I’ve never been to Butlins before and to be honest I’ve never really felt the urge to address this fact. Regardless of my love for Hi-De-Hi as a child, the idea of taking a summer break at a Great British holiday camp has remained way down on my must-do list. But having enjoyed our annual family holiday under the Saharan sun back in May, I recently found myself itching to make the most of term-time deals and take my four-year-old son away one more time before he starts school in September.
Our usual staycation destination is typically a cottage in the New Forest, or an apartment on the Cornish coast, but as I started asking around for recommendations for UK family breaks one name came up again and again. Butlins.
“BUTLINS???” I cried. And a cacophony of “Yes, Butlins!” was my answer. “It’s Vegas for kids” said one pal, while another simply stated “Butlins – you owe it to your kids“.
So there we had it. After a brief browse through the options of locations and accommodations I had booked up a week at Butlins in Bognor Regis for me, the brats, and the hubby.
The drive down to the Sussex resort took just under two hours from London, and Daddy got the direct train from Waterloo after work, a mere hour and a half journey through the beautiful English countryside. We arrived soon after 3 pm on a sunny Monday afternoon and made our way straight to our hotel. We were booked into The Shoreline in one of their ‘Nelson Staterooms’ – a decent sized family room with a double bed and sofa area, and a separate curtained off den for the kids fitted with bunk beds. As the kids explored home for the next four nights they giggled and gasped at the charming details of the room. The towels were crafted into the shape of a crab, there was a giant octopus cushion in the living area, they had portholes by their beds, as well as an entire wall painted as if they were under the sea in the bathroom. For me as a mum I was pleased to see rounded edges on all furniture, and safety covers over all the plug sockets. We were off to a good start.
When you check in at Butlins you’re given an envelope of information that is basically your passport to fun for the duration of your stay. Ours included pre-booked tickets to a Danger Mouse show, reservations for a breakfast with mascot Billy the Bear and his ladyfriend Bonnie, as well as a dining plan which covered our breakfast and dinners all week. I’d recommend this as a great value way to take the stress out of eating while away. You’re not tied to any one restaurant (you get the cash alternative of your hotel buffet to spend at any of the other restaurants in the resort) and it stops you spending a fortune on snacks throughout the day as you’re full up from breakfast and know you have a decent meal that night. There’s also a great variety of venues to choose from, but more of that later….
So, armed with our handy pocket map, and the lifetime supply of wetwipes that has become my handbag staple, we set off in search of fun.
We’d walked about three steps when both kids were distracted by the sight of an outdoor playground and sandpit. So there we stayed for the next half hour. After which we walked about another three steps before The Girl, an animal-obsessed two-year-old, jumped on a wooden donkey and proceeded to cuddle him and his congregation of cloven-hoofed pals for another fifteen minutes. I could tell it was going to hard to get anywhere at any pace in this place.
What I didn’t know before braving Butlins was that you really need to do your homework before you arrive. There’s so much for kids to do and see that days need to be planned with military precision. This meant that after finally settling the offspring to sleep gone 9 o’clock that night, I then spent another hour checking times and locations of various attractions and activities taking place over the next few days so we wouldn’t miss anything essential. There’s an app you can download which gives you all the times and places of attractions and events, as well as a map of the complex. For the The Boy, enrolling in the football academy was a must, for The Girl I had to make sure we factored in one of the many Mr Men & Little Miss shows, and scheduled in a meet and greet with a Teletubby or two.
I’ll admit that before we went I had my reservations about Butlins, but it impressed me way more than I expected. The whole ‘village’ is clean and tidy, and it feels like a safe place to let kids run around. As we were visiting during term-time it was mainly little ones (although a fair few people seemed to have pulled older kids out of school to make the most of the lower prices outside of school holidays!) and the really impressive thing is that almost everything is included. There’s a funfair – the rides are free, football academy (run by the uber impressive Coach Richie who gives parents a run for their money on the pitch and encourages hard work and respect off the pitch in the kids) – it’s free, morning messy play – it’s free, you get the idea.
