The woman behind the desk looks dishevelled and as I hand over my £3.95 she asks me: “Have you ever been here before?” She smiles an “I thought so” kind of smile and I’m buzzed through the secure door into a brightly lit oblivion.

Soft play centres are the answer to every parent’s wet day nightmare. The children will be entertained, it’s safe and you can have a cup of coffee and relax. It’s no wonder then that the soft play market has been increasing exponentially in recent years, and despite some high-profile collapses (Monkey King in 2011) business appears to be booming.

We walk through the doors and are greeted by the stench of unchanged baby and a wall of sound to rival any Phil Spector production. My two-year-old child clings to me and my first instinct is to run.

We’d set off early, along with the rest of the population of Lancashire, determined to beat the rush. I should have realised from the overfull carpark what I was letting myself in for. The place is busy – and by busy, I mean children-crawling-all-over-you busy. Some of them look like they’ve been here for years.

Soft play used to mean a ball pit at Carpet World; now it’s almost impossible to live in an area without a soft play centre. The first one opened in the UK around 15 years ago and there are now more than 700 independent operators (and rising) in the UK. These ‘new operators’ are usually located on large industrial sites, large enough to house huge climbing frames that often encompass football pitches, trampolines and Go Karting tracks.

A group of mean-looking nine-year-olds have taken over the baby area and are slinging soft blocks at each other with venom. I look around for their parents hoping that they’ll step in, perhaps. Five minutes later I’m still looking. My child, meanwhile, has overcome his initial anxiety and is headed for a rope ladder that was last seen on the Krypton Factor. I foolishly try to follow but it’s hot and I’m wearing too many clothes. I can just about make out my child’s bottom as he expertly mounts an upside-down staircase. I’m trapped in a small hole and little hands are trying to pull me out.

Looking around at the parents’ glum faces it’s hard to understand why we are here, but gone are the days when it was acceptable to place your child in front of a screen on a wet day, and soft play centres do allow children to engage in energetic free play. Add to that parental fears of stranger danger and stabbings, and all that shiny padded vinyl starts to look pretty attractive.

My two-year-old has made his way to the top of the highest slide. I pull him onto my lap and I have to say, he actually seems to be enjoying himself. I’ve become inured to the noise and smell and as we glide pleasantly down the slide onto the crash mats below, I realise that I’d forgotten just how much fun slides can be.