It's no holiday camp...

Gone are the knobbly-knees competitions, donkey derbys and wake-up calls. Butlins has entered the 21st century. Deborah Ross, who was desperate to go there as a child, takes her own son along to see if it lives up to her dreams
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The Independent Travel

Butlins. As a kid I so yearned to go to Butlins, but we never did. We were simply much too tiresomely middle class. Instead, it was driving/camping holidays across Europe, all squished up in the family Ford Zephyr, stopping only to marvel at ruins that possibly were once castles but were now nothing but roped-off lumps of rubble. "What do you mean it's boring?" my father would storm, before marching us swiftly onwards so we could take in some standing stones and an amphitheatre before dusk.

Butlins. As a kid I so yearned to go to Butlins, but we never did. We were simply much too tiresomely middle class. Instead, it was driving/camping holidays across Europe, all squished up in the family Ford Zephyr, stopping only to marvel at ruins that possibly were once castles but were now nothing but roped-off lumps of rubble. "What do you mean it's boring?" my father would storm, before marching us swiftly onwards so we could take in some standing stones and an amphitheatre before dusk.

So, to me, Butlins seemed the ultimate, Technicolor holiday Shangri-La, a childhood vision ignited, I think, by a postcard - or perhaps a poster in the window of a travel agency - showing a huge, blue indoor pool with portholes in the side, from which spectators could look in while underwater swimmers could look out, or maybe it was the ecstatic-faced girl caught mid-jump on a trampoline, or even the Donkey Derby with full Tote, commentary and the sort of donkey who was prepared to work hard for a living instead of lazing about in some sanctuary in a most useless way.

Oh, such pure, uneducational, non-stop, rubble-free gullet-rotting - chips, ice-cream, candyfloss! - fun. And did this yearning evaporate when, say, I reached my early teens? NO, it did not. If anything, it was shored up by Holiday On The Buses, the rather saucy 1973 movie version of the TV sitcom, filmed at Butlins (Pwllheli) and which led me to believe that, in between rounds of crazy golf, the chances of a snog might be fairly high. I loved On The Buses, particularly Olive, who some might say has remained as my style icon. Now I think about it, the chances of a snog might have been frighteningly low.

Butlins. Yes, I know, I could do Butlins the middle-class way - it's called Center Parcs, I believe - but, blow me, have you seen the prices? Honestly, I don't wish to come across as mean as well as boring and middle class and Olive-ish, but £500, more or less, to sit under a bubble in Nottinghamshire for a weekend? When Butlins costs a fifth of that (£130 for a family of four)? I'm not sure what you're paying the extra for, although I would suggest it's as much about the middle-class fear of the working classes - avoiding Sun readers and their Sunny Delight-swigging offspring - as it is about getting your own bit of forest and a bicycle.

Butlins it is, then, and my 11-year-old son, who is as fed-up of being middle class as I was - "Can't I even have Sunny Delight on my birthday, mum, as a very, very special treat" - is wholly ecstatic at the prospect.

"Four days till Butlins, three days, two days..." I arrange to go with a friend and her son. My friend says her sister recently went to Butlins for the day and "she suggests we wear shell-suits, size 22, so as not to stick out too much". I don't see how you can wear a shell-suit in size 22 and not stick out quite considerably, but there you go. And 'ere we go.

5pm: Arrive at the Minehead resort in Somerset. You can see it coming from miles away, with its weather-proof "Skyline Pavilion" that looks like a collection of vast Mr Whippys. Butlins has lately put a lot of money into "bringing the concept into the 21st century" and, as such, I've been asked to refer to it not as a "holiday camp" but as a "family entertainment resort". Ditto the chalets, which are no longer chalets. They're "units".

I feel, already, that my childhood vision is being catastrophically undermined. Knobbly-knees competitions? Olive look-alike competitions? Wet T-shirts, Glamorous Grannies, Donkey Derbys, communal showers, loudspeaker wake-up calls...? Alas, no. Nowadays, it's all Atomic Kitten and Ronan Keating. Still, I'm hopeful of catching a Seventies band with the one original member left in it. They owe me that, at least, surely.

The check-in is in the Skyline Pavilion itself, a vast, harshly lit, unbelievably noisy place - it's rather like a motorway service station on steroids - which also houses bingo, bowling, sideshows, amusement arcades, bungee-jumping, and, this afternoon, The Incredible Hulk, scaring toddlers witless. A couple of cheerful redcoats - their coats are cut very stylishly these days, I must say - lead us to our first-floor "unit" in "Plantation Quay". Here, we find a teeny, weeny shower and a massive, F-off widescreen telly. We've never seen such a telly, and spend a good hour marvelling at how small everyone's heads are and how wide their shoulders.

7pm: Bravely venture forth, but are immediately waylaid by a very old lady - "I'll be 89 on Sunday," she keeps repeating - in a buttoned-up winter coat who left her unit to "buy some Vaseline for my cracked heels" and cannot find her way back again. We walk her back to "Ocean Quay" which seems to be miles away. This place is vast. This place, it turns out, offers 9,200 beds. The old lady has come "for the bingo and shopping. I like bingo and shopping. I'll be 89 on Sunday." Her holiday companion turns out to be her sister, "who is only 85". Her sister is glad to have her back. "It's eyes down in five minutes, Edith." "I'll be 89 on Sunday," says Edith.

