Center Parc, Brandon mountain bike ride report.

My birthday weekend. Wife does random going away things for it. One year we ended up in Norway. This year it was a big secret as to where and what, so I played along. Turned out to be a Center Parc in Brandon, Suffolk, a type of holiday I really never wanted to do and at almost 50 thought I never would. That whole "all inclusive" notion just grates. Years ago I had a mate that I knocked around with; out for beers, 'round each others houses with the family type thing. Did this for a good few years, then he went on an all-inclusive holiday and never strayed from the resort even once in fourteen days. Somehow this wasn't right, and our relationship went downhill from there. I don't even have him as a casual friend on Facebook. So for my wife to take me to Center Parcs was a bit, well, off, hence the secrecy. I like to explore you see, and find my own way around. Perhaps have a bad experience, perhaps have a good one.

Now you're going to expect me to say it was brilliant now aren't you? Well I'm not. I did manage to suppress the gag reflex and went in with an open mind. It was really good for the kids, and to be frank was perhaps the best thing to do in Suffolk, if not the only thing. We really enjoyed the weekend oddly enough, but perhaps more because we kind of sidestepped what they wanted us to do, and treated the place as an apartment rental rather than an holiday camp. For the kids though, it was brilliant. They enjoyed the freedom and the activities. My 6 year old got up at 5am every day to ride his bike, whilst my daughter was off in the evenings doing same. Given that the place is primarily for children, then yes, it's brilliant.

For my American readers Centre Parcs is an enclosed area of woodland roughly the size of 500 football pitches. In the centre is a pedestrian area full of restaurants, shops and a very large sports arena. There is a huge pool with the usual water slides. The pool it must be said is brilliant. I did so many slides that I put my back out; not through age, just through going down backwards against all of the rules. Even my eight year old said I was daft. These things have to be done.

Ooops, description. Around the retail area are a series of lakes, one being big enough for water skiing. Amongst the lakes are the accommodation complexes, which consist of two bedroomed cabins. This all amongst trees in a very natural looking setting. The Parc is a natural haven for deer, so you spot these animals all over the place.

So, arrival. Initially we felt like little automatons, being part of the system. You get directed to your cabin, then go collect your hire bicycles. Hundreds of people are doing this at exactly the same time. This feels like a religious calling, part of a sect, so a bit off-putting. But after collecting the bikes we popped into the little grocers shop for provisions. Expecting rip-odd prices and poor quality, we got the reverse. Good quality at moderate prices, with friendly staff. Hmmm, looking up. And I must say that the quality of the cabins was first class. Well designed, well specified and clean. Plus even though there are obviously around a thousand of them, you never feel as though you have a neighbour at all. The windows look out on to lake. Very clever.

Not wanting to be part of the sect, our first evening was spent letting the kids ride around alone whilst I cooked. They were happy, worked up an appetite and we started to feel at home. Our hire bikes, by the way, were 20kg steel framed Haro clunkers. No disc brakes, narrow handlebars and no suspension. Mine had gears, but I only used one all weekend so even that feature could be discarded. But they were great. A bike is a bike is a bike right? On a typical ride we all fret about tyre pressures, think about having a stupid uppy downy seatpost, or a myriad of other frets, but in the end these Haro things did the job brilliantly without fuss every single ride. Mine went back covered in mud but it was still functioning well.

The next morning we were woken at 5am by my boy wanting to go out on his bike. He did this every day. So breakfast was made without the kids watching crap tv

And our first evening meal was in a pancake house. It was odd; the meat was cooked inside the pancake. There were no vegetables or starch products such as chips. Meat and pancake? Healthy option I fear not. But the staff were very friendly, and it was a happy little event. Can't see the theme catching on though. Post meal there was another ride out. We lost count of the number of deer we saw.

