The Great British Summer

Thinking back about the ‘Great British Holiday’, this first came about (I think) when British workers were granted two weeks paid holiday per year, usually the last two weeks in August. Prior to that, if the workers wanted two weeks holiday they had to save for it, and other things took priority. There was even some resentment from small business owners who said something like, “We can’t afford a holiday. Who would run the shop while we were away?” The owners of ‘bed and breakfast’ guest houses opportunistically made sure that their prices were highest in those two weeks.
This being the ‘Great British Summer’ the weather was usually wet and windy rather than warm and sunny. Families would eagerly head for the nearest seaside towns, towns like the ‘so bracing’ Skegness and Scarborough (Yorkshire seaside towns always have ugly names, it’s the law); They would then spend two weeks trudging round in the rain, laden with bags full of wet towels, cheese and tomato sandwiches and Thermos flasks of tea. A popular bit of folk lore had it that the sun only came out in early September when the kids were going back to school and their parents back to work. Be that as it may, the British solution to the ‘Great British Summer’ came in the guise of one Billy Butlin, who from the comfort of his funfair shooting gallery, watched the holidaymakers huddle in bus shelters and shop doorways waiting for the weather to break so that they could make a dash for the beach, (this is probably a myth, by the way, Butlin went into partnership with Harry Warner for years, running ‘Warner’s’ Holiday Camp). Butlin – so the story goes – had his inspiration after one particularly wet and windy afternoon and soon after opened ‘Butlin’s’ — allegedly Britain’s first holiday camp in 1936, (if we ignore all the others). The shooting gallery must have made a lot of money in order for him to raise the necessary capital, but anyway, Butlin’s was a resounding success. Now British workers could huddle indoors, listening to bad comedians and watching bad conjurers and acrobats, the famous ‘Red Coats’ — a sort of paramilitary group whose slogan was, “You WILL enjoy yourselves! That is an order!” Quite early on, some wag noticed the similarity to the army — if not quite to concentration camps, (although Cunningham’s, arguably the first ‘holiday camp’ was used as an internment camp during World War I). There was also a hint of socialism about it, everything was free, whether you wanted it or not. If someone has a transistor radio on the beach, you can find a quieter bit of beach. In Butlin’s, the music comes over loud speakers, interspersed with, ‘Good Morning, Campers! The knobbly knees contest will be starting in the Music Hall in five minutes!” Stories abound — probably only slightly exaggerated — of nighttime patrols checking to see that the youngsters were asleep in their own chalets. But anyway, it was a peculiarly British solution to the problem of what to do in wet weather — rise above it. Actually, Butlin’s wasn’t the first holiday camp, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Pontin’s soon followed and then others. But this phenomenon was somewhat short lived. In more prosperous times, parents might take their children to Butlin’s for a week or two before flying to the Algarve — without them. Nowadays, ‘holiday’ is synonymous with ‘abroad’. So it is no surprise to read of droves of British people travelling to Europe to enjoy temperatures of 30 C. They are only doing what British people have always done when the ‘Great British Summer’ is wet and windy — rise above it. Only now they rise above it in a 787.


About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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