Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Nature and artifice at Center Parcs

Against my expectations – my wildest expectations, perhaps – of a couple of days before, I spent the weekend at Center Parcs (a half term weekend, what’s more). There was a reason: good company and my partner’s god-motherly duties coupled with unexpected contingencies. But it gave me a second opportunity (after about ten years) to experience a peculiarly domesticated version of nature and to reflect on how it isn’t so very unusual in the UK with its couple of millennia of close living and domestication of the the natural environment.

For those who don’t know, Center Parks is a kind of middle class re-invention of a working class holiday camp. Butlins and Pontins were situated at seaside resorts. Cabins, access to the beach, and red coated entertainment officers made for a dense package which flowed and then ebbed in the 1970s with the growth of cheap package holidays to countries with more reliable sun. Center parks arrived from Europe in the 1980s as a less vulgar and more subdued version in which the entertainment focus had been diluted with a bit of Thoreau. Cabins were now cleverly hidden from one another. Entertainment was more subdued: redcoats now bird knowledgeable wardens. The specific climax of the beech transformed into a more general atmosphere of woodland.

So a weekend at one of the handful of Center Parcs in the UK is a weekend in a cabin in the woods. There is a surprising volume of birdsong. Deer wander through the trees. Rabbits and birds are oddly close to hand. It is an encounter with nature for people living in the great urban density of the UK. 

I should say that there is range of other things to do aside from bump into nature, under some understanding of it. With enough money, one might spend most of the day playing sport, practicing archery, playing on quad bikes etc. The key – free once there – element of all the venues is a substantial swimming pool with water slides, rapids wave machines etc. But despite all this, the architectural packaging of the site is as an encounter with nature. Everyone rides bicycles around a car free zone on paths through woods.

And that prompts the question: what kind of conception of nature is available? I want to add two comparisons.

1: Yosemite. Weirdly, Center Parks is a bit like Yosemite. Both have a dense area of accommodation. Both try to balance commercial facilities – bars etc – with a nature orientation. At both, people who might normally spurn public transport delight in free, centrally provided shuttles. But there is a big difference. Wander outside the accommodation area at Yosemite and you stumble into Ansel Adams territory. Nature with a capital N. Break through the boundary fence at Center Parks and you arrive in the middle of the surrounding agricultural farmland. So the play with nature is somehow more artificial.

2: The Lake District. The English Lake District is in no sense a wilderness. (No part of the UK really is,  with the possible exception of Knoydart in Scotland.) It is not the result of nature alone. The landscape, pretty though it is, is the result of a mix of farming, quarrying and small scale industry (eg explosives). Still, it does not derive from a conception of what countryside should look like but from an evolution of the landscape. So it isn’t so directly artificial.

Having run round the perimeter of Center parks, I returned home to do a similar length run on Scout Scar in the evening (about 7km). In the former case, the run stretched my suspension of disbelief, partly because it made me bump up against the perimeter fence (no doubt the focus of attention in a dystopian novel) and thus emphasised the artificial. On the Scar, the natural boundary of the cliffs give a view of 20 miles into the Lake District. Although without human intervention it would, no doubt, be wooded (like all the now bare Cumbrian fells) and is thus an artificial environment, its vegetation kept in check by sheep and a herd of Galloway, it is unbounded, the location fixed by geology rather than commercial planning. And this seems to be what makes Center Parks seem to be playing - albeit very successfully - at being in nature. Wander in any direction and one can look out at what seems more real, prior, beyond it and thus realise that it is merely plonked into the surrounding countryside in four places in the UK and 22 in the rest of Europe.