By Joan Q. Rowing-Boat
If you haven’t heard of Caversham Lakes, you might be mistaken in thinking that it’s an upscale retirement home in the heart of Reading’s notoriously nouveau riche northern neighbourhood. It is not, however, Berkshire’s poncier section of God’s waiting room but an aqua park full of fun for all the family. With SUP (stand-up paddle) boarding, open water swimming, a beach bar, family beach and now additional lakeside campsite – it’s a great requisition of old space.
As something of a regular at the lakes, I was rather eager to hear about their new “Private Island Experience”. Boasting a child-free zone, sun loungers with stunning views, food and drinks delivered directly to your seat and other threats of hedonistic luxury – £50 for a VIP experience felt like a bit of a good deal. So, naturally, I indulged. It was my birthday, after all.
Along with two friends, we booked our tickets and set about preparing for a day of lounging by the lakes, enjoying the absence of snot-ridden ankle biters and indulging in the best luxury that Caversham Lakes could offer – namely pizza and sunloungers.
Our bookings got off to a bit of a bumpy start. The day before our planned day in the sun, I received a phone call to say that the private island was going to remain closed because of poor weather, and would the party wish to re-book? However they did not ring the other guests attached to the booking. Meaning that I – who had just walked into a care home two hours up the road – was now manically trying to contact guests 2, 3, and 4 to coordinate whilst spoon feeding soggy biscuits to my terminally ill mother. Naturally, once everyone had agreed to rearrange, Caversham Lakes were impossible to contact.
All four tickets were eventually re-booked, but the new booking didn’t mention the date. Given the runaround that we’d had all day already trying to get SOMEONE to call us and confirm whether it was actually cancelled, and the customer rep telling the other guests she hadn’t said the island was closed at all, all four guests were now a bit over it all.
It wasn’t confirmed until a phone call to one of the party at half past ten that night to say that we had been rebooked, but if we still wanted to show up the following morning we could. All a bit of a saga for a simple confirmation of the new date.
Undeterred, guests 1,2, and 3 were still ready and raring to go. Guest 4 couldn’t attend because they were now double booked for a COVID jab. Little known to us, Guest 4 was going to have a much better day.
So Private Island Experience attempt number two rolls around, and it only went downhill from there. To compare and contrast The Expectation Vs. The Reality, I will break down the day as advertised with the day in actuality. I think it’s the only way that I can actually formulate an explanation that comes close to the flagrant abuse of false advertising…
“Our private island will give you the ultimate luxury experience from start to finish. As you arrive at the lake you will be guided to our designated priority parking, exclusive to our private island guests.”
By guided they mean that some jauntily-placed boards will send you in the vague direction of reserved spaces. However there’s no way of checking if guests parked here are private island guests. Still, if you get there early enough then you can nab a spot and not have to hoof it through the free car park like the other peasants. Or like me – when the staff are using all the reserved spaces to unload stock.
“Bypass the queues at reception and proceed to the private island check-in desk where you will be greeted by one of our hosts.”
There was no private island check-in desk. I had to queue at reception where I was told “Just walk down, they’ll be with you soon”.
“Once you cross the bridge onto the island you will receive a complimentary beverage to enjoy on your walk to find the most amazing views.”
Yeah. Not so much.
Arriving at the bridge, there’s no one there to check that you’re a VIP. Anyone can walk in and out as they please, and there was no complimentary drink waiting for you to sip as you ambled down to the private beach. The only greeting was the grumbling of a generator as it happily belched away. Worse still was the walk itself. Large patches of an old astroturf pitch complete with pitch markings hide all manner of bumpy sins on the walkway. It’s a mobility nightmare, and hinted at the slapdash attempt at creating an adequate venue with minimal expense and maximum haste. Had we needed to find the right spot for a free kick, however, there were plenty of options for that.
As for the complimentary beverage, I had been sitting on my sun lounger for 40 minutes before anyone noticed I had even arrived. Which either means they weren’t paying attention or I have a potential career as a spy ahead of me. It wasn’t until 20 minutes after the second party member arrived that anyone thought to check in with us. We were both presented with a ‘glass’ of prosecco in a plastic flute and an apology for the delay, and the promise that we would be checked on regularly throughout the day in case there was anything we wanted.
Unfortunately neither of us drink alcohol, and at no point had we been asked if we wanted an alternative refreshment as was advertised. That was fine though, because the moment there was a gust of wind the plastic flutes took off in the wind and solved the prosecco problem for us. Thanks, Mother Nature.
“You will have a reserved sun lounger for the day and use of a private beach and swim area.”
Nothing was reserved. With the large volume of ‘exclusive’ sun-loungers to choose from, it wasn’t so much of an issue. Finding a lounger that didn’t boast a healthy decoration of goose shit, however… Not so much fun. I’d be interested to know what Caversham Lakes define as their ‘exclusive’ capacity, because the only thing stopping people from booking is apparently the cost. The loungers themselves are nice enough, though it felt a bit of a stretch to define the white plastic tables between the loungers as luxurious.
