Hello daddy, hello mummy. Life at summer camp is scrummy

An old US institution immortalised in song is now fashionable in Britain, reports Susie Currie

Something is happening in Middle England this summer. Parents who used to be nervous about letting little Timmy go away on school trips are sending him on week-long activity holidays, where Timmy learns anything from windsurfing to trampolining.

Other parents are taking the opportunity to have a holiday away from their children, where before they would not have dreamed of leaving them behind. This year, thousands of British youngsters are opting out of the family holiday and choosing instead to spend a week or more abseiling and quad-biking in the British countryside. Sending the kids to American- style summer camp is in fashion.

Camp Beaumont, a family firm which has run camp holidays for six to 18-year-olds for the past 17 years, says that the number at its summer camps has nearly trebled since 1987, to 16,000 this year, while PGL, the biggest and oldest operator, reports that it will be host to 18,000 children at its 30 activity centres during the summer, an increase of 50 per cent on its 1992 figures.

Superchoice (owned by Scottish & Newcastle, which also runs Centreparcs and Pontins) started in 1995 with a single residential centre on the Isle of Wight, and recently opened its second centre at Osmington Bay in Dorset. The company has invested pounds 1.75m in customising its camps for children, which are fully booked with 2,000 this year. Some parents are trying to reserve places more than a year in advance.

The "character-building" aspects of camp have created a fashion for them: in June, Harpers & Queen featured a long article about them, and the camp directors report a fair number of parents dropping their children off from Mercedes and BMWs.

Summer camp doesn't come cheap. Although day camps in London cost the same as a registered childminder, the current fashion is for residential camps lasting a week or more, which cost about pounds 280 per child per week. Sending two children for a fortnight costs the same as if the whole family were to go to Spain.

Both the parents and children think it's worth it. At Superchoice's Osmington Bay Centre, Dana and Kylie, both aged nine, are back for their second year at camp. They saved up out of their pocket money to help pay the cost of their two-week holiday. "Mum's on her honeymoon at the moment, and Kylie's Mum is in Rhodes," said Dana. "We arranged camp first though. We want to come for three weeks next year!"

For parents working full-time and with short holidays, summer camp is a solution to the problem of keeping the children busy during the long summer break. They come home having tried out new activities and made new friends, including some from abroad.

Julien, 16, from Orleans in France, said his favourite activity was power- boating. He came to Osmington Bay with his penfriend from England, and ended up staying an extra week.

Safety has always been a big concern for parents, particularly since the 1993 Lyme Regis disaster in which four teenagers drowned while canoeing. Now companies take extra care to train instructors and carers and check their qualifications, and invite parents to examine camp safety precautions for themselves. A new camp-accreditation body has started inspections to ensure that companies are following safety guidelines.

A lot of new business is coming through the children themselves. Lee, nine, is at Osmington Bay Centre for the second year running, but this time his friend Daniel, also nine, has come with him. When school resumes they will tell their friends what they did during the summer, and their friends may well ask their parents if they can all go together next year. Parents who know someone whose children have been to camp before are less wary, and often let a younger child go too, or the same children go back and stay an extra week.

In the US the children's summer camp has long been a flourishing institution, and in 1963 the American comedian Allan Sherman had an enormous hit on both sides of the Atlantic with his letter home from a less-than-happy young inmate. It went:

Hello, muddah.

Hello, faddah.

Here I am at

Camp Granada.

Camp is very

Entertaining

And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining...

Then, the record was a chance for the British to laugh at an American pastime they knew little about. If it's raining this summer in the British equivalent of Camp Granada, an increasing number will know about it for themselves.

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