You pay for everything when there, so it is different to an all-inclusive holiday where you pay in advance. The prices seem slightly high for the activities though. The Go-Ape style tree top walkway was £25 per child. I wasn't going to pay that. Other activities were similarly priced. This may explain the Audis. You need money. Of course the Parc is designed so that unless you are doing something, you are doing nothing. By this there are no open spaces to doss in, very few picnic tables and no other areas to just spend time without spending. Even the play area is next to a bar. We gave in to this only once; £9 for two indifferent coffees and some pop.

Overall I'd happily suggest that if you have children, then a Centre Parc is no bad thing. It gives them a sense of freedom and independence in an almost controlled and friendly environment. What I found odd were the people there who didn't have children, or who had very young toddlers. What do they get out of it? Have they simply not grown up as adults? Have they no adventure in them, no spines? It's OK people, you can go to other places.

However, as an adult the experience is a bit Scientology if you see what I mean. Example: On Sunday it was a nice day and I wanted to see Thetford forest to judge it from a mountain biking perspective, so off we went on the bikes to collect the car, which was a mile away. It was a mile away as, unless you are disabled or own an Audi or 4x4, you have to park off-site whilst there. So we cycled to the car, but there was nowhere to lock the bikes up. This was odd as all over the camp there are places to lock bikes. As in perhaps 6,000 or 7,000 places as they rent out 3,000 bikes in a good week. I asked a security guard where to lock them up, and he asked me why I wanted to. Oddly I felt as though I needed to explain myself to this guy, so I told him we wanted to see the forest over the road. "You want to go off site?" came the questioning reply, clearly indicating that people don't. In the end we just dumped the bikes, but it was another barrier in escaping the place that the owner's had put into place. Indeed inside there is no real indication on site that there is an outside world. Clearly you are expected to spend all of your time and money on-site, which is fair enough as there must be a huge investment in the business. Certainly no council would run this well.

A word about Thetford forest. It's a bit boring, but forests always are unless you like trees and insects. This one, though, has an excellent Go-Ape facility [half the price of the one in the Parc - top tip: go!], a truly indifferent cafe [take your own food] but the most wonderful bike shop known to man. I've been in a lot of bike shops, but I've not been in one as good as Bike Art. The range of bikes and accessories was surprising, and there's clearly money around to be spent. My wife spotted a mountain bike for £4,000 and was shocked. I pointed her to the £5,400 carbon Scott jobbie casually left in a corner. C and N, Finches, even the Dorking / Leatherhead / Nirvana shops may only ever have one or two bikes I have an interest in and would consider buying. They have to cater for the masses, so have a lot of £300 bikes. Bike Art was full of bikes I'd be proud to own - and they weren't all £5k bling machines, or £300 dross. Giant X4 or a Scott for £1,400? Yes please. Very nice machines. I had to leave without going near my wallet. Honestly, I could have spent £700 instantly on accessories. Instantly and without regret that is. My wife isn't a cyclist but still managed to spend £70 on the kids in there. I'm guessing that perhaps they don't sell too many £5k bikes - possibly manufacturers like to showcase their stuff for D2D? However, by heck was it nice to see a shop with such bikes.

When we left Center Parc my wife wanted to see a local town as perhaps it may be worth having an holiday in the area and explore Suffolk. Thetford looked a good bet as on the web it went on about it's 1100AD historic period. So off we popped. Parking up the town looked like a 1970's shopping centre, all generic concrete square block shopping arcades and "Screw you!" council buildings. Wandering around it looked like some 1960's town planners had had a "let's fuck the place up!" brainwave as it was shit beyond belief. This was a bit sad as you could still see the odd historic building peeking through the dross. The inhabitants we saw were unemployed Polish males - they looked rough and used to violence. I'm guessing that if you're travelling for seasonal farm work you're not going to be a Guardian reader, fair play, but this lot looked shifty in a shifty way. Perhaps I should start reading the Daily Mail! My boy wanted fish and chips for lunch, so as I waited for my wife to get served I looked at a map board of the town. Even this suggested that there was oodles of historic buildings of great interest, and even a Dad's Army walk to do where you could look at all the places where key scenes from the series were shot. Now who in their right minds would want to do that? Perhaps it's a great source of income for the town, but I wasn't about to traipse around looking at odd houses or road junctions. I hated the series.Was it ever funny?

