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The perfect escape for lockdown-weary families

It’s a novel feeling this – wobbling along a perilously narrow plank, suspended 40ft above the ground, yet feeling safer than those clambering about at ground level in the playground far beneath me. Then again, four months into the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve all acclimatised to a topsy-turvy world. 

This, however, is a big day. July 4, Independence Day not only in America but this year, in many parts of the UK too. The day in which, after an eternity of staring at our own four walls and immediate family, we are allowed into pubs, restaurants and attractions.

I could be spending the day sinking several glasses of sauvignon in a beer garden. But no. My editor has spoken. And I am to spend the day hanging high above the civilised world, with just a thin metal rope between me and the end of days.

As a means of celebrating the resumption of life, this sounds counterintuitive at best to me. But then I have never before experienced Go Ape!, the chain of 34 tree-top high ropes courses dotted across the UK and founded by husband and wife team Tristram and Rebecca Mayhew in 2002. In fact, it turns out, going to one of their sites may be among the more sensible ways to re-engage with the world.

“We’re lucky that we get to work in a beautiful, rejuvenating and uplifting natural environment which the government has confirmed presents the lowest transmission risk possible,” explains Rebecca. Even in normal times, only one person is allowed on any ladder, crossing or zip wire at a time, and only three on the wooden platforms that lead up to them.

In its Battersea Park site, it is immediately obvious that the air is both cleaner and clearer of coughs and sneezes up the treetop course of platforms, rope bridges and zip wires than in the public playground that sits immediately beneath it which, having also reopened this very day, is currently swarming with thankful families.

Go Ape! has also spent the last few months busily introducing further safety provisions. “We have a simple seven-point plan which follows the principal guidance to maintain social distancing, regular hand washing and frequent cleaning of key equipment,” says Rebecca. “For our customers, this means smart, eco-friendly hand washing stations and sanitizer, controlled session sizes and extra spacing between groups. It’s important that people can see our instructors faces for good communication but when an instructor needs to help fit a harness she or he will wear a clear visor.”

I wonder if this will mean less play and more policing, with lots of forbidding barricades to dampen the fun. The main appeal of Go Ape! is surely to stuck get into nature, with as few barriers as possible between you and the trees. In practice, however, the measures are so unobtrusive they are almost unobservable. Fewer people are now admitted in each timeslot, but while this means you’d wise to book ahead it also means we never end up queuing in the treetops.

Instead, my husband, nine-year-old, six-year-old are I are quickly shepherded into a personal safety briefing by cheery staff. Yes, they’re wearing visors, but other safety measures are pleasingly Hobbit-esque. At strategic locations, water and soap are dispensed via a brilliantly efficient, low-tech contraption that involves stepping on a rough plank of wood, thus tipping a canister into holes have been punched by hand.

We’re encouraged to help the children into the harnesses ourselves, but the staff still conduct a reassuringly thorough check of our efforts. And then, before I can say “actually I think I’ll just watch from down here”, we’re up, up and away, climbing the wooden platforms through the park’s monumental trees. 

First impression? Irritation. The children gallop across wobbly bridges and swings like monkeys, laughing at me while I inch painfully, hesitantly, and (I’ll admit) slightly sweatily along the course. Finally, we arrive at the zip wire. After months of bouncing off the walls of our home and trudging the same old streets in our immediate neighbourhood, the kids leap with abandon off a platform and into the air, hurtling cathartically across the leafy canopy. 

When my turn comes I drag myself towards the precipice. This is not for me. I am not a thrill seeker. I am a sauvignon and sofa seeker. But I can also see, with prophetic clarity, that if I do not jump, this will turn into one of those stories that is told every Christmas for the next four decades. I would rather die now than suffer that slow and painful torture. So I close my eyes, mutter a caustic curse, and jump. And it is… fantastic. 

All the cobwebs of the last few months are blown at once from the grubby recesses of my mind. As soon as I reconnect with solid ground, I want to do it again and again. Sadly, our time is up. But the best bit? The Putt in the Park café at the adjacent mini-golf site has a license. It turns out I can have my thrill-seeking sauvignon and drink it.

See goape.co.uk

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