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Every morning the cycle begins again: a hard-to-break round of indulgence

Simon Calder paid pounds 60 for a four-day break at Butlins' holiday village in Bognor Regis
  • @SimonCalder
On the first circuit of the second day, I was banned. Head hung low enough to avoid the pitying glances darting across the Tarmac from the real boy racers (average age 13), I was ordered from the go-kart track for the crime of overtaking on the last lap, and warned to stay away all day. And all because, I told myself in the hard-done-by manner of Linford Christie, the overtakee was dawdling like an off-duty milk-float.

Ritual humiliation had a couple of advantages. One was that I would stop burning up my cash at about the same rate as the tyres, since the racetrack is about the only attraction for which an extra charge (pounds 2) is levied. The second was that I would have to break out of the cocoon-like clutches of the holiday camp - sorry, the holiday village called SouthCoast World, the glitzy jewel in the crown of the Butlin's organisation.

If the British holidaymaker has a patron saint, it should be Billy Butlin. Indeed, photographs of the founder are splashed around the place as if he were a minor deity. In a sense, he is. The fact that all of us lucky enough to be employed get paid holidays is partly thanks to his zeal.

In the 1930s, he lobbied energetically, and ultimately successfully, for universal paid holidays. His motives were not entirely philanthropic, because he was busy establishing his first holiday camp at Skegness. He needed holidaymakers. Working people - suddenly finding themselves with both the time and money to take holidays - needed him. Sixty summers ago, mass-market holidays were born, and most of the infrastructure bore the Butlin's brand.

Having shown how bracing all-inclusive holidays in Skegness could be, soon-to-be-Sir Billy searched out suitable locations to repeat the trick. Some were easy: Ayr, Pwllheli, Minehead, all now re-invented as Worlds of various kinds. But for the South Coast, he had to find somewhere stylish enough to steal trade from Margate and Southend, the established bolt- holes for sunseeking Londoners. Where better than Bognor, then (and now) 100 minutes by train from the capital? A place of regal pedigree, together with a vital stretch of shoreline free of Victorian villas.

The royal connection began across town in the tranquil village (now suburb) of Aldwick. Well beyond lager-can throwing range from the Swinging Shilleghlegh pub, favoured drinking venue among the SouthCoast World sophisticates, Aldwick was the place where George V convalesced from tuberculosis in 1929. After a four-month stay. he conferred upon the town the municipal equivalent of a knighthood: the right to append Regis to a name which is so nearly an anagram of Boring.

On his deathbed, the monarch is said to have reneged by uttering the terminal alliteration "Bugger Bognor". But among the punters at SouthCoast World you are unlikely to hear this, or indeed the invocation "Sod off Skegness". Everyone is having far too good a time. In a four-day, pounds 60 break the only time I heard raised voices or expletives was on the macho- proving ground that is the karting track.

The setting for achieving true delight takes a bit of getting used to, mind. Were the "holiday village" really a West Sussex village, the county authorities along in Chichester would have bulldozed it years ago. The visual appeal is commensurate with, say, a 1970s light industrial park, which of course it is: a factory for creating human happiness.

It doesn't take long to get your bearings. The urban hub of the Butlin's metropolis is a series of sheds housing restaurants, amusement arcades and shops. If you are on a pounds 60, four days' half-board deal, your breakfast and dinner will be in the Goodwood restaurant. Or, as the only sign I saw of class discrimination revealed, the Goodwood Budget restaurant. Everyone else got tablecloths and waitresses; we skinflints made do with self-service and Formica. The food had its roots in school dinners via hospital kitchens, but no one went hungry.

Careful on that grease-with-everything breakfast. Most of the activities require a strong constitution. At Waterworld, a vast and very blue indoor swimming pool, infants can take a few tentative paddles while their elder siblings are surfing through the artificial waves or spiralling down a waterslide. The funfair picks up the g-forces with a collection of high- grade, high-velocity attractions that spin you in most directions at once.

After dark, attention switches to a veritable barn of an entertainment complex. The mass appeal of the shows is pitched perfectly, in a manner that Sir Billy would applaud. The recipe is simple. Sell decent beer at less than pounds 2 a pint. Lay on entertainers who can genuinely entertain: professional musicians as accomplished at Sinatra as Squeeze, dancers with more panache than Pan's People. Encourage everyone aged 18 and upwards to cram into a cavernous auditorium and turn the volume up loud. Easy, and effective.

After your senses have taken a day of hearty battering, you would sleep anywhere. Fortunately, you don't have to. Even budget holidaymakers get a clean, comfortable chalet with a bathroom, television and tea- and coffee- making supplies.

Next morning, the cycle begins again - a hard-to-break round of indulgence. Having had mine broken so early in the day, I was able to make the most of England's most overlooked county. The boundary commissioners may have pinched Brighton and left behind Crawley, but West Sussex retains a calm, unspoilt air of gentility, with genuinely beguiling villages in superb scenery. William Blake lived nearby; this was his green and pleasant site for Jerusalem.

Head southwest along the coast towards Selsey. Through a patchwork of neat pastures, punctuated by doddery steeples, you emerge on the fringe of a wildlife reserve. Not a soul disturbs the wittering seabirds and whispering reeds, where the English countryside meets the English Channel. Selsey is the point at which the crunchy gravel terrain gives out and subsides into the sea, with a High Streetful of tea shops offering from a brusque breeze.

You could stay out all night, beneath the stars, but you would miss out on a lot. Butlin's is now part of the Rank Organisation, and the connection with the movies is exploited in the on-site cinema. Mission Impossible was showing, with Tom Cruise performing the sort of tricks that, if repeated at Bognor, would earn a lifetime ban from the go-kart track. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go to Butlin's to have your preconceptions overturned.

Butlin's SouthCoast World: 01243 820202