I’m currently at a French campsite in the Languedoc, having been persuaded by my wife that it would be a good place to spend our summer holiday. She described the campsite as ‘a French Butlins’, which she knew would appeal to me. If I can’t afford to stay at the Hotel du Cap, which I can’t, I’d prefer to be at the bottom of the social pyramid rather than somewhere in the middle. But her main argument was that it would be incredibly cheap —cheaper, even, than renting a house in Cornwall. We’re paying about £100 a day for a ‘chalet’ that sleeps six. There was simply no way we could be disappointed.
Well, yes and no. I’ll start with the positive. The staff are remarkably well-mannered. During check-in, I detained the pretty receptionist for about 15 minutes by forcing her to ring round all the local sports bars to see if any of them were showing the QPR game that was about to be broadcast on Sky. The answer, inevitably, was no, but she smiled at me so sweetly and said ‘Désolé’ so sympathetically that I almost didn’t mind.
Another big plus is that the kids love it. There’s a water park that Caroline calls ‘verruca lake’ which they’re happy to play in 24/7. My three boys were initially a bit sceptical because the camp rules stipulate that you have to wear Speedos — more hygienic than swim shorts, apparently. But their embarrassment at having to squeeze into ‘budgie smugglers’ was tempered by their amusement at seeing me in a pair. As Caroline put it, I look like a sausage that’s exploded on the barbecue.
If they get bored with verruca lake, there’s always the amusement arcade, which is situated so close to the main restaurant you can actually hear the noise of the pinball machines as you eat. That is, if there isn’t any ‘entertainment’ taking place. Every ten minutes or so, a Frenchman pops up dressed in a yellow-and-black jumpsuit and an orange wig and organises a North Korea-style display of mass gymnastics, complete with deafening French pop music. These are the local equivalents of redcoats, I suppose, and the kids love them, too, because they look like characters in Where’s Wally?, one of their favourite books.
There are other British people here who are slumming it like us, and there’s plenty of gallows humour when we bump into each other at the bar. One man endeared himself to me immediately by telling me he’d recognised me at the pool, but when he’d pointed me out to his wife she’d disputed it since it simply wasn’t conceivable that someone like me — a major celebrity — would be staying here. I stood him several rounds before discovering that he thought I was the actor who plays Phil Mitchell in EastEnders.
OK, so those are the upsides. Less good is the ‘chalet’ — in reality, a bottom-of-the-range mobile home. There’s no oven, only two power points, and both the lavatory and the shower stopped working on the second day. To be fair, they were both fixed within a few hours — and, again, the young man I spoke to about it was very accommodating. He seemed to take it in his stride, as if it happens every day.
The biggest negative is the food. I naively imagined that because we were in France the local fare would be edible, even at a place like this. In fact, it’s the French version of American junk food — greasy, tasteless pizzas made with red peppers rather than tomatoes, and horrid, shrivelled-up little burgers called ‘steak haché’. Even though we’re less than a mile from the coast, my inquiries about fresh fish have been met with bafflement.
The wine list consists of three choices: ‘rouge’, ‘blanc’ or ‘rosé’. I find this particularly depressing, having fallen off the wagon on the first day. Every night, as I drain my first glass of the house red, I screw up my face in disgust and think, ‘I broke my vow of temperance for this?’
Caroline and I debated whether to cut our losses and decamp to a nearby hotel, but the staff’s customary good cheer evaporated when I asked if we could get any of our money back if we left before our week was up. Having paid for seven nights, I’m too much of a skinflint to leave early, so we’ll just have to grin and bear it. Next year, we’ll be going back to Cornwall.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.