When it comes to eating at Butlins, I assumed I’d be battling a barrage of burgers and sweets all day every day, but there’s actually a lot on offer to suit all tastes and diets and it’s really easy to give kids a healthy meal. For tiny ones there are complimentary Ella’s Kitchen pouches in most restaurants, and in the buffets children have their own, lower-height, counter, stocked with steamed veggies and healthy options, as well as your obligatory nuggets and chips. Even the Beachcomber Inn pub offers a healthy option for kids in every course and a pure fruit juice lolly that they will quickly devour for dessert.
And when it comes to grown ups, there’s so much to choose from and it’s actually quite impressive. We went to The Deck buffet where pasta is cooked in front of you as you pick fresh ingredients to make the sauce, which are then tossed in a pan and added to your bowl. You could tell that the various pots of curries, sides and sauces had all been freshly made, and green chopped herbs rested atop many of the dishes. The Shoreline buffet was of a similar ilk but much smaller. The Beachcomber Inn serves typical Wetherspoons type fayre, and there’s also a fish and chip shop, an American-style Diner, and of course an all-you-can-eat pizza/pasta joint. So no, it’s not Michelin Star standards, but there’s enough to choose from to keep all the family happy.
Special mention, however, has to go to Turner’s restaurant, an eatery opened by he of Ready, Steady, Cook! fame, Brian Turner. We booked into Turner’s as a treat on our last night, and lo and behold as we walked in we were greeted by the omnipresent face of all programmes food from my uni years. As our waiter André seated us, smiley Brian came over to say hello and chat to the kids. We were offered a nicely varied wine list to peruse and handed our menus.
Turner’s is all about simplicity and offers a selection of traditional British classics, but that doesn’t mean it’s average when it comes to quality. The kids knocked back their al dente vegetables and macaroni cheeses within minutes, my husband declared his Rib Eye steak as one of the best he’s ever eaten, and I had to be reminded to breathe as I shovelled creamed mushrooms and sour dough down my throat with the speed of a toddler descending a recently polished Helter Skelter.
The one thing that disappointed me about our Butlins experience is perhaps the most surprising, because it’s what (well… who) the resort is famous for – the Red Coats. Maybe it’s down to my aforementioned childhood and too many hours spent engrossed in Hi-De-Hi, or maybe it’s my lifelong obsession with wondering whether Shane Ritchie actually is that hyper and happy all the bloody time (he can’t be), but they all seemed a bit, well, standoffish. In recent years we’ve taken the kids to a Holiday Village in the sun, where the reps smile so much you wonder if they’ve managed to get some real-life sunshine stuck up their arses, so we’re used to inane grinning on our holidays and well, we kind of like it. But if you pass a Red Coat while wandering round the resort they suddenly shoot their eyes to the ground and shuffle off. It’s all very strange. There’s obviously a reason, but it seems a shame that the whole idea of your holiday camp worker is more myth than reality. My one expectation of Butlins was having to peel off over-excited adults in bright red costumes as I struggled to get from A to B, but in reality it was more like them trying to escape me (or maybe my kids, and I wouldn’t actually blame them). They’re all smiles and waves when you see them at a show, but they must be told not to talk to guests outside of performances, which doesn’t really make sense and can disappoint kids who just want one last High Five before bed.
However, overall we had a fantastic time, and having survived five days of non-stop toddler fun, we left Bognor Regis shadows of our former selves. My husband and I craved just five minutes of silence, and the kids were in desperate need of an early night and a meal that wasn’t followed by ice cream. But we were all very, very happy. The thing about Butlins is it makes kids smile. They’ve got everything they could wish for on their doorstep. They want to do it all, and because it’s so well orchestrated, they pretty much do. And what makes you happy as a parent? I mean really, really happy? It’s seeing your kids happy, and they can’t fail to be happy here.
Butlins: Do it for your kids. You might even like it.