There’s a new holiday craze emerging amongst my friends: a growing, unstoppable behemoth that goes by the name of Center Parcs. While friends once regaled me with tales of sipping Singapore slings in Sri Lanka, I’m now much more likely to hear about quad biking and sub-tropical swimming in the forest.
This new breed of Center Parcs staycationers fall into one of two camps: The Center Parcs Obsessives, who have been holidaying there since they were children and are part of a smug group who’ve ‘known the secret for years’, and relatively new Center Parc-ers, who tentatively drive into its big foresty mouth (slowing down for the red squirrels, of course) and emerge seven days later – bedazzled – and telling anyone who’ll listen, ‘I’ll never holiday anywhere else again. It even had a Starbucks!’
My own Center Parcs experience was a little less bedazzling but still high on the fun factor. Having heard so much about this enchanting place, I was excited to be finally getting a taste of huge-holiday-camp-in-a-forest as part of my friend’s hen party.
But for reasons too complicated to go into, while the rest of the hen party were cracking open the prosecco in their snazzy, modern lodges, I found myself alone in a 80s Butlins-style bedsit several miles across the lake, which faintly smelt of tobacco and had clearly had been missed off the list of any renovations this millennium (probably because only strange specimens like me would ever stay in a tiny apartment block at a holiday camp purely geared towards families).
Undeterred, I set off on foot to the party, begrudgingly wearing a pair of silver fairy wings (to comply with the weekend’s fairy theme) and proudly clutching a home-made coffee and walnut cake in my smart Emma Bridgewater tin (the hen party happened to coincide with my cake baking obsession – see Let Them Eat Cake) and I was looking forward to basking in a glut of cake-based compliments. It also happened to coincide with one of the hottest weekends of 2012.
No sooner had I set foot through the door, greeted the lovely hen, and placed my coffee cake in a prominent position in the buffet, I was accosted by one of the hen party’s stranger characters. Every hen has a peculiar friend. It’s usually me. But on this occasion, the girl – Christine – definitely took the crown.
Within minutes of meeting her, she was telling me all about a trail of failed relationships in an scarily-intense, monotone voice, while I attempted to nod sympathetically and wildly scan the room for any means of escape.
As her weary voice droned on, I peered over her shoulder at the buffet. My coffee cake, which had been lovingly hand-crafted only that very morning, was untouched, I noted, and – worse still – appeared to be MELTING in the heat. It made sense, I thought despondently: no one pitches up to a party and wants a slice of coffee cake with their cocktails.
Midnight came and went and it was soon time to depart. Still no-one had eaten my increasingly sweaty cake. Too big to fit into the hen’s fridge with all the bottles of bubbly, I had no choice but to scoop it back into its tin and tuck it under my arm, ready for the journey back.
After fielding a chorus of protests from well-meaning friends (Them: ‘you can’t walk back alone!’; Me: ‘I’ll be fine! I mean, have you ever heard of a murder in Center Parcs? I didn’t think so!’), I was dispatched back into the dark forest and began to trudge back to my bed-sit for one.
As I crept through the trees, I began to feel a little unnerved. It was extremely dark and there wasn’t a soul around. And I appeared to be lost. Had you happened to peer out of your Center Parcs lodge at around 1am that evening, you might have seen a dejected fairy wander past, with wilting wings and clutching a home-baked cake that no-one wanted. It was a sad old sight.
Eventually, I reached the lake. It might have been my imagination but the moon’s reflection seemed to cast a strange, ethereal glow upon the forest. I could see the bed-sit of doom across the water but no matter which path I took, I couldn’t seem to reach it.
Some time later, I finally arrived back at my humble abode and wearily clambered into bed… only to be woke at 3am by the blaring screech of a fire alarm. Huddled outside with the other oddities until the fire officer gave the building the all-clear, I began to question the magic of Center Parcs.
The next day, I woke and realised I’d forgotten to bring my hairbrush. I also had a large, uneaten coffee cake languishing in the fridge. I wasn’t sure what to do.
At the spa later that day, I asked Crazy Christine if she happened to have a spare hairbrush I could borrow. She produced a handbag-sized brush – the kind that folds into itself that you can buy from Superdrug for a couple of pounds – or maybe even find in a Christmas cracker.
But while attempting to detangle my knotty locks, something bad happened: the feeble brush fell apart! Scooping up the bits of plastic, I sheepishly went to break the news to Christine.
‘Broken?!’ She fixed me with a steely glare.
‘Yes,’ I stammered. ‘It just came apart…’
‘Where is the other bit of plastic? There’s a piece missing!’ she demanded.
I hastily foraged around in my bag; fortunately it was there.
She snatched it off me, and set about attempting to mend the flimsy brush, refusing to speak to me again for the entire evening.
But as I was about to depart, some helpful person suggested that as I was heading to see my parents in Lancashire the next day, I might be able to drop Crazy Christine off at Preston train station. Bizarrely, Crazy Christine seemed to think this was a great idea too.
Two hours in the car with Crazy Christine? After ‘hairbrushgate’, there was no-way I could possibly endure it. I found myself slowly nodding my head, in half-agreement.
The next morning, I rose early, donned my sunglasses and skulked through the forest, fearful that Crazy Christine might suddenly loom large, brandishing the broken hairbrush and demanding I drive her all the way back to London. I hastily scampered across the car park, leapt into my car and roared off.
I hoped, at least, the red squirrels liked my coffee cake.