By the 1980s, after decades of immense popularity, the great British holiday camp was in terminal decline. The huge camps founded by Billy Butlin and Fred Pontin — the chalets, the dining hall, the redcoats (Butlin’s) and bluecoats (Pontins) — were becoming passé. Now the few that remain have been rebranded as holiday villages.
But why not bring them back? Surely old-fashioned camps had exactly what we need today: simplicity, gentle fun and a sense of community. They were about team effort, not atomised nuclear families. Above all perhaps, they had a sense of identity. And they were a life-changer for me.
I recently came across an online video of Gunton Hall, near Lowestoft, in the late 1970s. The film — all 19 minutes of it — was sheer time travel, because there on the screen, along with hundreds of other campers, were my brother, my dad and me.
Also recorded for posterity were the canoe races — no life jackets, only rickety vessels on a deep lake; the donkey derbies with more hair-raising spills than the Grand National; and the archery without adult supervision. It’s a wonder that we all survived without serious injury, but we did — possibly because we’d learned to watch out for ourselves.
There was a structure to a week in the camp; it wasn’t simply about lazing around. When people arrived, they’d be split into two houses. For the rest of the week, dozens of activities helped gain points for your house. These were done as a family, with no individual prizes. After months locked up in our homes, don’t we yearn for a sense of shared endeavour again?
For my parents, the experience was bitter-sweet. My dad had lost a very good job, so the overseas holidays went, together with the nice car and sharp suits. We swapped five-star accommodation for Lowestoft-by-the-sea. But I preferred the camp; it shaped who I am now.
Holiday camps encouraged life skills. My time in the donkey derby built up not just riding abilities but resilience. I spent more time falling off the thing than I did on it. But as a result, I went on to develop a lifelong love for horses. What’s more, there was betting on the outcome. My father and I spotted one particular donkey that always won. Despite the organisers changing his number and bib for every race, we recognised his markings and made a decent return on our investment. I grasped the importance of paying attention and taking your chances. I think we knew that we’d always have to make our own luck.
We also had cricket coaching from a wonderful old gentleman called Harry, who stayed at the camp. Each day I would be in the nets brushing up on my forward defensive and learning how to bowl. I got over my fear of the cricket ball at Gunton and that was useful too. However hard the projectiles life throws at you, there is always a way of avoiding them.
Every evening a band performed. Sometimes we were offered the chance to get up and sing — a kind of early karaoke. This is why, later in life, before I became a vicar, I spent years trying to be a pop star. Plus, one night the main turn was the marvellous Bert Weedon, author of the guitar tutorial guides Play in a Day, which influenced the likes of Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Brian May. I remember listening to Bert and his beautiful guitar sound and speaking to him afterwards. His advice was never to give up and to keep practising.
One night, a very ancient Tommy Trinder did the cabaret. The ballroom was packed. I think everyone knew Trinder was well past his best — I began to doubt he’d still be breathing at the end — but there he was, wearing that old battered hat and whispering his catchphrase: ‘You lucky people!’ We gave him a standing ovation. Trinder was one of us, and we weren’t going to make him feel bad. I learned something about grace that has helped in my vocation as a vicar.
By the time I started going to holiday camps with my wounded and financially insecure family, such places were as much past their prime as Tommy Trinder, and the UK of the time was a very uncertain place. Nonetheless, Lowestoft taught me that it’s possible to have a good time even when it rains — and, odd as it sounds in this leisure-obsessed era, that a holiday with a shared sense of purpose, with activities and community, can be more relaxing than merely hanging out by a pool. The campaign for the rebirth of the holiday camp starts here.