The map board seemed to bear no relation to the town in reality so I just stood there, gormless and bored. Needless to say the local tramp alcoholic approached me for a chat and perhaps the odd cast off £5 note. Why I attract these sorts is beyond me, but anybody with alcohol in their system seems to view me as a fellow sufferer. It's quite common for my wife or friends to disappear to the toilet or shops only to come back and find me in lively conversation with strangers like this. My wife did point out that even though this guy was a tramp, and slept on park benches, that his jeans were less crumpled and muddy than mine, and his hair was neater. This may be the reason. Anyway, the guy was called Paul, he was pleasant enough in an obviously drink addled manner and we had a ten minute talk. He had clearly been beaten up very recently as his whole face was one big bruise. I even shook his hand [which was massive, just thick sausage like muscled fingers]. He was clearly off his rocker. My 8 year old daughter has often experienced my little chats with the odd balls in life, but today was the first time she questioned why. I suspect, like my friend who went on the all inclusive holiday, that I've gone down in her estimation. Paul, by the way, didn't get any money off me - sorry, but unless there is an exchange of either goods or services, then nobody does.

My chat with Paul, and the unemployed Polish men wandering around, did highlight I guess why people like Centre Parcs. There's no chance of real life creeping up on you and spoiling things. All is controlled and monitored. Up to a point this isn't a bad thing really is it? For three days real life was absent and we just had fun. You couldn't do it for more than four or five days without going mad though. To my mind as a parent you want to protect your kids on the one hand, but on the other I want them to have the skills to be able to deal with the curve balls in life. This I appreciate is different to most middle class norms, where every eventuality has to be planned and protected against. There are loads of parents who drive their kids less than 1km to school, who then drive home to wait for end of school collection, by car gain. Others wouldn't dream of talking to people unless vetted and pre-approved through social channels. I'm not going to let my kids talk to nutters you understand, but they happily talk to strangers in cafes and so on. Within reason I too vet the candidates, but my barriers are lighter than most parents. I think my children are more confident, and it must be said less rude, as a result.

Oh yes, the A11. You go from a four lane motorway, down to three lanes, then two. All OK so far apart from the lorries overtaking up hill when they have a 0.5km/h speed advantage. But Suffolk seems to have decided that if you are going to leave and go to Norfolk, then the A11 will go down to a single carriageway for around 10km, with no exits and a set of traffic lights at the end that give preference to people wanting to get onto the A11. So 10,000 vehicles an hour use the A11, whilst 3 or 4 the side roads. Makes sense to give them some sort of priority doesn't it? So Suffolk, widen the A11 please; nobody wants to go to Brandon or Thetford so stop pretending they do; remove those traffic lights. People want to go to Norwich fast.

We joined an 8km queue on the A11. This seemed normal, as we've been on this road five or six times now with no change. This time, however, we got stuck just before a side exit, so took that and luckily it worked - no thanks to the friggin' useless sat nav that wanted to take us to Cambridge or back to the motorway. We could actually see where we wanted to go. On one t-junction the parc was clearly to the right, so sat nav wanted to go left and take a 30km detour. Even approaching the Parc it ignored the obvious entrance and stated quite happily that we should negotiate off-road through the trees. Sat Nav really is useless. I'd hate to rely on it. Even on A roads it'd say "take the next right" when approaching a left hand exit. There wouldn't be a next right; what it meant was to simply stop on the road. But sometimes even we got a bit confused when there actually was a right hand turning, and it kept telling us to get off the road. What a bizarre thing.

Of course me being a hard hearted git about it doesn't make up for the fact that my 6 year old boy and 8 year old daughter are crying their eyes out right now, bless. Why? Because they had an absolutely brilliant time and want to live at centre Parc now. Go figure. In all possibility we'll go back, but next time I'll take my own mountain bike and will be off-site in the forest at least once. Maybe I'll buy some lights from Bike Art. Would be rude not to.