Saturday 29 April 2017

'Posh Butlins' tag just does not do this place justice

At the age of 11, Gareth Morgan was a Center Parcs fan who loved archery and waterslides. Twenty-five years later he returns . . .

Gareth Morgan in Center Parcs
Gareth Morgan in Center Parcs
Gareth Morgan in Center Parcs
Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan

The minibus turns off the busy main road and winds past signposts for quaint-sounding English villages with names like Husborne Crawley.

Through the trees I spot the discreet glint of thousands of cars, parked up and idle for the week as their owners take to foot or pedal power.

A brief encounter with the security gate and we're into a different world. A bearded man cycles past wearing a vest and a bandanna, hauling two children behind in a bike trailer. On a hilltop, grown men caper with their sons or grandsons, building woodland dens.

It can only be Center Parcs. It's been a while, but nice to be back.

I first visited the 'Butlins for the middle classes' in the 1990s as a child. It's open 365 days a year and has an occupancy rate of 97.5pc across five UK sites.

Brought to the UK in the late 1980s, Center Parcs was first marketed as "the holiday the weather can't spoil" due to its unique selling point - the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Inside the glass walls the temperature is always a balmy 84F (29C) and swimming pools, slides and rapid rivers keep the kids exhausted and entertained.

While archery and kayaking have been on the menu for years, now you can add laser tag, treasure trails and spa treatments among a list of more than 100 choices.

This model will be brought to Longford in the coming years in what must be seen as a major step into the unknown by Center Parcs management. This site will be the first to be built outside of England.

While they are confident that the Irish market has nothing like this to compete, that is part of their conundrum. They have to convince a cautious consumer that the pricey packages will offer more than a jumped-up holiday camp.

Strolling around the leafy site in Woburn Forest provides a stern reminder that the 'posh Butlins' tag just doesn't do this place justice. The lodges alone are an adventure, the most luxurious featuring their own hot tubs, saunas and pool tables. This week it would cost more than €4,000.

"We price according to demand, and we will do the same in Ireland," says Simon Kay who is leading us on a tour of the park.

Everywhere you go, staff smile and nod cheerfully. "We recruit people for their attitude - we train them to be a waitress, or a lifeguard, but you cannot train attitude," says Simon.

Then it's activity time. The chance to shoot crossbows at a target is great but I am neither quiet nor confident as I mount a Segway.

In Longford, it is rumoured that people are already being drawn by the prospect of 1,000 jobs and a promised €32m annual economic boost. There will be opportunities for local florists, electricians, butchers, bakers and more.

Not bad for a 375-acre site on former Coillte land near Ballymahon. Simply because "you can stick a pin on a map, into the middle of the island of Ireland, and you won't be too far from Co Longford".

Planning is the next hurdle - there are red squirrels and bats to care for. A ring fort to protect. An old herdsman's hut to be restored. An artificial lake will be built, and trees inevitably felled - although the company believes this allows the forest floor to flourish.

I am spent, shattered, exhausted. On the journey home I can barely keep my eyes open, despite the copious amount of coffee I have slurped all day. I fall into bed and am snoozing like a stone within minutes.

My kids would love it.

I can see the attraction for parents, too. Let the young ones burn the energy while your batteries recharge.

And perhaps soon, Longford won't just be a pin on a map in the middle of the island, but a destination in its own right.

Holiday camp will have its own GAA pitch and Irish pub

The first ever Center Parcs GAA pitch will feature at the new holiday village planned for the heart of forested land in Co Longford.

A traditional pub is also being considered in a bid to tailor the €200m project specifically to Irish tastes.

And the shelves of the on-site supermarket are likely to be stocked with Tayto, Ballygowan and meat from local suppliers.

Bosses at the €3bn business this week announced that the Midlands attraction, slated for 2019, would be officially named 'Center Parcs Longford Forest'. It will be the sixth village owned by the group, which has sites dotted in all corners of England.

A spokesperson said: "We have taken on board the Irish love of GAA, so I suspect there will be a playing field of some description. Also there are some brands that don't exist in Ireland and vice versa, so we will be looking at that."

Center Parcs officials will return to Longford on September 7-8 for a final "community day" before planning permission is lodged this October.

By the middle of next year, detailed design and procurement of contractors could be under way before the construction stage which will employ 750 people and take up to two years.

Irish Independent

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