8pm: Return to Skyline Pavilion for 10-pin bowling. We book our lane, and have a drink at the bar while we are waiting. I ask for a glass of red wine. It's on draught (oh, yum!) and ice-cold. "Do you have any red wine that isn't quite as... chilly?" I ask. They do not. "Do you have any red wine that tastes nice?" They do not. Have great fun bowling next to a vast extended family who are all 40 stone and tattooed, especially the baby and great-granny. "Why is everyone so fat and tattooed?" asks my son loudly. "Shut up," I say, "or the baby will beat you up while great-granny holds you down."

We have dinner in Pinewood Studios. I pass on the Kentucky BBQ pizza ("whirled with BBQ sauce") and Beef Teriyaki ("picture yourself aboard the Orient Express as this Shanghai surprise takes your breath away"). Opt instead for Creole Chicken. It promises "a hint of the Mardi Gras". It doesn't deliver, and might be really rather horrible. The "wine of the week" is Liebfraumilch - "everyone's favourite for letting their hair down". We are tired and not really up for tonight's entertainment - "your chance to join the Butlins entertainers with a tribute to the music of Queen". We return to our unit where the boys eat an entire box of Celebrations while we watch The Late Review on the thrilling telly. Tom Paulin is still a swivel-eyed loon, but now he's a swivel-eyed loon with small head and very wide shoulders.

Midnight: Go to bed. Am awoken at 1am by a group of merry-makers returning to their unit and ascending the communal stairway. Our unit shakes worryingly.

Saturday, 7.30am: Boys up, raring to go. Go to shop for general provisions. Shop also does a wonderful line in brilliantly sentimental mementoes. Only just resist buying my son the Wonderful Son Award - "A son who brings laughter/ a son who brings tears/ a gift from God throughout these past years... etc, etc". Go to Splash World. Boys have a riot on amazingly frightening flumes. Lots of body piercing.

Go to Bar Rosso for lunch. Cappuccino tastes of frothed piss. The sauce on my Pasta Pomodoro tastes like frothed piss mixed with diluted ketchup. Ask for a bottle of mineral water, which has to be retrieved from a cellar, and then have the dust blown off it. Am beginning to think you don't come to Butlins for a full-on gourmet experience. Indeed, every year, it turns out, Butlins campers - sorry, "holidaymakers" - consume 225 tons of chips, enough fizzy drinks to fill 300 swimming pools, and so many burgers that, if stacked up, they'd be 60 times the height of the Statue of Liberty. There are no Sunny Delight statistics.

Take the boys to the funfair where they go on everything and make me go on something that I've now largely blanked it was so horrible. "A son who makes his mum go on terrible rides/deserves a merciless smacking on his backside"? Actually, have also noted, along with the size 22 shell-suits, and the England football strips, that quite a lot of smacking is going on. "Dean, 'ow many times do I af to tell ya!" Smack, smack, smack. This is very un-middle class. We tend to prefer mental cruelty. "I'll think about Sunny Delight for your birthday. Maybe. Depends on your Sats results..."

3pm: Butlins big. Butlins noisy. Too many people. Look in on bingo. Full of 89-year-old Ediths with cracked heels and buttoned-up winter coats. Rename it: "Land of Broken Dreams". Would kill for an apple. Groups of teenagers on the prowl. Girls eyeing up boys. Boys eyeing up girls. A trio of girls in the toilets, one crying, two comforting. "He don't mean it, Kim. I don't fink you're fat." Load our boys with cash and send them off on their own. My friend and I have a lie down in our unit. We dream of our own bit of forest. I think nostalgically about rubble and standing stones.

6pm. Boys return to unit, having sensibly spent their money in the amusement arcades, even though I was rather hoping for a World's Best Mum certificate: "Being a mother as precious as you/gives cause for a gift that is long overdue... etc, etc."

7pm: Walk along the beach to Minehead itself. Note another family of escapees on the beach. Asian. Women in beautiful saris knocking back Bacardi Breezers. First ethnic faces we've seen. Butlins still very white and working class. Have a so-so curry in the local Indian and return in time for Red Idol, Butlins answer to Pop Idol. "Who will be Butlins' very own Will Young?" Find we don't care. Acts enthusiastic but depressingly crap. More England shirts. Lots of beer. Teenagers in J-cloth sized sparkling skirts and off-the-shoulder pink. Feel even more Olive-ish and boring and middle class than usual. Find we've lost the will to live rather, and will not be staying for "Jimmy James and the Vagabonds" at 10.30pm.

Would kill for some broccoli. Must have fresh food. Realise that my idea of a break, as an adult, is non-stop non-activity rather than non-stop activity, or trailing small boys, holding their jumpers. Nothing much for the adults to do, apart from beer and bingo and attend to cracked heels. Watch Shakespeare In Love on amazing telly. Joseph Fiennes has small head and very big shoulders.

Sunday: Talked into trying a family fencing session. Sports hall unventilated. Fencing very boring and very hot. My friend's son faints. Revive him in the Sun and Moon pub. Stay for lunch, which is tinned tomato soup barely warmed. Wine of the week? Lambrusco, which is also "everyone's favourite for letting their hair down". Go home. On my way out, I somehow manage to resist buying a "0-horny in 2.5 beers" car sticker. Am not sure it will go down well back in Crouch End.

Sunday evening. Arrive home. "Phew," I say, making for the fruit bowl. My son? He says: "Can we go back again one day, mum?" "I'll think about it," I lie. Maybe. Depends on your PhD results.

Butlins: 0870 242 1999, www.butlinsonline.co.uk

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