Sydney, New York, Minehead. You could be forgiven for wondering how a coastal Somerset town of some 10,000 people could be mentioned in the same breath as two of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth. The answer is that they are three out of a select number of places I have been to on holiday on more than one occasion.
Yes, we’ve been to Butlins again.
As I’ve written previously (here, here and here), five years ago the idea of voluntarily going to a holiday camp whose heyday was rooted in an era of pre-long haul/post-war austerity would have been anathema to me. Five years ago the kind of holidays we went on were more about the high life than the Hi-de-Hi life, as we did the typical middle-class thing and traipsed all over the world in search of culture (sometimes), good food (mostly) and overpriced tourist hotels (always).
The big change, of course, is that five years ago we didn’t have kids. Now we have three: Isaac (aged 4½), Toby (2½) and Kara (six weeks). Gone (for now, at least) are the days when we thought nothing of jumping on a plane for 23 hours to drive the length of New Zealand, or taking a long weekend in Florence or Barcelona on a whim. Now we book our holidays 11 months in advance – early bird discounts, you know – mostly in self-catering accommodation and usually in the British Isles.
This was the third consecutive year we have spent a five-day holiday at Butlins, and our second time at Minehead. It’s a bit different to what we used to do. Five days does not equate five stars. There’s no luxury here, despite the description of our lodge accommodation as ‘deluxe’. I’d describe it as ‘shabby chic’, but only the first half of that would be accurate. And eating out at Pizza Hut is as exotic as the cuisine gets.
And there’s no mistaking that we are moving in different demographic circles too. Some of the signs are subtle. Wake up early in the morning (as I do) and there are no Nike-clad runners to be seen. The on-site newsagent has only six copies of The Times, but at least 100 each of the Sun, Star and Mirror.
Other indications are more striking. Minehead the week after half-term resembles a cross between Gavin & Stacey and Brookside, based on the most common accents heard. And on my first-morning foray to the convenience store everyone around me seemed to be stocking up on fags and cider. I’m not joking.
Anyhow, the thing is it doesn’t matter one iota. When you have three under-fives, Butlins is great. While it’s about as far removed from five-star luxury as I am from having the body shape of a marathon runner, it’s cheap, cheerful and has all the facilities we need as opposed to a load that we don’t but get charged for anyway.
When we arrived on Monday, the boys hared around our lodge excitedly as if it was just another big adventure. Which it was, really. Having their own room with their own bunk bed and their own chest of drawers to unpack their clothes and toys into was just the best thing ever as far as they were concerned.
From a practical standpoint – important when you have a small baby to push around – we were situated 30 metres from the pool and a mere 2-3 minutes’ walk from pretty much everything else a four (or two) year old could possibly want: fun-fair, go-karting, climbing structures, eateries and the main pavilion packed with arcade games, soft play areas and regular entertainment shows. Stroll out of the compound and over the road and we were on Minehead’s rather fine beach dipping our toes in the sea. (Or, in Zac’s case, doing a passable impersonation of King Canute.)
None of the three surviving Butlins resorts are a match for their posher rival, Center Parcs. But they don’t aim to be. For a fraction of the price it had more available for our young children than we could cram into our stay. Days soon fell into variations on the same routine: a morning walk to buy the paper (a luxury in itself), a swim, some activities the boys could do together, lunch and a nap if required, separate time where we split the boys up to do their own thing, ice creams, beach, burn off any excess energy before dinner, bed. Nothing complicated, nothing glamorous – but when you have two pre-school boys who want to do nothing more than hoon about the place doing lots of stuff, that’s all you need.
If, five years ago, I’d told my future self that I would actively enjoy a week at Butlins I would have looked at myself in disbelief and possibly had myself committed for my own protection. Even now, when I speak to childless friends about the Butlins experience I can hear the slight defensiveness in my voice as they stare back at me, uncomprehending and quickly reassessing me. (“You go to Butlins? I didn’t know you were poor. Or chavs. Or poor chavs.”) But the fact is it does make for a great time, not because it’s my perfect holiday location – it’s not – but because it’s perfect for our kids. And it’s seeing the loopy grins on their faces every time they have just done something hugely exciting that makes it perfect.
Butlins is not the same as a road trip across California. It is no substitute for New Zealand’s great tramps (walks). It will never replace the urge to spend a long weekend in any of Europe’s great cities. But when your four-year old son throws his arms around you and thanks you with a weary grin for giving him his “best day ever”, that’ll do just fine for me. Machu Picchu and all the other places on my travel to-do aren’t going anywhere. My kids’ childhood is. We’ll be back to complete the hat-trick of visits sooner rather than later, no doubt.