Butlins must be the ultimate ‘Marmite’ holiday destination. For some it is the heavenly destination offering all they could ever want from a holiday enticing them to return year after year, even generation after generation, not wishing to even consider anywhere else. While for others, it is their dystopia, a sealed camp offering a restricted and regimented holiday experience, even coining the name ‘Butlitz’. Often seen by many as a cheap alternative holiday for those who cannot afford something ‘better’, but a closer look at the packages on offer will show that this is not necessarily the case. It is true that they do offer breaks for less than £100 for 3 nights room only during term time, but at the other end you can book something for a similar price, or more, of your average foreign ‘sun’ holiday. On top of these basic prices of course there are ‘extras’, an almost unending number of options that can lift the total to a tidy sum depending on how much you want out of the holiday, or are willing to take with you.
The Minehead Butlins opened in 1962, especially designed with young families in mind to provide “everything they would need for a holiday” under one roof, or within one fence if you are cynical. Minehead itself is quite a small town situated on the north Somerset coast with not much to promote itself other than a view of the south Wales coast across the Bristol Channel and a large expanse of flat land yearning to have something built on it. The main feature of the Butlins site is a giant tent-like structure, which can be seen well before anything else on the way into the town. Under its roof reside the British equivalent of a mine Las Vegas, with entertainment venues, bars, burgers, pizzas, coffee and instead of customers feeding quarters and dollars into slot machines, here the happy holiday makers spend their hours robotically feeding 2p coins into row upon row of coin pushers, the machines seen on daytime TV’s Tipping Point program. Away from the ‘tent’ is the other main attraction the indoor heated swimming pool, resplendent with numerous flumes and diving boards. A small fun-fare is available when the sun does shine and an activity centre where the adventurous can climb an artificial cliff and traverse aerial walkways strapped onto safety harnesses just in case.
A wide range of accommodation is available on site, stretching from the basic one-room chalets, not dissimilar from TV’s Hi-De-Hi program, to luxury apartments though numerous variants. The holidays are subdivided into various packages that could give a low-cost airline a run for its money for revenue generating opportunities. The basic starting price covers just the room: a bed; shower and TV, everything else: towels; housekeeping; food etc. are add-ons, something we did not realise until we got there. Note to self, always do your homework.
Key to the holiday experience here is the entertainment offered throughout the day and at the forefront are the famous Redcoats, those young ever-cheerful entertainers whose only roll is to keep the people happy. From their ranks have provided many entertainment stars such as: Des O’Connor, Jimmy Tarbuck; Ted Rogers; Michael Barrymore and former England international footballer Dean Ashton. From regular shows for younger children throughout the day, to evening extravaganzas for the grownups at the two venues the Redcoat’s remit to prolong the bonhomie until late into the night, or at least till the kids go to bed.
Late October sees my wife and me commencing a 4-day half-term break with daughter, partner and the grandchildren at Minehead Butlins. We were assured it would be a “laugh” and a “nice bonding break” with the kids, not to mention some unspoken of free childcare, which luckily did not seem to materialise. The date also ensured that the weather would be at its most bracing, not to say decidedly damp and chilly at times. Family holidays out of season in the UK can be a challenge.
Being used to more ‘exotic’ destinations I must say that the stay did provide a reality check and an instant throwback to family holidays of the 60’s, to which end the weather helped quite a lot as in my memory it always seemed to be raining or just stopped raining then. It was an experience, and I admit some fun was had with the grandchildren collecting shells and different coloured stones on the beach. Even the sight of some hardy soul swimming around a breakwater buoy tried hard to bolster the illusion of the Med in high season, admittedly when the wind was cutting through the gaps in the buildings tended to take the edge off a little. Also a leisurely walk up the main street of the town taking in the familiar shops can only be done so many times. Whether I am letting the late October British weather unduly cloud my judgement I am not sure, but an al fresco coffee under a grey overcast sky with a brisk wind loses something in the translation. In spite my best efforts to put a brave face on it, I think I can safely say that I don’t think I will be rushing back there any time soon. Now where is that summer sun brochure?