“Just imagine,” I said to Zac, my 7-year-old, as I tucked him into bed one cold dark night in October 2020. “Just imagine you could do anything AT ALL during the half term holidays, what would it be?” He thought hard for a few seconds, gazed dreamily at his Spurs stadium poster, and said, “If I could LITERALLY do ANYTHING at ALL, I’d play football…with Billy from the F2*!”
For my part, after months of lockdown, home schooling and never-ending snack production, my dream half term is one spent without any kid-cajoling, dinner cooking or discussions about screen time. And if I’m being REALLY greedy, I’ll throw in long lunches and lie-ins, lovely restaurants, lots of open countryside and the odd hot tub and glass of champagne. Hell, this is a dream scenario: I’ll have a whole bottle. And make it pink, if you please!
I heard about Football Escapes a while ago via a friend with a similarly football-mad son, and have followed the company on Instagram ever since. I love the idea of the kids being trained by famous footballing names, while their parents lounge in the luxury of their five-star surroundings in fabulous locations around the globe.
This half term, determined to do something to counteract the Year of Doom, I decide a spoiler of a family staycation is in order. As luck would have it (luck? In 2020?! Who’d have thought it!), I discover Football Escapes is running a staycation at The Grove, the exact same gorgeous Hertfordshire hotel where I got engaged to the Pink House Husband 15 years ago!
From the moment we arrive it’s clear we’ve signed up to something special. My boys (aged 10 and 7) are kitted out with full Football Escapes personalised strips, complete with rain jackets, shirts with their name and chosen number, shorts and socks, as well as a kit bag to keep everything in. The coaches are super friendly but professional, and the training pitches incredibly well kept. It is a sign of my soccer-mom status that I can now be heard to remark, “ooh, excellent drainage!,” when confronted by a mud-free field.
Football Escapes’ aim is not only for the kids under their tutelage to have loads of fun and meet their heroes, but also to give budding pro footballers a chance to experience what it’s like to train in an academy setting. I’m incredibly impressed by the high level of organisation and ratio of coaches to children; the kids themselves rise to the occasion by listening carefully and getting stuck in to a wide variety of skill sessions and training drills over the three days we are here.
And then of course there are the professional and former pro players themselves. I made the decision not to tell my boys about the famous names that might be there. Partly because I don’t want them to be disappointed if plans have to change – this is the year of plan-changing disappointment after all – and also because I want to see their little faces light up in delight and disbelief when they unexpectedly encounter these stars in real life.
Football Escapes is co-founded by Rio Ferdinand, Bobby Zamora and former Chelsea coach Sam Hubert, so it’s no surprise they field a world-class coaching team, with current and former Premier League players getting involved. However, it DOES come as a surprise to my boys, who know nothing of such things, to see West Ham captain Mark Noble stride out onto the pitch on their first day. Zac is playing in goal and having a particularly good day as Mark arrives; watching him throw himself and his splitting grin in front of various free kicks while Mark cheers his saves from the goal post is a highlight of the year for sure.
The next morning we have another surprise for my lucky kids. Billy Wingrove himself regularly works with Football Escapes, although this half term he’s coaching for the company in Cyprus. Such is the social media star’s generosity, however, that when he heard what big fans my boys were, he recorded them a special video message, which we play to them in our Hertfordshire hotel room. Anyone watching my Instagram stories from our stay will know it’s no exaggeration to say their jaws literally drop. Priceless. I’ve saved this and other best bits of our stay in a Football Escapes ‘highlight’ video on my @pinkhouseliving Instagram bio.
The next day, when household name Joe Cole arrives to join the coaching team, Zac approaches him eagerly with the question, “Are you really Joe Cole?” Yes, replies the former Chelsea player, with a gracious smile. That’s me. “Do you know Billy from the F2?” continues Zac, earnestly. “He sent me and my brother a video message!” Poor Joe; usurped by a YouTuber! But he takes it all in good humour.
Another former footballer on great form is Rio Ferdinand. He spends the whole session getting properly stuck in to coaching and playing with the kids. He’s engaging and generous with his time, leaving the kids glowing from the attention. It’s a joy to watch Rio and Joe play the keepy-uppy version of table tennis – Teq Ball – against each other, with various kids drafted in as their teammates – including mine!
The other pro footballers who coach the kids are Armand Traore (who we find ourselves sat next to at dinner, much to the boys’ excitement), and Marlon Harewood. These guys are equally vivacious and committed to giving the kids the very best of their extensive experience. Proper legends, the lot of them.
During the training sessions, we parents are free to entertain ourselves, with the beautiful grounds, incredible spa and swimming pool and lush lounges of The Grove at our disposal. But such is the entertainment to be found on the pitch, and the delight to be witnessed on our children’s faces, I think it’s fair to say that most of us spend the duration of the sessions standing in the drizzle watching the football. Me included. Who even am I?!
But fear not – I still have plenty of time to indulge in my own half-term fantasies. The lie-in is enabled by our luxurious interconnecting rooms, ensuring that even though the kids wake at 6.30am, they are happy watching the giant telly while we sleep on in our separate room until a more sensible hour.
Long lunches come courtesy of the excellent seasonal fare at winter pop-up Jimmy’s Lodge at The Grove. The mountain-inspired menu includes one of my all-time favourite dishes, a cheese fondue, and the kids announce their burgers to be the ‘best ever’. Special mention to our highly knowledgeable waiter who introduces me to the most delicious version of a Bloody Mary I’ve ever experienced.
Dinners at The Glasshouse fulfil the no-dinner-cooking, lovely-restaurant, pink-champagne-drinking aspects of my dream staycation – and then some! The food is excellent, the service most definitely comes with a smile (even with their masks on, the friendliness and warmth of the staff shines through), and the champagne is an extremely pretty shade of pink.
This was, in fact, the restaurant where my husband had intended to propose 15 years ago, but lost his nerve for popping the question publicly and drank all the wine instead! After dinner on that night in 2005, we went back to our romantic mansion house room where we flopped, fully clothed, on the bed and he managed a slurred, “Will you marry me,” before passing out!
This visit to The Grove I insist he re-enact his proposal in public (and for Instagram) and make him drop to one knee in the beautifully manicured grounds outside the restaurant, with our children as witness. For all I have staged the scenario and coerced him into cooperating, he ends up having fun with it, and it makes our little holiday all the more special.
We drive home through central London – we live in South East London and the journey takes us about 1hr 40 mins – it’s actually slightly quicker to go round the M25 but we choose the scenic city route on the way back. On the way we evaluate our stay. Without hesitation the kids give it 10 out of 10 and dub the experience ‘better than Disneyland’. My freshly affianced husband and I have to agree: these few days were definitely a dream come true for us all.
Thank you for being the highlight of 2020, Football Escapes and The Grove. We will definitely be back!
*For the uninitiated, the F2 are 12million-subscriber YouTube sensation footballing freestylers Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, and my children’s ultimate heroes
We stayed as guests of Football Escapes at The Grove in exchange for honest reviews on here and Instagram (see @pinkhouseliving bio for my Football Escapes highlight). Visit the Football Escapes website for more info on the destinations on offer (the next staycation at The Grove is in February 2021) and what’s included in the experience. For more details on The Grove click here.