The first time I went to Butlins was during a week of excruciating planned activity fun. I was about twelve years old and my school at the time had arranged for us to do four days of laborious river walking, abseiling and mountain biking in the rain. Then, as a reward for the wretchedness of the first four days, we were treated to one day at Butlins.
I was hesitant at first, for I’d seen the nightmarish ads that promised sunshine, lollypops and moonbeams and I was familiar with the career of Shane Ritchie and some of the other now celebrity entertainers that had passed through the camp’s doors over the years.
Butlins, I presumed, was some kind of Minehead-based incinerator, where entertainment was sent by the trainload to be permanently exterminated; but I was wrong. After just a few minutes inside of the place I discovered that it has very little to do with entertainment at all and very much to do with parents getting wasted as their hyperactive kids run riot, sugared-up on Hippo Pota Mousse and other suspiciously-coloured confectionery of the day.
The atmosphere was a little strange, but as a kid myself I found plenty to do: I could swim, I could insert 2ps into the 2p machine or I could go on some of the rides. So along with a few friends I decided to go on the Waltzers first, which I noticed was revolving around with nobody on it.
We cued up for a few minutes patiently waiting for some moderately exciting spinning action and then the man who we believed was responsible for the ride approached us.
“Are you idiots?” he asked.
“No,” one of us responded, a little confused.
“This ride isn’t open today, okay?”
“Why’s it going around if it’s closed?” somebody else asked.
“It just is!” the man then yelled, before walking away and spitting something onto the floor.
It was, as the camp’s theme song suggested, an experience that was equitable with sunshine, lollypops and moonbeams, and for many years this incident was to cement my thoughts on Butlins. I was, alas, never middle-class enough to visit Butlins’ posher and more sophisticated twin, Center Parcs—which identifies itself, not as a “holiday camp”, but as a “holiday village”.
The difference between the two is reasonably subtle: at a holiday camp parents get hammered on Carlsberg and Stella and at a holiday village parents get “tipsy” on slightly more expensive lager beverages—Peroni perhaps. And I can now confirm this because I am, I’m proud to report, typing these words directly from Center Parcs. Yes, I’ve been deemed sufficiently middle-class enough after years of being mocked at school for wearing Hi-Tech trainers and not owning a pair of poppers (a kind of idiot’s sports trousers).
The problem is that now that I’ve broken through to the other side, I’m strangely disappointed to find that Center Parcs isn’t as middle-class as I had hoped. Sure, compared to Butlins, it’s pretty classy, but it’s hardly the middle-class utopia I dreamed it would be. For instance, I just spotted a man with “DARREN” tattooed on his neck, which was definitely not something I was expecting to see at what I presumed was a highfalutin “holiday village”.
All this leaves me with the disconcerting feeling that things here have changed since I was young Hi-Tech-wearing lad. Perhaps, as I’ve climbed the social ladder, so have the sort of men who have “DARREN” tattooed on their necks. Perhaps Center Parcs, with its suspiciously French-sounding name, is no longer for the inherently posh. All of which begs the question: if Center Parcs is now for people like me and “DARREN”, then what kind of bottom of the barrel demographic are Butlins trying to appeal to now?