As for the private swim area – a small portion of the lake was marked off with buoys, but throughout the day SUP boarders were regularly cutting through the space. And whilst the joy of watching them get their boards tangled provided some much needed schadenfreude, it was a little bit annoying to think we’d paid so much to still be sharing a majority of the space with regular punters. There was minimal effort to keep the space to VIPs only, and the space itself wasn’t exactly extensive.
“With our island team of staff at your disposal”
The staff that we dealt with on the day were all very kind. Genuinely. However not a single one of them had a clue what was going on. Any question asked was met with blank stares, confusion, or mixed messages. I have a sneaking suspicion that no one had been briefed on the experience being advertised, and they were most definitely not at our disposal. When asked if lake vouchers could be used to purchase food and drinks it took twenty minutes for someone to scrounge up an answer.
“Whether you want food or drinks from one of our concessions just order by scanning our QR codes straight from your sun lounger – our team will have it all ready for you so you can sit back and relax.”
Upon arrival it became alarmingly obvious that there were no QR codes. After the 40 minute wait for anyone to notice that we had arrived, we were told “we’ve not had time to put the QR codes out on all the chairs yet, but there are some up by the bar”. The bar that we’ve paid not to have to walk to. Wonderful. We were told that they’d bring a menu soon, and would walk around the guests throughout the day to check in and make sure we didn’t want to order more drinks or food. This did not happen. Worse still, it later turned out that the QR codes didn’t work anyway, so we always would have had to have gone to the bar to order. Fine for some, but as a disabled individual one of the BIG swings for my booking was knowing I wouldn’t have to hobble across the lawn to go back and forth to the bar. In the end I made the trip once, and then refused to spend any more money.
“Treat yourself to a bit of paradise on our very own private island. This is a truly exclusive area in the Thames Valley with a south facing beach and views of Jurassic Island and unspoilt natural habitat.” – stunning views of the lake, fantastic views of the industrial cranes of Reading.
The island did boast a private inflatable for guest use, however upon arrival it was so caked in goose shit that it took a staff member close to two hours to clean. Whilst this provided some much needed entertainment for the morning, it meant that you couldn’t utilise the swim area until early afternoon meaning no swimming until an hour after eating lunch. The private beach was also coated in a healthy amount of duck detritus, and unlike the swimming lakes there wasn’t a gentle incline for getting in and out of the lake. It’s a lake, you can expect a bit of poo. But when it made up the majority of the ‘luxury’ beach sand, it was a wee bit of a piss take.
Better still – there was no lifeguard on duty on the island which led to a bit of staff panic when they realised that guests were swimming unsupervised. A staff member was rushed down to the island to supervise, but after a brief discussion they revealed that they were not a trained lifeguard. If anything had happened they would radio it into the lifeguard at the other end of the lakes and wait for them to arrive. Fantastic. Good thing I’m a strong swimmer.
Oh, and did I mention the toilets – or lack thereof? Naturally the VIP experience comes complete with… two Portaloos. Because nothing says luxury like battling with a swimsuit in the confines of a plastic sewage-filled oven on a hot summer’s day.
They had artfully placed some trellis and fake flowers on the floor next to them in an attempt to add some class, however they hadn’t actually installed them: there were just lazily resting to the side like some afterthought. There were no options for disabled toilet users either. In fact there was very little consideration for disabled guests in general.
Here’s a tl;dr of all that is advertised for the day:
- Adults only area (18 years & over) – this was true apart from the staff. They were all very young.
- Limited availability for an exclusive experience – not so true. It’s a venue big enough for outdoor events. By limited it means ‘limited for anyone who’s stupid enough to pay £50 to sit on a sun lounger’
- Priority parking. ‘A few spaces near the entrance’
- Express check in to skip the queues. – non existent.
- Glass of Prosecco or refreshment on arrival. – it’s prosecco. You have no other choice. And it’s not on arrival. It’s when they bloody well think you’ve earned it.
- Reserved sun lounger all day. – pick a sunlounger, any sunlounger. Try to get one without free bird shit.
- Access to private beach & swim area. -paddle boarders will still cut through your private swim area. We can’t stop them.
- Private inflatables to enjoy in the water. – Caked in shit, not very exiting.
- Discounted stand up paddle boarding. – we already spent £50, we weren’t spending more.
- Private Island Bar. – Henry did very well at telling the people who weren’t VIP’s that this was a VIP bar. Getting them to leave, however, was a bit trickier.
- Table service from your sun lounger. – walk to the bar like the peasant you are.
- South facing island & unbeatable views. To be fair, Reading skyline aside, it was a nice view.
Had we received all of the above as advertised – it would have been a good day. Staff were kind (when you could find them), but given the reality of the day (and the fact that we all left feeling miserable at 3) I would have felt disappointed to have spent anything over £15 for the day that I received. The only plus side was the lack of children, but I could have just filled a paddling pool in my back garden for half the price and twice the luxury.
I wouldn’t recommend wasting your money until Caversham Lakes put in some serious work and ensure that they’re able to offer what they’re advertising.
[For reference 2 of the 3 guests have requested and received refunds from Caversham Lakes. The third guest was left too depressed and despondent by the whole situation, and would rather eat glass than have to deal with the customer service rep in charge of the island again.]