I spent my weekend at Center Parcs, which, for the uninitiated, is a huge complex built in the middle of a forest and includes a giant swimming pool, sports centre, restaurants, mini-supermarket, bars, and many other places where you can part with your cash.
Our visit coincided with the first Christmas weekend, a fact my sister casually mentioned on the journey up.
“What do you mean, Christmas weekend?” I asked.
‘Well, there’ll be a Santa’s grotto and an elf-hunt and a Winter Wonderland section with singing reindeer,’ she replied.
I looked at her as if she’d taken all leave of her senses.
“Did you know this when you booked?” I asked, making no attempt to hide the disbelief from my voice.
‘Yes, I thought the kids would love it,’ she said, then turned to my mum and began plotting an itinerary for the weekend. ‘I thought we could do the pony trek at 8am and then meet Santa at 10…’
I began to wonder if I was related to these people. They seemed genuinely excited, whereas if someone had given me the option, at that very moment, to instead spend the weekend taking part in a medical experiment which involved having large poison-tipped needles stuck into my face, I’d have taken it.
Going away is one of those things that having children changes forever (and by changes, I mean ruins).
Back in the old days I went on holidays of my choosing – trekking in South America, exploring the Rocky Mountains in Canada, erecting a dry stone wall on a barren windswept hill near Haverthwaite (just me then?)
When you have children, all that comes to a halt. You must select something they will enjoy, even if it means you will not enjoy it whatsoever, which seems grossly unfair given we’re the ones paying for it.
What makes it worse is that my child is now at an age where she is demanding things. For 18 months myself and Mrs Canavan were convinced we had given birth to the perfect child. She showed no hint of dissent, she was well-behaved and loving, she was an angel child. As friends told us horror stories of things their terrible offspring were getting up to, Mrs Canavan and I would sympathise and then, when on our own, mock and boast about what superb parents we must be.
Then a month or so ago, Mary – our daughter – suddenly turned into what I can only describe as a horrible brat.
It coincided with her starting to talk and learning the words ‘no’ and – particularly where food is involved – ‘more’.
If, for instance, you give her a bag of crisps and she finishes them, she now spends the next 15 minutes beating her fists on the kitchen floor like an actress in a particularly dramatic and over-the-top Hollywood movie scene, while screaming for something else she can shove down her very big gob. If I wasn’t related to her, I’d detest her.
Anyway, we duly went to Center Parcs and on the Saturday morning, thanks to my sister, found ourselves visiting the Winter Wonderland. This involved lots of fake snow and talking/moving puppets, including a group of singing reindeer.
Mary was truly captivated by this. She kept pointing at the reindeer, beaming, and looking at me in astonishment. I patiently explained to her they were puppets that had been programmed but, when she still didn’t get bored of them, lost my rag and chastised her for being so immature – I mean she’s 21-months-old, surely she should be past the stage of getting excited about a puppet and be developing other interests, like quantam physics and housework?
Every time I tried to pick her up and carry her away she burst into tears, which, when you’re surrounded by other parents, is a tad embarrassing. The end result was that we stood watching the reindeer sing Silent Night for around 45 minutes before, tether at an end and on the verge of jumping into the display and violently ripping the head off each reindeer, I rugby-tackled Mary to the floor, put a hood over her, and carried her away, while several concerned onlookers called the police.
As we were walking towards Santa’s grotto – where my sister had very kindly booked us a personal meeting with the main man himself – a young man dressed in an elf costume ran towards us. ‘Hi there and happy Christmas!’ he bellowed. It was November 10.
He – probably a failed drama student - had blusher on his cheeks to make them look rosy and wore a green costume and little elf hat.
My heart went out to him. He had to spend his full day dressed like this, running around looking happy and speaking to children. 20 quid says he’s on anti-depressants.
Our meeting with Father Christmas was, and I’m being kind here, a slight anti-climax. Mary cried as soon as she went in the room and refused to sit on his lap.
My four-year-old nephew tried to pull Santa’s beard off and sobbed because his present was a toy penguin when he’d specifically asked for a Scalextric. ‘You’ll have to wait for Christmas Day for that,’ said Santa, desperately. “But I want it now,” wailed my nephew.
We then went back to our lodge where my nephew snapped the beak off his penguin and Mary had a meltdown because she wanted a bag of Wotsits.
Roll on Christmas.
Lost in dark but no cabin fever
The best thing about Center Parcs is a giant indoor swimming pool with lots of slides and a wave machine.
The kids love it, or at least they would do if they didn’t get barged out of the way by all the over-enthusiastic adults reliving their childhood. (‘Come on Daz,’ screamed a tattooed bloke in his 40s, treading on the heads of several young children as he charged towards the deep end of the pool … ‘the waves are coming on’).
The worst thing about the place is trying to find one’s way to your lodge in the dark after parking your car.
No vehicles are allowed on site (an excellent policy I may add), so after dropping off your luggage and then returning to the front of the site to park, you need to navigate your way back to your lodge on foot.
It took me the best part of an hour to locate the house in which we were staying. This might make me sound thick but the fact there are telephone boxes all over the site, which are there specifically so if you’re lost you can pick up a phone and speak to someone who will give you directions, makes me think I’m not the only one who struggles.
Still, once I found our lodge it proved a very pleasant and different way to spend the weekend and – and I believe this is the all-important thing, or so I’m told - the kids loved it.