Center Parcs Longleat is a holiday village in a forest in Wiltshire, on Lord Bath’s estate, so you can never be entirely sure that you will not see a man dressed as a wizard having sex up against a tree. I thought it would be a fake forest, like the pines you see wilting from the M25, but it is a proper forest, with shrubs, deer, puddles and lakes. But for the looming presence of Center Parcs, which operates five ‘villages’ in England as emergency respite care for people with young children, it would be paradise.
The centrepiece — the altar — is the ‘subtropical swimming paradise’ which floats, like a large watery spider, in the centre of the parc. (I do not know why it is spelled like that.) It is wrapped in a mall, which sells goods for 30 per cent more than in the world beyond Center Parcs Longleat. But since you cannot drive in Center Parcs Longleat, or ‘parc’ your car by your ‘villa’, there is, for 21st-century people, no world beyond Center Parcs Longleat. Once inside, there is no outside. It is as complete and consuming as a novel.
The ‘subtropical swimming paradise’ is a series of pools, flumes and slides arranged by a jaunty café selling toasties and sodas; you can, for novelty, get into a large box in the changing rooms, which will dry your flabby body, or you can jump down a hole. It is a reasonably successful attempt to establish Barbados near Warminster and I like it, although I am surprised, due to the volume of hobbity folk wading waist-high through the pools, there are not more drownings. Almost everyone in the ‘subtropical swimming paradise’ is under ten, or fat, although gaggles of childless youth are also present, presumably to get drunk before jumping down holes, which is, to my mind, an act of political subversion. In our villa, which is really a chalet featuring pointless photographs of trees, there is a long disclaimer about the ‘subtropical swimming paradise’, written by a lawyer, who writes ‘subtropical swimming paradise’ in such a way as to make it sound very serious and himself quite angry.
A thinks it is Stalinist. He is rambling through the forest like a metaphor, reading his map, when he sees, by the lake, something called the Jardin du Sport. It is a building from Art and Power which, at night, features a fire display we stare at silently, because we are too drugged with ennui to clap. His eyes glaze and he says: ‘I am the manager of a steel factory. Production has increased by 30 per cent and it is entirely due to me. And so my family and I have been given a week in a villa at Center Parcs Longleat as a reward.’
Once we have established that the ‘subtropical swimming paradise’ and attendant village, activities and restaurants at Center Parcs Longleat are a cover for establishing a socialist utopia near Warminster (the Barbados vibe is disingenuous, a hoax), it makes more sense to us. The cycling families, riding five-abreast in helmets; the men on the zip wire above the lake, doused in rain; the children playing volleyball, badly, in the Jardin du Sport and buying activity badge lanyards for £3 — all are preparing for the revolution. That Center Parcs Longleat is now owned by the Brookfield Properties Corporation only adds to its cleverness.
We have established that Center Parcs Longleat is, therefore, a classless society; you can dine in any class. On the first day, we ignore Café Rouge Center Parcs Longleat — what agonised negotiation led to that deathless name? — Huck’s American Bar and Grill (ribs, steaks and civil rights) and Starbucks, which has enfolded -Center Parcs Longleat like an anaconda sucking on a wizard’s head, and land in Strada, a generic Italian restaurant which is the designated ‘posh restaurant’ and, therefore, the saddest place here. It is a gloomy cave dotted with spindly high chairs. We sit by the soft-play area — every restaurant in Center Parcs Longleat is a soft-play area serving food — which means that everyone is staring at us, looking for their children.
The bread in the tomato bruschetta is under-toasted and swamped with tomatoes, as if, this day in the socialist utopia of Center Parcs Longleat, there is a glut of tomatoes and almost no electricity — although the child seems to like his rigatoni pomodoro. Children, history tells us, will take anything, because they have nothing to compare it to. Wild mushroom risotto and pizza Vesuvio are utterly ordinary. Critics of socialism will smirk into their magazines — what did you expect?
The following day, we ignore the Bavarian-themed restaurant (the Grand Café, a barn with chandeliers), and also Rajinda Pradesh (Indian) and eat at the Sports Café in the Jardin du Sport. The cognitive dissonance between the menu at the Sports Café in the Jardin du Sport and the ideal of sport is almost supernatural. Because here, within breathing distance of the sports facilities and the fat under-tens wearing lanyards, is nugget, grill, pie and burger land, brought to you from a menu illustrated with dodgy quotes from sport’s shrinking intellectual class: ‘I wouldn’t say he is the best left-winger in the Premiership, but there are none better.’
We eat so many chicken nuggets at the Sports Café in the Jardin du Sport — an orange mountain of salt, tangy, and better than it needs to be considering the clientele cannot get out — that I am reminded of my Christmas quiz question, which I stole from the internet: would you rather be attacked by one giant duck, or 100 tiny ducks? I hope that the Prime Minister, as he considers raining bombs on Syria to boost his approval ratings, will give that question the serious thought it deserves. Do you have that, David? One giant duck or 100 tiny ducks?
So, in the absence of any reliable opposition to the government, Center Parcs Longleat, with its chicken nuggets, jelly and thwarted Italian cuisine, makes a good attempt. Ideologically, it is impeccable; and you can ride the wild water rapids with the Welsh and get a minor spinal injury. If only we could get up from our chairs after the nuggets and the jelly; but that is the British way. Merry Christmas, and long live the revolution!
Center Parcs Longleat Forest, Wiltshire, tel: 03448 267723.