Goodnight, Campers!

My stats tell me that the majority of my readers – hello! – ain’t from round these parts. More specifically, you are mostly American, with a fair dollop of Australian and western European, and … how can I explain Butlins – as quintessentially English a phenomenon as cream teas or a weather fixation – to an overseas audience? I was thinking about this last week, before I drove to BOGNOR, baby! for the MADS awards, which Butlins sponsored. There were a number of adjectives that were clamouring for their rightful inclusion in my mental picture of this near-75 year-old British Institution, foremost, Vulgar, Tawdry and God-sodding-Awful.

But no sooner had I had a sneer – and it was a good sneer, with condescension, snobbery and arrogance  – than I wondered if I should actually wrench my head out of my bum, where I might actually have it firmly stuck – not least on the basis that I probably couldn’t afford a Butlins holiday these days, which I felt rather invalidated my destination brand conceit.

These are dark and murky Anglo Saxon seawaters for a foreigner to swim, I appreciate, but stick with me. You’ll understand the Great British Psyche* rather better by the end.

It was easy, not so long ago, to be supercilious about Butlins, but I think that time may now be past. In 1936, Billy Butlin, observing the dyed-in-wool bloody-mindedness of the average Guesthouse landlady (Bed & Breakfast accommodation and their proprietors are another British Institution, conjuring up a set of [only partly outdated] images to the average British middle-classer. Interesting segue, but I think we must say no to it.) set up his first holiday camp near Skegness (yet another British Institution, conjuring up a… look, there’s some stuff you’ll just have to get your head round quick, ok? Or we’ll be stuck in parentheses all night. There are a number of traditional family coastal holiday destinations in the UK, and Skegness is one of  a group in which I mentally include Minehead, Clacton, Blackpool, Eastbourne, Weston Super Mare… and Bognor Regis. Think: sea, sand, biting winds, piers, towers, knotted handkerchieves as hats, ballrooms, rolled-up trousers, beachballs, and driving rain, and you’ll be half-way home.) and… I’ve lost Billy in all the bracketing. Start again.

In fact, I am going to borrow a paragraph from the Seaside History site, or we’ll never get as far as the MADS before Christmas.

‘The golden age of the holiday camp was in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. After the War there was a great rush to the coast. Many people had not had a holiday for years and could not wait to get away. The holiday camp provided what they were looking for. Prices were reasonable, food was plentiful – for the time – and there was plenty to do, even when it was raining. The holiday camp sector expanded rapidly in the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties. Many camps used by the forces in the War quickly became holiday camps. Many holiday camps had, in fact, been taken over for military use and once again opened their doors to holiday makers. In some cases, the campers moved in almost as the soldiers marched out!’

My mother has black & white pictures of herself as a child at Butlins in the late 1950s, as a good many people her age do. It was where you went if you were upper working/lower middle class and could afford a holiday. It was popular with parents, as they all cheerfully left their kids in bed in the army-style rows of chalets in the evening (the thin walls of which made it easy for the patrolling Redcoats – of which, more anon – to overhear any Out Of Bed children) while they enjoyed the evening Entertainment in the main pavilion. You did that sort of thing with your children back then.

The chalets generally only had cold running water. Competitions such as ‘Knobbliest Knees’ and ‘Most Glamorous Granny’ were legendary. You were heavily encouraged to Have Fun and Take Part, and, by and large, you did as you were told, because there was a constantly grinning and more-than-slightly manic Entertainer in a scarlet coat yelling jolly hockey sticks in your lughole from morning til night. The Butlins Redcoats, and the entire holiday camp genre, were parodied in a sitcom called Hi-de-Hi, which I think you need a quick clip of

and the end credits of the show are actual vintage footage: I particularly like the shots of the spaghetti-eating contest underway. (You will ideally need a migraine-like blind spot to obliterate the awfulness in the centre of the screen to begin with.)

And then came the 1960s and 70s and cheap overseas holidays to that rare British migrant: hot sunshine. The camps began to decline, and some judicious late 1980s rebranding wasn’t successful. And then, something strange happened, and in 2000 the Butlins brand was re-launched.

