Bit of backstory. Haslemere is a small town, which has expanded over the years to accommodate the growing number of families moving here. Its about an hour from London so still commutable, but far enough away to offer a more rural way of life (or faux rural as my husband likes to call it).
I’ve not lived in Haslemere that long. 3 years actually. But most of that time I have been pregnant or the mother of a small child. Either way I’ve found myself becoming immersed in the parent scene of this small town. I’ve not really had a choice. And I love it. I think I’ve mentioned before how amazing children can be as ice breakers, and how becoming part of this mummy community has been good for me. We share in a way I’ve never experienced before; clothes, advice, experience and information.
So when something new or newsworthy happens to affect our community, well as you can imagine, the jungle drums start to beat. And when I received a shared link on FB a few weeks ago telling me about a new soft play cafe opening in the town I was beside myself and was quick to share the information.
What I saw was this.
And this is what I said about it.
Soft play. Even the name can conjur up images of dirty, bleak industrial units decked out with ball pits and foam slides, all marinated in the smell of frying chips. I can’t prove it (of course) but I swear Oscar got the sickest he’s ever been after a session at one such soft play venue and after conversations with other parents I’m not alone in this concern. So OK I get that kids, particularly older children, don’t care what a place smells like or how dirty the equipment may be or how crap the coffee is. Sometimes they just want to hurl themselves around for a hour. And that’s grand. But I know my friends and I have all said at one time or another, wouldn’t it be nice to have somewhere, we could take the children, they could have a rare old time of it and we could have a relax, without coming away with the gifts of Rotavirus and Eau de Chipfat.
So when I received the link, telling me a new kind of soft play was coming to my local high street. Well. I’m hoping you can imagine just how excited, but cautious I was. Was this really something I was right to get my hopes up about? I shared it myself and started the discussion. Suddenly the buzz was off the computer screen and in the toddler groups and the parks and literally on the streets. The name was whispered in hushed tones, or shouted from the roof tops, eitherway, the local community seems as excited by the Hen House as I am. I had to know more than the sweet but basic holding page would tell me, so I contacted them.
Henrietta Paterson is a local mother of five (yup five children, three under the age of five). As she explained to me she has no background in this sort of thing (in her previous life she was a Venture Capitalist, living in the Far East). When she and her family moved back to the UK and unexpectedly had two more children, she decided not to go back to working in the city. However, as she explained, she wanted to do something. How it came about is as random as all good inspiration should be. On chatting to the staff at Applegarth she discovered that their previous plans to build a soft play had been shelved. “I offered to help them, but it just wasn’t something they were interested anymore” Henri told me “Once I started thinking about it though, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I was sick of having to go all the way to Farnham for soft play. I mean what was there was OK, but I felt it could be so much better”.
And with that particular bee in her bonnet, The Hen House was born. Henri’s real bug bear with traditional soft play is that whilst it might be fun for the children, they really aren’t that much fun for the adults and on this point I have to agree. The vision for The Hen House is to provide somewhere the kids can have a wonderful time, and the parents can relax, knowing the children are in a safe and clean environment.
The idea of safety is really being addressed here. There are two levels of security gate, including an electronic one. All staff are DBS (CRB) checked and those who work with the children are all qualified in childcare in some way or another. The Hen House will also have a rule of washing and sanitizing hands on entry, something you don’t always see at these places.
It’s clear on talking with her that Henri is enthusiastic about the new place and it’s lovely to see someone so fired up about something that will benefit the local community. As she explained to me, when she encountered resistance from the council when applying to change the usage of the building, the local retail community rallied round her. They know that having a facility that encourages people into the town will be good for their businesses too! Add to that the plan to provide a bookable creche facility, leaving parents free to shop in peace for up to TWO hours? Well. How could the council ever refuse?!
Henri very kindly showed me round the building when we met. It’s bigger than it looks from the outside, and although it is still currently full of builders and building equipment, she was able to paint me a really clear picture of what is going to go where. There will be a toddler area for running around and a baby zone as well as the soft play equipment. There is also a separate room to be used for classes such as Toddler Cookery, Little French and the ubiquitous Molly Moo Cow. Henri sees the room as a real resource, as it will also be bookable, along with it’s disco floor for children’s parties.
The bit I liked the sound of best is the cafe. The food provided will all be locally sourced where possible, made fresh on site and be healthy and as tasty as possible. As Henri was at pains to tell me, none of it will be fried! Not only is this music to my ears from a gastronomic point of view, it also means you wont leave stinking of old chip fat. The plan is to provide something for everyone from Paninis to baby purees. And decent coffee! The craziest thing (or the best thing you might argue!), she that is currently in the process of being granted a liquor licence! She plans to sell wine, beer & fizz (no hard stuff), because as she said to me “sometimes you just need a little something” Quite!
So, yes I was as impressed with Henri as I was with the idea of the The Hen House. It was wonderful to meet someone with such drive to make something work. She was also incredibly open to discussion and suggestion, leaving me feeling confident about the ability of the Hen House to become a real community facility, one we can all enjoy and use to it’s full potential. She has asked that anyone with ideas or suggestions email her firstname.lastname@example.org. Although please don’t ask about the parking. Yes you will have to pay to use the “Waitrose” carpark and no she wont be refunding parking.
Something else she was at pains to explain is that there isn’t a set opening day yet. They are currently waiting for variable things to happen (such as a the floor to dry and the equipment to arrive). But it’s likely to be May time and announcements will be made on Facebook or you can sign up for notifications on their website.
This isnt a review, it can’t be. I haven’t let my son loose on the equipment and been able to sit back and enjoy or had to run after him. Haven’t seen whether he likes it or finds it claustrophobic (like he does at the Herons). Haven’t left him with the creche and been able to enjoy a quiet lunch with my husband (Ben’s first reaction when he saw the webpage). Haven’t tasted the food and decided whether this is value for my hard earnt buck. I can’t tell you if it’s ever so ever so good yet.
But I can’t wait to find out.
The Hen House opened in Haslemere in April 2014. I’ve since written an update piece on my thoughts and impressions of the place, which you can find at The Hen House – an update.