I first visited Center Parcs over twenty years ago when my sister’s sons were toddlers. My husband and I drove to the Nottingham site to visit her family as they holidayed there and enjoyed an active couple of days, despite having to sleep in bunk beds. By the time our own children came along a more local facility had been built which provided twin beds and even better swimming areas. It soon became a favourite destination.
As well as the child friendly site with its multiple play areas and largely traffic free roads it felt a safe space for me as an adult. The clientele were of all shapes and sizes, the dress code relaxed. Hanging out by the pool in my swimsuit was never an issue; rolls of flesh and cellulite were on show and nobody seemed to care.
Last weekend we returned to Longleat for what is likely to be this year’s only family holiday. For the first time in the many years we have been visiting I did not feel safe.
During the course of the first day I left the pool area to fetch a forgotten item from our car. Phone reception is poor and I wished to send a text to a friend who was due to visit the next day. As I studied my phone searching for signal I became aware of two young men sitting at a picnic table nearby. They were calling out: ‘Bingo wings. Bingo wings!’ There was nobody else around. For whatever reason they had decided to insult me.
I ignored them which led to a louder, more insistent cry: ‘Fat ass. Oy, fat ass!’ I finally got my text message to send and left the area, briefly making eye contact with the young men as I passed. Later in the day I chanced upon them again. As they walked by they glanced at me and muttered in a derisory tone: ‘Oh god it’s her again’. It would seem that my existence in a public space is an affront to the bright young things who decorate such places so pleasingly.
I do not deny the truth of their observations but wonder why they felt moved to act as they did.
Had this been the extent of my discomfort over the weekend then I would have put it down to an unfortunate but isolated encounter with rudeness. Unfortunately it was only just the start.
The other holiday makers included the usual Boden mums with their beautifully dressed offspring, proud grandmothers accompanying their precious little grandchildren, and a pleasingly diverse array of skin tone and language. There were not, however, the variety of body shapes that I had come to expect. Perhaps the media has succeeded in fat shaming and diets have been adhered to, or perhaps the overweight now holiday elsewhere.
I was subjected to numerous hard stares as I moved around the site, pointed tuts from the grandparents as I took up space they desired for their families. I longed for the ability to levitate as others sought to have me out of their way. Is this because I am now older? fatter? sans children? Gone were the smiles I have previously encountered, the camaraderie of shared experience. Instead I was subjected to irritation and muttered comments for inhabiting public space.
Even at our villa the ambience had changed. Next door there appeared to be a hen party in residence. Our enjoyment of the adorable family of fluffy ducklings that waddled by our window with their proud mama each day was spoiled when a father caught two of the tiny birds for his daughters to stroke. I so hope that his scent on them did not lead to rejection, that the fluffy babies recovered from their trauma. Across the lake I heard angry shouting and banging as a family row erupted that went on and on. It was not the peaceful environment I have come to expect.
Our holiday was still enjoyed. We spent hours by the pool although I stayed clothed and read my book rather than taking to the water with my family. We played many games of badminton, squash and table tennis; went boating on the lake; cycled round and around the site. We ate delicious meals together at a variety of restaurants. I did not, however, feel that I could relax as I could before.
It is hard to quantify why an environment feels safe. Have the other guests changed or have I? If my family wish then it is likely that we will return, perhaps next year. For me though it will be with some trepidation.