We’re up and out early. An hour’s drive east to The Beast. The sky thickens and darkens as we drive, mammatus clouds gathering above us, gloaming, bright white light around ominous globules. Everything feels foreboding, and then the sky opens. Lightning splitting the sci-fi sky, and thunderclaps announcing pouring rain. What the heck have we let ourselves in for?
The Beast is the world’s largest inflatable obstacle course, over 270 metres of bouncing joy, or hell, depending on your fitness, and it’s making one of its first visits to the UK in Kent, at Betteshanger Country Park. The rain shows no sign of abating, so we sit in the car, the windscreen a flashflood, and wait. Nearly an hour later, the sky brightens blue, and we head up the hill to festival flags and hay bales. They look like part of a sweet country fair, but beyond them lies the monster.
He’s a slim, muscular guy with a loudhailer, and he’s roaring GO GO GO and light PT instructor abuse (they love it) at those who are daring to ride The Beast. There is already a substantial queue of lycra-clad people waiting, orderly, excited, ahead of us. These must be the kind of people who get up to do fun runs in the morning. They look alert, ready, and raring to go. Waves of six wait for those in front to disappear from view, and then race to enter a slim hole to climb a slope under a crawl net before plopping down on the other side onto a rain-soaked heavy duty marshmallow. And I mean plopping. The drops are high. We plop like the rain, and bounce like water on the surface of a pond, which it almost is. The slipperiness just adds to the fun. Standing up is a challenge, and falling down in a heap is delightful, for the safety of it (you bounce, obviously) and for the breathers (this is a serious cardio challenge).
It’s Tough Mudder for those who loved being six. How hard can this be, we think, crashing across noughts and crosses and inflatable trees and hillocks, bouncing off them into others, before hopping into boulder-like structures and bouncing off them on to the other side. The answer is, very. The Beast is long. So long it has to be folded round itself four times to fit a field. Imagine thirty really big, bouncy castles all stuck together and you’re getting there. The climb obstacles beat me, but I watch my boyfriend clamber up them before rolling down and somersaulting off the top. I’m not sure he meant to do that but it was impressive.
Whole families bounce and clamber round. People stop and help each other. Beefcakes and kids, knackered mums and gym bunnies, they’re all gunning round, puffing and giggling, relishing each bounce like they’re on the surface of the moon, if that involved them hurling themselves through doughnuts and into giant inflatable spikes.
It takes around half an hour to get round the course, although three minutes is rumoured to be the record. Come the end, my arms are like jelly, my legs feel ruined, and my jeans appear to be attempting to turn themselves into Daisy Dukes. But I am loving it. The freedom of bouncing. The only other time I can recall the opportunity for grown-ups to jump around on this scale is at the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, when Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege toured the UK.
Bouncing is good for the soul. It’s why children skip and jump to school and back. We forget to do it when we’re older. Knees hurt more. Breath comes in bigger jags. But we shouldn’t. We should jump at the opportunity to… jump. It’s euphoric. We survived The Beast. Everyone did. And some even went back for more.