Fake snow and faux fun

Observations on Lapland UK

Hidden among the pine trees of Bedgebury Forest, on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells, a new land has been created. Its inhabitants are Sami herdsmen, reindeer, huskies and strange chirpy people who wear pointed hats and pointed shoes with bells on the toes. One has a long white beard. They live in log cabins, carve rocking horses and make gingerbread in front of crowds of small children. In this floodlit land, it always snows. For this is Lapland UK.

Why fly to Finland when you can go to a cheaper Lapland off the A21? Instead of leaving your carbon footprint on the planet, you can leave a footprint in the foamy fake flakes that spew out from the snow machine in Bedgebury Forest.

Mike Battle, a former stockbroker and father-of-four who conceived and built Lapland UK, admits that the environmental issue just gave him a "mandate" for a plan he had long fostered. Every year, he says, "My family were trying to find a bit of Christmas magic. We'd hear a rumour that a garden centre a couple of hours away had a reindeer and we'd try to find it. That was the kind of thing we were looking for - good old-fashioned charm and enchantment."

Faux worlds aren't like Disneyland - a frothy creation of pink turrets inhabited by characters with oversized heads which never pretends to be anything but fantasy. In faux worlds, fakery is everywhere but "fake" is a dirty word. At Kent's other faux world, Dickens World, the emphasis is on "authenticity", aiming to provide "a factual account of Charles Dickens's works and the world in which he lived".

This includes costumed staff, all ragged up, ringing bells and shouting loudly in over-slurred voices that suggest they spent too long at Saturday drama classes as children. The lighting is kept very low, so we stumble along the uneven cobbled surfaces paving the hangar floor and totter up the rickety staircases. Rows of dirtied-up but, nevertheless, spotlessly scrubbed wooden Victorian shops sell sweets and souvenirs. (Tucked among the "authentic" Dickensian attractions is a white-knuckle boat ride called Great Expectations.) It is promised that we will "literally step into Dickensian England" and be "immersed in the streets, smells and sounds of the early 19th century", even though we're in a hangar-style building attached to a new shopping centre just outside Chatham, next door to Marks & Spencer.

Faux worlds are always cleaner, happier and more ordered places than the gritty, flawed world we actually inhabit. In faux worlds, everything is predictable. It's risk- and surprise-free, so we can travel without anxiety. At Lapland UK, it will snow every day, but never too heavily. The snow will never settle and turn to slush. And because everything in a faux world is fake, it can never perish and decay.

Lapland UK's wooden cabins will not rot; mould will never grow. Everything will always look brand new. All the staff, whether Sami herdsmen in brightly embroidered felt costumes or elves in pointed hats, are trained to be cheerful. The elves' mantra is pinned on the wall of the log cabin toyshop: "Always be helpful,/Kind and polite,/Work with a smile,/ Right into the night."

Unfortunately, by the time we had negotiated the A21's rush-hour traffic and reached this enchanted kingdom at eight in the evening, the elves - teenagers from Tunbridge Wells - had had enough of being Santa's little helpers. They were disputing whose turn it was to go on tea break. "Two elves arguing!" declared my six-year-old, as if it were a new line to replace the turtle doves.

Undeterred by elfish rebellion, Battle is now looking for other forests where he can create more frosty faux worlds. It seems we can't get enough of travelling without going anywhere.

I have been told not to bother to go to South Africa - Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth is exactly like the waterfront in Cape Town. And staying in a log cabin in the Yorkshire woods is no different from camping in British Columbia. At Ski Dubai, an artificial ski slope in the desert where salopettes and ski goggles are de rigueur, you can sip hot chocolate and eat fondue at the Avalanche Cafe, a balconied chalet, to keep you warm in the fake freezing temperatures.

Lapland UK has proved so popular that you can't even ask Santa for a ticket for Christmas; it's completely sold out for the season. I am not meant to reveal that there's more than one Father Christmas at Lapland UK, but the two now there are so overworked that Battle is advertising for more "men with beards".

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007