It's time to let go of the long-running jokes about crumbling chalets, punishing compulsory activities and crackling PA systems, says Phil Wilding. The modern British holiday camp has far more going for it than you might give it credit for.
It sometimes feels like holiday camps have always been with us – retro images of rickety chalets stacked end to end like farm buildings that might have fallen out of the sky spring all-too-easily to mind. But with the current economy as robust as a sickly child, more and more people are looking to stay in the UK this summer, choosing to head off for stints with the family in parks and camps you thought you’d left behind when you graduated from short trousers.
The holiday camp first began creeping into a new generation’s consciousness as the perfect venue for festivals and conventions: you could see your favourite bands, dance until the morning light, and then stagger twenty feet to your chalet and collapse gratefully onto your bunk. No standing in a road in the middle of the English countryside late at night trying to vainly flag down a cab, no need to erect a tent and you get to use your own shower in the morning before you go out to do it all again.
The All Tomorrow’s Parties indie music festival started in 1999 at the Pontin’s Camber Sands Holiday Park, the first event curated by Mogwai. Since then it has spread to Spain and the US, but still takes over British holiday camps three times a year. The latest incarnation, curated by The Breeders, took place in May 2009 at Butlins Minehead resort. The line-up included CSS, Tricky, Bon Iver and Gang Of Four, but it wasn’t the eclectic nature of the bill that most impressed a journalist friend who was in attendance: “I have never been so clean at a festival in my life!” he marvelled, vowing to go back to their next event which will be at the same venue in early December, this time helmed by My Bloody Valentine.
It isn’t just the way of thinking that’s changed at Britain’s holiday camps; most have had the kind of extensive makeover that even Joan Rivers would balk at. Forget primary colours and grass verges’ these days, Britain’s holiday camps look like people imagined the future might in the 1950s. At their top end, Butlins are showcasing their upward mobility with the Shoreline and Ocean hotels at their resort in Bognor Regis. The former looks especially grand and wouldn’t seem out of place hovering somewhere in the background of a Bond movie. Their BlueSkies apartments in Minehead put you in mind of the Miami shore, though not when it’s raining.
Haven too offers its own deluxe accommodation, but, perhaps more pleasingly, you can rent yurts at their resorts. And talking about spending the night under canvas, Centre Parcs, who to my mind were created as an extravagant ploy to get more people camping, have an Exclusive Lodge at the top of their accommodation range you could fit my flat in; it comes complete with an outdoor hot tub, plus sauna and steam rooms.
Even Parkdean, noted for their extensive network of caravan parks, now offers Scandinavian-style lodges at seven of their sites, so you and your brood can pretend to be the Swiss Family Robinson. Hoseasons has an adult-only park where you and your partner can gaze happily into each other’s eyes without fear of being hit in the head by an errant football from a teenage boot.
Activities and entertainment
When not lounging in your hot tub, trying to find the door/flap of your yurt, or punching the air to your favourite band there are plenty of other ways to enjoy your time. Parkdean are doing their best to poke obesity in the eye with their SportXtra package; instructors give you the chance to improve your football, basketball or tag rugby skills. The holiday company also offers snowboarding, surfing, diving and fishing packages at some of their parks. You can go fishing at Hoseasons Otter Falls Park, or if you’re feeling more languid, try the beauty and spa treatments at Darwin Forest Century Park. Hoseasons has a pet-friendly policy so you can walk your dog in the lush countryside or on one of the expansive beaches that surround a number of their resorts.
At Park Resorts it’s Chico Time (which must be very wearing if you are actually Chico as then it’s Chico Time all the time). At Pontin’s you can opt for either Joe Pasquale or Blue’s Duncan James, though presumably not on the same stage, which is a shame as that’s something we’d happily pay to see. Butlins – when not playing host to a myriad of indoor music festivals – appear to have booked very nearly all of the finalists from this year’s Britain’s Got Talent TV show as well as the WWE Raw Superstars; quite the coup considering these wrestling stars normally play arenas the length and breadth of the UK. Ditto McFly, who head to Butlins Minehead resort for a show later in the year. So forget foreign shores for once; all you’re looking for could be right here at home…