In 1936, when Billy Butlin opened his first holiday camp at Skegness, on the east coast of England, he offered “a week’s holiday for a week’s pay” – £2.12s 6d per person. Accommodation was in basic “chalets” and meals were taken in vast communal dining rooms.
It was a winning formula among Britain’s working-class families, and by the 1970s there were nine Butlins sites, all with free facilities for “campers” – swimming pools, fun fairs and family entertainment in the evening. It was fun but it wasn’t for everyone. And certainly not for the affluent middle-classes, for whom Butlins became shorthand for the sort of holiday they would pay to avoid.
Butlins has never really shaken off that downmarket image. Families still eat in communal dining rooms, albeit ones with fancy names such as “The Deck”, and while chalets have been replaced with apartments, some of them are very basic. Recently, though, the group has begun to open smarter hotels, and in March it even announced the introduction of a “Butlins Butler” service.
Last month Butlins unveiled its latest upmarket salvo: the futuristic-looking Wave hotel and apartments, built at a cost of £25m in Bognor Regis, West Sussex. Aimed at families with older children and teenagers, it has a large games room: no snooker tables, just electronic games consoles. (This closes for lunch, presumably so that its army of small fans cannot spend the entire day in there).
Our room looked out over the car park, rather than over the sea, but it had a balcony and a ship’s cabin-style children’s room with TVs at the end of each bunk. It was lovely.
In a more traditional Butlins-esque moment, straight after we’d checked in, we went down to enjoy dinner at our assigned restaurant, only to find that it had already stopped serving – at 7pm. We were forced to fork out for the decidedly upmarket Turner’s restaurant, not included on our half-board deal.
Many of the events and activities are free. My eight-year-old tried out the soccer school (two hours, enthusiastic coaches – he loved it). There’s a free fun fair, a massive soft play area, an amusement arcade and an indoor pool complex with lots of chutes and slides. On a wet summer Saturday, with day-trippers allowed in as well as guests, this pool looked like a Butlins postcard from the 1950s, with barely any room to stand (let alone swim). My 12-year-old queued 40 minutes for a 40-second waterslide.
Butlins has always been famous for its entertainment, so in the evening we wandered along to the “Glee force” show. The main performance space, Centre Stage, was rammed with hundreds of people from babies to great grannies, three or four generations having a good time while performers dressed as cheerleaders and jocks danced and sang – and the famous Butlins redcoats revved up the crowd.
Here was the real spirit of Butlins, alive, well and singing along. Everyone was having a good time. Everyone was friendly. You’d never get this communal spirit at a more solidly upmarket place. I started to wish that Butlins wouldn’t court the uptight middle classes quite so assiduously.
We loved Butlins. It can teach the po-faced a lesson or two about having fun, and delivers a good-value holiday by the seaside in recessionary times. Summer holiday prices at the Wave are about £430 per person for a week’s holiday with breakfast and dinner included. As average UK wages are now £469 per week, Butlins isn’t far off its original mission of “a week’s holiday for a week’s pay” – with a lot more luxury thrown in.
The children want to go back, as soon as possible. So do I. But I do wish they’d sort out the 7pm meal curfew – and the queues for the water slides.