Holiday Review: Center Parcs Longleat Forest

CentreParcs sign

Center Parcs have long been one of my family’s go to destinations for active holidays. Although in the past we have stayed at the Sherwood Forest (Nottinghamshire) and Whinfell Forest (Cumbria) sites, Longleat Forest (Wiltshire) remains our favourite. Not only do we enjoy its layout and facilities, the location is a 45 minute drive from home meaning we can gain full value from each day of our stay there.

Last week we returned for our first family holiday since Covid restrictions were introduced. Friends who have holidayed under this regime had warned us of the changes and we had delayed booking in the hope they would be removed. Sadly, it seems these have now become a permanent feature. The main change is the need to book a limited time slot (3 hours) in order to access the swimming area before 6pm. Each lodge is offered a fixed number of these – our midweek break granted us 4 over the course of our 5 day stay. The effect is to somewhat regiment daily activities.

Our friend had also recommended pre-booking any restaurants we wished to eat at well in advance. This proved good advice. Due to staff shortages not all venues could open each evening. Those that could were running on reduced capacity.

With swimming slots and dinner tables booked we travelled to Longleat Forest with some trepidation that it would be a good use of valued annual leave.

Husband and younger son drove down in the morning as they were eager to enjoy some racquet sports before our planned late lunch together at the Sports Bar. Daughter and I joined them for this meal, arriving later as she had just come off a series of night shifts. We arrived at peak time (2.30pm) and crawled along in a queue to enter the site that backed up along the entrance driveway almost to the highway. Husband reported he had been able to drive in with no delay (11am).

Once through check-in, parking was busy but straightforward. The rubber bracelets we were each given on arrival granted entry to the lodge we stayed in and also enabled us to secure a locker in the pool area.

CenterParcs sports bar lunch

Food and drinks at the Sports Bar (and, as it turned out, the Pancake House) were ordered via a phone app. This worked well, although may prove daunting for a guest less confident with such technology. We enjoyed our lunch, eaten in the sunshine at an outside table. The weather throughout our stay was amazing – warm sunshine each day with only a light breeze.

Accommodation may be accessed from 4pm on arrival day. We had booked a Woodland Lodge in the Fir area of the site – the cheapest available. Being allocated one that backed onto a pond brightened my mornings due to the wildlife it attracted. Despite the peace and quiet, I didn’t sleep well as the bed was smaller and softer than I am used to and the bedding was so starched it crackled. Everything provided was clean if basic. Towels are provided for use in the lodge but no other toiletries other than loo paper. Only the later lodge access time had changed since we last visited so all was as expected.

Having unpacked and returned the car to the parking area we went for our first swimming session. As it was now after 6pm there had been no need to book this, thereby saving our allocated slots for subsequent days. The slides, rapids and waves were enjoyed as much as ever and we stayed until closing time (9pm).

I started Day 2 with a morning run that proved challenging due to the many hills on site and the crowded walkways linking various areas. It was lovely to run around the main lake but I then chose to head towards the car park and main driveways to avoid the many bicycles and buggy pushers on narrower pathways. I managed 5 miles of loops, exploring the site thoroughly, before re-joining my family.

CenterParcs pedalo

With the sunny weather we decided to spend some time before our daily swimming slot on the lake. We hired a pedalo in which husband and younger son had fun trying to go faster than the electric versions most people seemed to have selected. Tired from such exertions we returned to the Sports Bar for liquid refreshment.

Swimming slots had been booked each day for mid afternoon, enabling us to continue into the ‘free’ evening session and then go straight to dinner, shortly after 7pm. Apparently earlier sessions are time controlled using coloured bracelets. We were not required to wear these.

Over the course of the week we ate at Los Iguanas, Bella Italia and Café Rouge, enjoying decent food and good service at each. Elder son, who had opted not to join us for the holiday due to a shoulder injury and busy work schedule, made a late decision to come down for dinner one evening – another benefit of being a reasonably short drive away. He was added to our table reservation without complaint. Both he and daughter’s boyfriend were on our original 3 bedroom lodge booking so could come and go at will.

Mobile signal across the site is patchy so communicating with the outside world caused some issues. Guest WiFi is available in most areas so those willing to use messenger services such as WhatsApp can do so more easily.

The earlier part of Days 3 and 5 were spent at the sports complex where we played badminton, squash and table tennis. We bring our own equipment for these activities but racquets, balls and shuttlecocks can be collected on site if necessary. On Day 4 we had great fun doing a round of crazy golf by the lake followed by another visit to the Sports Bar. In between these activities we walked around the site or relaxed at our lodge. The days felt full but never too busy. Taking a midweek break out of school holiday time meant many of the other families were dealing with young children.

We had no problem booking everything we did – bar the swimming and dinner – at the last minute via the phone app. This flexibility meant we could do what we felt like each day without too much time pressure. The app itself is somewhat slow and clunky but useable. Husband preferred this system to that offered on previous visits.

There are, of course, many activities available that we did not take part in. The zip wire over the lake appeared popular. Groups of Segway riders were spotted on walkways. Paddle boarders were being given instruction on the lake. In the past my children have enjoyed taking part in tree trekking and other high level adventures. They have tried archery and quad biking. The indoor climbing wall has been well used. Younger visitors are also well catered for with numerous play areas, outside and in. It is not a cheap holiday by any means but can be highly enjoyable for those willing to make use of the offered facilities.

Day 5 was departure day so the lodge needed to be cleared by 10am. Having stayed at Center Parcs many times before we have this down to a fine art and were out and ready for the day’s activities from 9.30am. After a morning of racquet sports we had booked lunch at the Pancake House – always a treat.

Our final swim session was curtailed at around 6pm when the indoor pool and slides were closed unexpectedly – we were not sure if this was due to the regularly used excuses of a child soiling the water or staff shortages. It did not spoil what had turned out to be a lovely stay. We headed home tired but in agreement that Center Parcs was still worth visiting despite the new restrictions.

Random Musings: Safe spaces

center parcs

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.