In 1993, Karen Thomas was pregnant with her first child. She joined a local antenatal class at her doctor’s surgery in Yateley, Hampshire to help her get ready, and over the months she and the other first-time mothers-to-be bonded over their shared excitement and nerves.
Healthy, happy babies were born all round, and the new mums all attended the same postnatal group. “After a few weeks,” Karen explains, “we started to take it in turns to host lunch once the class had finished. We continued to meet up until they went to school.” Once a week they could swap stories about first smiles and feeding schedules, and enjoy some much-needed adult company. “Our friendship became like a mini support network.”
Some years later, they each had second children around the same time, and supported each other once again. When the little ones started school, life got busier and it was tough to find the time to catch up, while the regular Friday evenings slowly but surely slipped off the calendar.
Precious family time
When her eldest boy was three-and-a-half and her youngest was 18 months, Karen received a bonus from work. “What with work and two children under four, I decided to spend it on a family holiday for some quality time together.”
Karen chose Center Parcs Longleat Forest – it was her family’s first trip and they had a wonderful time relaxing in their lodge and trying out activities, enjoying the peace and tranquillity that comes with a forest holiday. They went back to Longleat Forest the following year, this time taking Karen’s sister and her family with them.
Meanwhile, as the children grew up and grew out of trainers, school uniforms and bikes, the group from the antenatal class stayed close. It was at one of their now not-so-regular evenings together in 2003 when it suddenly occurred to one of the ladies, “We’ve been friends for ten years this year!”
Karen said, “Well why don’t we do something special to celebrate?” Having enjoyed so many family short breaks there, she suggested a visit for the whole group at Center Parcs. Only one of the other women had ever been, but listening to their stories about the activities, Aqua Sana spa and the peacefulness, they were quickly convinced.
So arrangements were made, bags were packed, husbands were left in charge of the ten-year-olds (and assorted younger siblings), and the women set off to Longleat Forest. “We all live in Hampshire,” explains Karen, “so it’s only an hour’s drive away. Unless you get stuck at Stonehenge, which we always do…”
A break for mums
There are up to 200 activities on offer at Center Parcs, but that didn’t phase these ladies. Lorraine, the group’s designated ‘Organised One’, printed off a spreadsheet detailing which activities they would do and when, and stuck it up in their lodge.
They had such a fantastic weekend, enjoying their time catching up and unwinding away from the stresses of everyday life, that the women came back year after year to Center Parcs. The babies that brought them all together are now grown up – Karen’s sons are 18 and 20 and have lives of their own. But even though the women can’t meet up every week like they used to, they still make time each year to drive over to Longleat Forest for a long weekend filled with good food, good friends and good fun.
But just because it’s a girls’ weekend away, don’t think it’s all spa treatments and long lunches for this group. Between them, they’ve tried dozens of activities over the years, including abseiling, High Ropes and even a trip on the Segways!
“It’s great that we can all break off and do different things,” explains Karen. “Two of us have even done the Gladiator Challenge with the leap of faith in the middle!” For the uninitiated, the leap of faith is an adrenaline-charged, knee-trembling jump from a small platform high in the trees to grab onto a bar suspended out in front of you – not for the fainthearted. “One of the ladies shook all the way up! But I think it’s great that there are activities at Center Parcs that test you and can put you outside your comfort zone, and you feel on top of the world when you complete them.”
“We’ve also tried Laser Clay together,” says Karen. “I was useless. I must have hit about two targets the whole time. But the instructor was lovely so I didn’t feel too bad, and it was great fun!”
Keep coming back
Karen has also kept the Center Parcs tradition alive with her own family, coming back regularly since that first trip with a toddler and a baby in 1997.
“In 2013 I turned 50, and with my sons now being young adults with busy lives of their own, what I really wanted was a family weekend away where we could all spend time together. I didn’t mind where so I gave them the choice. They have so many memories of Center Parcs holidays over the years since they were tiny that they chose to go back to Longleat Forest!”
Karen’s sons bought her a rather unconventional birthday present – a Quadbiking session. “I was terrified. I wanted to go on the back, but they said I had to be up front. I was so nervous but it was exhilarating – in fact, I would say that was my favourite Center Parcs activity ever.”
The Thomas family will be back at Longleat Forest in June, spreading the Center Parcs family even wider by bringing the boys’ girlfriends along. Meanwhile, 22 years after a group of strangers met at an antenatal class in 1993, the ladies will be back in September, and they’ve got their eyes on that leap of faith once more…