In which I plumb new depths (and meet some fat squirrels)


In the forest, only the squirrels can hear you scream.

And by god, the squirrels in the Sherwood Forest Center Parc are the chunkiest ones I’ve ever seen.  They’re more like hamsters with fluffy long tails, positively porked out on campers’ scraps.

The reason S and I were at a Center Parc observing their wildlife was because his family were having a bit of a reunion, and as there were 16 of us we needed a base.  It’s not a place I’ve been before and not somewhere I’d particularly want to visit again.  It all felt a bit fake – from the snow they were pumping out across the “village square” to the large plastic reindeer grazing in the forest.  Everything had an air of enforced jollity, and I felt that someone was going to pop out from behind a tree screaming at me “Smile!  Have some fun!  We have a subtropical swimming paradise here, for god’s sake!”

The squirrels were great, though.  They had a trick of coming right up to the patio window and looking in at you, beseechingly, as if they’d never had a square meal in their life and were wasting away for the want of a few nuts – or chocolate, or raisins, or perhaps a piece of the fruit cake you’ve just baked?  This begging attitude is of course why they are such chunkers in the first place.  The little Orphan Annie routine wasn’t limited to the squirrels, either – even the ducks were at it.  We pulled open the curtains on Saturday morning and found ten of them clustered by the patio table, quacking away, looking pathetic and hungry.

We had a theory about the wildlife, or to be more accurate, S’ cousin did: the squirrels are employed by Center Parcs and have specific positions that they have to take up during the day, scampering around their allocated patch and looking cute for the guests.  At night they are all herded up into cages and then spend the evening fighting over who has the best spot and bickering about keeping away from each other’s area – “Alvin, I work the strip in Cedar 313 to 400.  Keep your grubby little paws away from there if you know what’s good for you.”  This only served to reinforce our feeling of compulsory cheer; when even the squirrels are in on a conspiracy to Make You Have Fun!, there’s no hope.

There was a highlight to the Center Parc experience though.  Recently it’s been all about the climbing – or more specifically bouldering – and seeing how high I can get my body up somewhere.  This weekend gave us the opportunity to do the complete opposite, and have a go at scuba diving.  I don’t know whether it’s S’ positive influence or whether I’m becoming more adventurous in my old age, but when I read about the course on the website I really, really wanted to have a go.  Dragging along both S and his mother, we turned up the pool at ungodly o’clock (7.10am!) on the Sunday morning.  We swiftly became the instructors’ favourites as we a) turned up the requisite half hour early, b) had eaten breakfast and c) answered “no” to all the medical issues posed.  Although the blindly obvious question – “can you swim?” – was never asked.  I suppose they think that as the point of diving is the ability to sink to the bottom of the pool, the capacity to stay afloat isn’t probably that useful.

I loved it.  Apart from a panicky few minutes where I wasn’t breathing out properly – the stream of bubbles seemed to go on for so long!  No one breathes out that much! – and ended up hyperventilating, and my teeth aching from the pressure of the regulator, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be.  The fact that you are under water, yet can still breathe, is very hard to wrap your head around at first but after a while you just forget about it and concentrate on the amazing feeling of being completely submerged.  Watching everyone swimming around like the front cover of Nirvana’s album had come to life was strangely beautiful, even if we were wearing saggy t-shirts and carrying oxygen tanks.  A dive honeymoon could be on the cards – although hopefully somewhere with more exotic flora and fauna underwater. Exploring the dirt that is creeping up the side of the pool isn’t really on a par with clown fish and coral reefs.

Thinking about it, it’s a shame that the fat squirrels couldn’t put on miniature diving masks and packs and join us down there.  Can you imagine what they’d look like, tiny little tails floating out crazily in the water, swimming through hoops in order to reach more nuts?  Hmm, a subtropical squirrel swimming paradise – I’d pay money to dive in that.


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