On April 11th 1936 Billy Butlin opened his first Holiday Camp at Skegness in Lincolnshire and although I worked there one summer season in 1973 I have never stayed at Butlins as a holiday maker I have, on family holidays, stayed several times at the NALGO Holiday Camp at Croyde Bay in Devon.
NALGO stood for National Association of Local Government Officers, a white-collar Trade Union that along with Cayton Bay in Scarborough owned and operated Croyde Bay Holiday Camp for its members. Dad was branch secretary of the Rugby Rural District Branch so I suppose it was inevitable that we would holiday there and we went for the first time after he had learned to drive and had his first car in 1964.
It was a long drive from Rugby to Devon and without motorways this meant an early start. Dad didn’t like stopping much once he had got going but I am fairly certain at some point he would have been required to pull up by the side of the road so that we could have the obligatory picnic. Mum had prepared the spam sandwiches the night before and we were going to eat them whether anyone wanted them or not!
The old Austin couldn’t go very fast and this combined with dad’s steady driving meant a journey that today would take no more than three hours would take five or six squashed in the back seat with my brother and sister and grandparents, because they generally came along on family holidays as well. Naturally therefore we were all thoroughly relieved when shortly after passing through Barnstable we could see the signs for Croyde Bay and we were really glad when we pulled into the camp off Croyde Road and dad went to the office to register our arrival and be allocated our holiday chalets, which would be home for the next week.
The cost of a chalet for a week in the late 1960s was about £14 which was not an inconsiderable sum and probably just about a week’s wages for my dad.
There were approximately one hundred and fifty semi-detached chalets, all pebble-dashed and painted green and white, each having its own tidy front garden full of rose bushes and standing in neat regimented rows around the various open green spaces. Inside they were sparsely furnished with none of the facilities that today would be regarded as basic essentials. A lingering smell of tobacco smoke of course because this was in the days before smoking was frowned upon.
Floral curtains at the windows and two single beds, a wardrobe and a bedside table was just about it but they did have a separate bathroom with a gas hot water geyser system so at least it was a notch up from caravanning with communal wash rooms and toilets.
The camp was nicely laid out with a big central green area where all the events were carried out – sports day, Miss Croyde Bay competition (my sister won the competition in 1972), knobbly knees and so on. The prizes weren’t very thrilling – vouchers that had to be spent in the camp shop.
Later on they built an outdoor swimming poll in one corner but it wasn’t there the first time that we stayed. In other parts of the grounds there were grass tennis courts (later converted to clay), mini clock golf and a bowling green exclusively for adults.
The main communal areas were basically a series of wooden huts and here was the dining room and the concert hall where there was a full programme of events, a couple of dances, a camp concert and a cinema evening. There was no bar (until 1971) so if adults wanted a drink they had to walk to the village which is where my granddad disappeared to most days.
The Camp of course had its own Ted Bovis (Hi-de-Hi) who had the nickname‘Sporty’ and his job was to provide all of the non stop entertainment for the week. This must have been a tedious ‘groundhog day’ sort of job going through the same routine week after week after week. Actually everyone was obliged to have a camp nickname which had to be written on a cardboard badge and pinned on our shirts and blouses.
All of the guests were allocated duties to help the camp run smoothly and every day began at some ungodly hour when someone with the ‘wakey wakey bell’ walked along the rows of chalets with an early morning alarm call. By the end of the week this was the most popular man in the camp!
Breakfast and evening meal was served in the dining room where everyone sat in rows at wooden tables with plastic table cloths and selected from the menu (take it or leave it) and I don’t remember it being a fine dining experience!
You didn’t want to be late for dinner either because whenever anyone entered the dining room late everyone shouted “BOX” at them as a reminder of the late fine and they had to put some change in the box that hung on the door. Dinner was a secular arrangement without grace but I remember everyone singing out loud the song “always eat when you are hungry” every meal time. Not sure who started it off each day!
The events started soon after parents had put the children to bed and this was a bizarre thing that I couldn’t imagine happening now but people volunteered to do baby listening patrols and parents were entirely comfortable with this arrangement. I mean these people hadn’t had CRB checks or anything to confirm their suitability for such responsibility. They would walk around the camp with a wooden baton as a symbol of their responsibility and if they heard a baby cry or came across a distressed child they would run back to the concert hall and chalk a message on a blackboard to alert the party going parents who may or may not have rushed back to sort the problem.
The best thing about Croyde Bay was the location squeezed in between a pretty Devonshire village and a magnificent crescent-shaped sandy beach. In the village there were quaint houses and cream tea shops and on the beach the sea rolled in and crashed onto the sand in big Atlantic breakers. A path from the camp led down past the tennis courts and through sand dunes, across permanently soft dry sand above the high tide line and then an endless stretch of hard wet sand that was just perfect for beach cricket and football, flying kites and making sand castles.
There wasn’t really any need to leave the camp so the car stayed locked up resting in the car park while we spent sunny days on the beach or wet ones being entertained in the concert hall. Most people joined in on sports day and there was a prize giving night sometime towards the end of the week. I liked going to Croyde Bay Holiday Camp and it was a good job I did because we returned several times over the next few years in 1967, 1972 when I met and fell in love with a girl from Edinburgh, Jackie Grieg, and finally in 1974 when I was really too old to be hanging about with my parents on a holiday camp vacation. In between we went to Cayton Bay in 1970 but I didn’t like it there quite so much.
Croyde Bay Holiday Camp is still there but it has been reinvented as Croyde Bay Holiday Village, my Mum went there a couple of years ago and she said that it hadn’t changed very much at all. I thanked her for the tip-off and went immediately to the Ryanair site to look for a cheap air flight to somewhere exciting in Europe.