Faded glories, lifelong memories

At the end of our four-day half-term getaway, each of our three children had a huge meltdown. That counts as a successful holiday to me.

This is the fifth consecutive year we’ve been to Butlins. Having been to Minehead the last couple of times, this year we returned to Bognor Regis for our annual taste of the great British holiday camp.

That sounds more disparaging than it’s meant. With affordable package holidays to sunnier climes now accessible to most people, it’s hard not to look on places like Butlins – with its variable British weather, basic facilities and old school entertainments – with a degree of middle-class snobbishness. I’ve certainly been guilty of that in the past and, whatever Hi-de-Hi jokes you’re thinking of, I’ve been there and done those too.

Butlins merry-go-round
A merry-go-round. It went round. It made kids merry. Job done

But I’ve come to enjoy our yearly trips to the home of the Redcoats. These holidays are all about the kids, who go all wide-eyed when confronted with the (slightly rusted) gaudiness and noise of amusement arcades and fairground rides. Giant soft-play – tick. Organised activities – tick. Pizza, hot dogs and chips with everything – tick. It’s not sitting out on the patio on a warm Tuscan evening sampling antipasti but then it’s not meant to be either.

In four days away, the kids crammed in a fortnight’s worth of fun, much of it inclusive within the price of our accommodation. Swimming every day. A fairground with a giant merry-go-round, helter-skelter, dodgems and go-karts. An amusement arcade with machines ranging from modern video games to old-fashioned penny cascades. A selection of inexpensive restaurants to keep hungry mouths fed. Physical activities for the sporty and craft sessions for the creative. All the stuff you need to keep a six, four and two-year-old occupied all day every day and put smiles on their faces.

Melting down

It left them not just occupied but knackered too. Our three kids grew progressively more tired every day, leading to the early warning signs of the meltdowns that inevitably occurred over the course of our final 36 hours.

The individual patterns are well established. Isaac tips over the edge from being a hands-on, caring big brother to being a hands-on, invading-everyone’s-personal-space menace. Toby whinges and whines constantly, refusing to listen to anything other than to respond with a high-pitched “I don’t want that!” (It’s possible that some of these whines are so high-pitched that they go unheard by parental ears.) Kara’s usual smile becomes a perma-scowl with a glare that could make hell freeze over and a tendency to burst into floods of tears at the first opportunity.

It can be (and is) tough for Heather and I to cope with, particularly in the confines of a tiny little apartment with inadequate sound-proofing and which doesn’t even have room for the proverbial cat, let alone for someone to swing it. But given that the meltdowns stem from tiredness which in turn stems from running around having so much fun, the fact that they do throw such spectacular tantrums is a pretty good barometer of how much they’re enjoying the holiday.

Butlins family sofa
Happy and tired

Simple pleasures, fond memories

One of things that being at Butlins has taught me as a parent is that – lovely though it is – kids don’t have to stay in the lap of five-star luxury to enjoy a holiday. So much of it is about the simple pleasures.

Just as I became the family navigator at a young age, sitting with a road atlas in my lap and a dog-eared Which? guide to the best motorway service areas, so Isaac clutches our TomTom relaying directions and warning us of upcoming speed cameras. He and Toby have an established ritual of carefully unpacking their clothes and toys as soon as they get into their bedroom. Kara loves to climb on to and jump off those decorative spherical concrete things that you find in pedestrian precincts.

For all the tiredness-induced tantrums, I’ll remember this long weekend for the way Kara took a big step forward in her confidence in the pool, for Isaac’s joy and skill at driving the dodgems and for Toby’s love of simple, old-fashioned arcade games.

And I’ll remember all the cuddles both Heather and I received from all three of the kids. It probably won’t be that long before Isaac in particular becomes too cool for hugs and cuddles and holding hands. But for now these are moments to savour and a few days away from our usual routine seems to bring out the very best – and, occasionally, the worst – in our children. On balance, I’ll take that.

Butlins isn’t for everyone. It’s something of an anachronism in our 21st century world of high technology and instant gratification, whose glories have been faded by the march of progress. But the memories it has helped to create will last a lifetime.