I do understand branding, in as much as anyone outside a career in marketing can. I work in an industry where brand identity is absolutely fundamental, and I do not understand why Butlins want to be Butlins. I am absolutely their target demographic – our child has turned us from travellers into holiday-makers, for sure –  and yet the shades of knock-kneed, pasta-gobbling be-handker-hatted fathers, long-fringed children excavating primeval sandpits, and demure bikini parades are still firmly occupying the box in my head entitled Butlins, and I can’t shake them off, simply because of those two innocent syllables. But. Lins. So easy just to change the name! Call it Haven Holidays, or something, and I’d probably be itching to go! Oh, wait…

Of course, there is a glimmer of a possibility of an outside chance that modifying this exact sort of preconception might have been what prompted Butlins to sponsor an award that was presumably designed to garner some positive coverage among young families of its new image, facilities, and accommodation.

So, do you understand a little better now why I approached Bognor with trepidation on more than one level?



I shall tell you tomorrow** what happened.

* I fear that an explanation of Spotted Dick is beyond me, however. Nothing here can give an insight into that particular British Peculiarity.

**I have a given value of ‘tomorrow’, and it is a complex equation involving village fetes, work, housework, agriculture, and Being 3 And Bouncy. Sorry.

13 Responses

  1. We have such things here in the US too (I don’t mean family holiday resorts, but family holiday resorts that conjure images of the 1950s). First and foremost, I would say, would be the locale in which Dirty Dancing is set (the Poconos?). For me, it’s Wisconsin Dells (,_Wisconsin), but that’s only because everyone I knew went there in the summer (including, I think, my dad and his family in the 1930s). I’m guessing in 50 years, it will be Disney World.

    Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story – I hope tomorrow comes soon. (Having an almost 4 year old, I spend much of my time explaining time, and we can never quite get the concept down.)

  2. I too went with very preconceived ideas!

  3. I did not grow up on this island. Butlins confuses the everlovin’ out of me. On the other hand, I used to go to a family camping festival every year and spend a fortnight up to my oxters in mud, wasps, sun-lotion and hippies. It’s the being TOLD to have fun, indeed, paying to be told to have fun, and where and how to have this fun, that skeeves me out. At least with my hippies they more or less elft you to it as long as you weren’t actually bleeding or setting fire to someone else’s tent…

    I await ‘tomorrow’ with great interest. In fact, I am following you about, staring hard and insistently at you, and whimpering like a labrador who wants your bacon.

  4. The idea of enforced sociability fills me with horror. Ditto my parents so I have never been on one of these holidays. The nearest I got to it was a Sunsail holiday where you were expected to bond with other sailing types in the bar which was just about bearable but only just. I’m raging snob I’m afraid.

    Looking forward to tomorrow.

  5. I just re-read a Noel Streatfield novel in which they were fed “spotted dog”. Not sure if it’s a euphemism for the sake of the kids, or a genuine alternative name.

  6. Our Butlins – allegedly a veritable Heaven on Earth in the 1950’s when my mother used to go, has morphed into Mosney, a refugee centre.
    Sign of the times?

    Awaiting MADS news from Bognor. Standing by…

  7. My husband’s family used to faithfully attend a family resort in the Muskokas (north of Toronto). It was a family tradition for greater than 60 years until they shut it down 6 or so years ago. It had some forced socialization (mealtimes, some group activities).

    I quite enjoyed it. Then again, i was sufficiently lower class in upbringing that we never had holiday time. My childhood summers were spent working in cornfields, picking beans, or taking care of my family’s house.

    Waiting to hear the big story on MADS…

  8. I am confused, yet delighted. More rides on the Hairy Farmer Wife Bus of Incomprehensible Anglicisms, please!

  9. I’m happy to report that Hi-de-Hi played on New Zealand tv. Also I was over in London in 1987 staying with my sister (who still lives there). She listed some of the famous people she’d spotted – Diana Rigg, Judi DeEnch and Michael Williams … – getting me hopeful. The only person I passed was Ruth Maddoc!

    It was in a tunnel at aBank Tube station and we did exchange looks and huge smiles at the incredibly bad buskers mangling trumpet and guitar playing right beside a very large “No Busking” sign. Ruth looked stunning.

    So, there is one person over in the Antipodes who can follow what you’re writing about. I send care and huggles to you from Wellington,

    Michelle and my daft cat, Zebby

  10. Never heard of Butlins but my Granny used to make Spotted Dick 🙂

  11. Have also read enough English magazines and books in my lifetime to fully understand the Butlin’s phenomenon. Well, as much as an Australian for whom the sea means sand and surf, can understand such a wacky concept of enforced holiday fun, fun, fun.

    And I have both eaten and made Spotted Dick. Thanks to my Lancashire Lass Granny.

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