What?: Designed by Turner prize-nominated artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, this three-storey art-installation-cum-climbing-frame is not your average soft-play. Inspired by and named after the Dagenham Idol, a Neolithic figure discovered nearby in 1922, this fully functional sculpture feels, it has to be said, a bit out of place, taking permanent residence in a corner of a run-of-the-mill leisure centre in Barking.
Fans of the jolly jungle critters and multicoloured plastic featured in every other soft-play centre you’ve ever been to will be disappointed, as they have been dismissed in favour of a monochrome scheme and a vaguely sinister wall collage featuring Egyptian totems and 1950s sci-fi cyborgs. Even the structure itself takes the form of a towering robot, topped with an accessible head with window-eyes to peer out of.
The result, however, far from freaky and daunting, is fun and refreshing. Bab was too little for the main play area – a labyrinthine network of mesh climbing walls, steps, slides and drop-holes – but was happy enough in the black-and-white ball pool. She also loved the smaller toddler slide, despite me having to take her down it on my knee after our attempt at launching her down by herself resulted in head injury. We are dreadful parents.
Where?: Abbey Leisure Centre is a bleak 10-minute walk from Barking station (Hammersmith & City, Ginger, mainline).
Facilities: Adjoining toilet with baby changing; fairly basic cafe serving snacks, hot food and Costa coffee; step-free access.
Best Bits: The Idol has absolutely terrible online reviews and I can’t for the life of me work out why. It’s super clean – and believe me, I can tell when a soft-play area is dirty. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken Bab home with the contents of another child’s lunchbox stuck to her socks and filth so stubbornly caked onto the knees of her leggings it literally never comes out, no matter how many times I plaster them with Vanish. It wasn’t horribly busy, despite it being a weekend and the fact that a kids’ party was happening at the same time. We got a table to ourselves, Bab Dad got a decent cup of coffee and Bab had a proper laugh. What more can you ask for?
Worst Bits: It’s in Barking, which is a shithole. The staff, while pleasant enough, were so laid back they might as well have been asleep. There was a sign telling customers to ‘ring the bell’ because ‘we are in the kitchen’ and no one was making even the vaguest attempt at enforcing any of the rules displayed on the wall, like removing your shoes or not taking photos – not that I was bothered about the latter since I needed photos anyway. We had to knock on the door to get someone’s attention so that we could actually leave. To be honest we could probably have sparked up a joint in the ball pool and no one would have noticed.
Cost: £1.80 for under-1s, £3.90 for 1-3s and £4.90 for over-3s, with one accompanying adult included free and additional adults an extra £1.80. The woman behind the till assumed Bab was under one, despite her having enough teeth to re-key a baby grand piano, and we didn’t challenge her. All in all a pretty cheap day out.
Would We Come Back?: I could maybe deal with it being in Barking if we lived slightly closer, but it’s a mission and the high street you have to navigate to get there is grim. I really rate the soft play itself though.
Bab plays at The Idol, Abbey Leisure Centre, Barking