‘We don’t have to join in with other people, do we?” said Gracie, my 10-year-old daughter, as she swiped through photos of helmeted folk engaged in outdoorsy activities. She had voiced my fears that our visit to the Kingswood activity centre near Doncaster would involve team-building, singalongs and awkward British socialising. A boyhood of Cubs and Scouts had provided enough kumbaya and cooperative shelter-building to last a lifetime, I grumbled to myself.
Still, our family has embraced (endured) camping for years and our two girls like high wires, water sports and pottering outside, so the prospect of “challenging and rewarding” adventures in South Yorkshire appealed.
The meat and potatoes of this centre – on the site of a former colliery by the River Don – is providing “outdoor education” for parties of school kids and youth groups. But lately it has begun promoting itself to families who fancy a change from a traditional (short) staycation.
Our two-night stay started at the deep end, almost literally, as we joined a dozen people trying to build a raft on the shore of a lake. Ropes were tightened, barrels corralled, logs twisted into place. Our girls helped without being nagged by my wife or me. Improbably, we were soon afloat, buoyed by the barrels, the sense of a small achievement and the golden evening sun.
Dinner was taken communally: the food was “like school dinners but better”, according to the girls, who were perhaps won over by the chocolate-and-marshmallow treat of Rocky Road cake – and some surprisingly good vegetarian options. Later, over cheese and wine in a yurt, I chatted to fellow adventurers and discovered that many had been to Kingswood centres (there are nine in the UK, and one in Normandy, France) before. It was an encouraging sign. As we talked, the kids set off lanterns over the pond.
This is the sort of holiday where an itinerary is provided on arrival – and all meals are included. Some will find that liberating (“It’s all planned,” one dad said of why he’d come); others might find never having to think about what to do next rather stifling. What we had to do next, it turned out, was bushcraft at 9.15am on Sunday. In heavy rain.
The success of the activities tended to hinge on the energy levels of the “green coats” who run them, mostly 18-25-year-olds. Fortunately, we had the enthusiasm of Elysia (Lis), and soon, along with two other families, we were shouting: “We’ve got crazy skills like Bear Grylls!” Even cornier chants were to come.
The girls were taught knife handling skills, and soon sticks were being whittled into stakes and notches made. We were also taught how to use our bare hands to turn stinging nettle stems into strong rope. Yes, it’s possible to learn how to make nettle cordage from a Ray Mears YouTube video, but it’s fiddly – having Lis show you in person is better.
“Oh, you’re joking,” said Jill, my wife, as we approached the next activity, with the rain still coming down. The reason: crate-stacking. The objective was to work as a team to see how high you could stack the crates, with two roped-up people atop them. It was, against all odds, a lot of fun. Everyone got involved and pulled together, and ingenious ways of going higher were devised.
“That was really cool. Who knew crate-stacking could be so much fun?” said Isla, our seven-year-old.
The rest of the weekend was a whirlwind of archery, indoor laser games, a decent pair of high zipwires – four more are being built – and a morning of larking around the lake in canoes.
The schedule can occasionally feel relentless but it leaves little room for boredom. “It’s like school. Except fun,” said Gracie, as we hurried from one activity to the next. There was a short singalong on the second night (I knew my kumbaya fears were well-founded) and the kids embarked on a scavenger hunt one evening.
Accommodation ranges from hostel-type dorms and glamping-style pods to the large tents – dubbed adventure lodges – that we stayed in, which are big and comfortable. However, according to other parents, the centre’s chief appeal is that it’s sociable, active, cheap and organised.
Still, there is a list of niggles that school kids would let slide but parents might not. Parts of the site feel neglected and could do with some TLC. Some toilets were blocked. Our lodge’s shower had no hot water, though we were given access to one elsewhere. Organisation wasn’t always brilliant. Archery was under-resourced (three arrows each during an hour, a little, ahem, pointless).
The best bits turned out to be those Gracie and I had feared – the activities that involved playing or collaborating with “other people”, not those focused on individual thrills. “I don’t want to leave. I want to stay,” she said as we packed up.
The trip culminated with us, with a feeling of inevitability, covered in pondweed and bobbing in the lake we’d tried so hard to stay out of when we arrived. As the stackers would say, “It’s crate fun.”
Kingswood offers two-night family adventure weekends, outside of term time, at four of its UK centres. Prices from adult £99, child £79, for an en suite, families.kingswood.co.uk
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