fresh screeching hellscape so they could sleep off last night’s hangover. At the time, I shly hid at the back, fearful of Pollard’s cheshire cat grin and fu*k off postbox-red specs.
I remember fish and chips and ice cream; candy floss and rain; sand in my toes and milk bread that came in circles not squares; crap shows and late night discos; Dad and Mum on the beers; the impenetrable scent of sun cream clinging to me for days after; and my tiny brain already forming the strands of nostalgia that would soon become cherished memories, on the long drive home.
At 35, I guess I’m roughly the same age as my folks were back then. And now, thanks to good old fashioned social mobility, I am a Father from working class stock but surely, as an occasional M&S shopper, I’m at least residing in the bottom end of the middle classes, thank you very much. I have an array of needless electronic gadgets annnnnnd I’ve got a pasta machine and heady aspirations for my own allotment and wine cellar. Sure, I still eat the occasional pot noodle and I’ll never fully understand the point of an avocado – never forget where you come from – but I’ve changed, man. I’ve grown.
Which is why my family and I go to Center Parcs – the woodland wa*ker paradise. If you’ve never been, Center Parcs bills itself as the antithesis to the stresses of modern existence that weigh down on all of us. You retreat to a tranquil cabin in the woods, away from the noise and hubbub of modernity that imprisons us in the daily grind. You can observe the wildlife – feed the squirrels, listen to the stillness of the forest. Center Parcs is sold to us as the giver of the peace needed to unwind and relax. You’re away from everybody, cocooned in an all purpose haven with a supermarket, shops, bars, restaurants and activities for the little ones.
The reality is somewhat different. A 5 minute cycle into the main centre will doubtless result in you seeing at least one fellow Manxie, more than likely a distant relative or someone you work with but silently and secretly loathe. A couple of days in and the unbearable awkwardness at seeing said Manxie in the alcohol aisle again will undo any notion of “retreat”. Your trips to the centre are now only conducted under the cover of darkness, always with headphones in and sunglasses on. Eye contact is strictly off limits as is any foolhardy idea of enjoying a ‘browse’. You pick up your booze and chocolate, you return to the lodge and you exhale the deep and mighty sigh of relief at having dodged Maxine from Accounts.
If Cheers was “where everybody knows your name”, Center Parcs is more “where everybody is exactly the same”. Walking past the cabins with their twee and irritating names (Ladywood Forest, Chaffinch Way, ElvesPi*s Crescent) will soon grate as you see your various regional doppelgangers. Northface jackets pushing buggies, lugging shopping, all with that same haunted yet broken look in the eyes. You’ll see an exasperated toddler wailing inconsolably amidst the pine cones and squirrel sh*t. You’ll exchange all knowing looks and not utter a word. Telepathically, there’s a shared understanding, a screaming voice inside raging: “Let’s burn this place to the ground”. This is the land of the Stepford Family and now you’re one of them. You just don’t know it.
The sheer skull-sodomising expense of the place will banish all notions of upward nobility. By the end of 5 days in rain-drenched Nottingham with two kids, you’ll discover it would have been cheaper to fly to New York for the week. You could’ve seen the Blue Man Group there but noooo! You’d rather watch your ungrateful son refuse to enjoy £40 archery in the baltic cold!
Then there’s that aforementioned ‘stillness of the forest’. Maybe it’s just your bad luck but this particular forest (Tw*ttingHood) is about as still as a ferret at Creamfields. Your week will be spent listening to a shrieking orchestra of infantile injustice; a plaintive cacophony of eardrum-splitting frustration that will render you stricken with what is known as CPT or ‘Center Parcs Tinnitus’. This will haunt you for years after; PTSD of CPT is an SOB.
‘But the activities’, I hear you cry. ‘They’ll surely bring you and your family together?’. Oh, you don’t know! I will say swimming does have the advantage of being free and then of course, there’s the joy of “Moob Monitoring’. Here you can gawp at the endless array of man boobs and beer guts on display. You pat your own contentedly, safe in the knowledge it could well be worse. The complex itself is a vast greenhouse, but instead of plants and herbs, there’s screaming kids. This building, you’ll be pleased to discover, will be the place you sweat out large fragments of your soul. You soon learn to tolerate the gruelling torture of the waterboarding that masquerades as a fun and exciting slide. You even drown out that aforementioned shrill shrieking of the saplings. This is because after five days of being wet, hot, sweaty, stressed and horribly uncomfortable, you now feel nothing. You are a mere husk of the person you once knew; a vacant and listless emptiness welcomes you. Your very essence of self collapses inwardly like a once shimmering star as you accept your fate as a vacant and vast black hole, now feasting on the pain of others.
After another wasted evening staring vacantly at the ‘Badgerwatch’ channel (and never spotting one bastar*ing badger) you head for bed, relieved at the imminent end of this lifeforce lessening trip, and drift off to a dismayed sleep, dreaming of your pasta machine and Sky+.
The next morning you see the newbies. Bright-eyed, optimistic and smiling wildly. You, your spouse and your zombie offspring trudge wearily past them. “Poor bas*ards”, you mutter under your breath.
In summary: It’s a swanky cabin in the woods with questionable wi-fi, horrifically overpriced food and surrounded by anodyne replica reminders of your own suburban existence – the very thing you strived to leave behind, if for just a week.
And yet, on the journey home, that same nostalgia you felt as a kid post-Butlin’s returns and bulldozes you with sepia-tinged and romanticised yearning. And, as you scroll through the camera roll and click ‘create new album’, it’s clear what’s going to happen. You’ve captured the diluted joy on the kids’ faces. It’s not about you. It’s for them and when you see their giddy little heads, you know it’s all worth it. You’re a God to your bairns now, the facilitator of genuine awestruck joy and wonder. Even if your tailbone is cracked and crippled thanks to cycling them round like entitled movie stars; even if your wallet is rinsed dry like a ragged cloth; the little ones’ happiness, is now yours. You drift away and realise this is probably how your own folks felt. It may be pricey but what cost is there on conjuring up childhood laughter?
I turn round and ask Hunter, my eldest, if he had a good time. He pouts his bottom lip out for dramatic effect and mournfully articulates how I felt, all those years gone, after Butlins.
“I’ve had the best time, Daddy”
Same time next year, kids?