Butlin’s Bognor Regis And The Summer That Changed Everything

Ginny tore open the envelope, postmarked from London, a few months before we were to leave.
“Butlin’s Bognor Regis welcomes you to your place of employment,” she read. “Assignment: Retail catering.”

The name looked regal enough, with “Butlin’s Ltd. of London” embossed in gold across the top of the stationery. Elated, she continued: “Listed below is a brief description of the facilities enjoyed by our staff during off-duty hours. These include use of the indoor and outdoor pool, dancing in the large ballrooms, variety shows, plays and films in the numerous theatres, outdoor and indoor sports.”

“Wow! It must be a fantastic hotel!” I said. “Retail catering?” I repeated, imagining the possibilities. “We’ll need a cocktail dress. Lots of cocktail dresses!”

It was the spring of 1969. The Beatles were about to record “Abbey Road,” John and Yoko were planning a “bed-in” for peace, and the British rock invasion was in full force. Screaming and jumping up and down on the pastel floral bedspread my Mom had recently sewn for my room, we bounced with our arms in the air and our hips making rock-and-roll moves as we realized that our summer would be spent in the land of Mick Jagger, Twiggy and the Queen.

I was born extremely inland, in Texas, surrounded by open plains and shopping malls. The farthest I’d ever been was across the border to Mexico, which had opened my eyes to other places, but not yet my mind. So, at 20, I had decided to spend the summer in Europe with my best friend Ginny. We had paid $25 to a student travel agency that promised to find us work abroad.Ginny and I arrived in London‘s Gatwick Airport at 2 a.m. on a June morning, each of us lugging two enormous bags stuffed with matching outfits, several evening dresses with accessories, dozens of shoes, and enough of our favorite hairspray to last three months. Pouring out of the airplane along with the rest of the packed-in college students assigned to the bargain flight, we fell behind as we dragged our bags through the nearly deserted airport. We immediately set out in search of a payphone to look up the address in a phonebook – because the work assignment, we had discovered on the plane, said only “Butlin’s Bognor Regis,” with no street number or location. We scoured the phone listings. It wasn’t under hotels, motels, or even hostels.
“Come on. Let’s ask someone,” I finally said, and we found an official-looking counter.
“We want to go to the ‘Butlin’s Bognor Regis Hotel,'” said Ginny.

“Don’t know it,” came the dismissive answer. We asked a few other travelers and shops, but no one recognized the name. An airline attendant shook her head. We were too tired from the long flight to panic but were also at a complete loss. Finally, a nearby janitorial attendant overheard us.

“Butlin’s is a holiday camp, dearies,” she offered in an accent so thick we could barely understand her, “and Bognor Regis is a town on the South Coast.” A holiday what? Not London? But an hour later we had found the train that would take us the three-hour ride to the southern coastal town of Bognor Regis, and once again all seemed well.

We arrived to watch the rising fog reveal a village full of smoke stacks beside a gray sea.
“You must be staying for quite a while,” the taxi driver remarked as he tried to stuff all four bags into his trunk. “Where to, luvvies?” He resigned himself to sharing his front seat with two of the bags and squeezed the passenger-side door shut.

“Butlin’s!” we said at once, now confident in our destination.

“Butlin’s?” He gave us the once-over. “Whaddya want to go to that dump for?”

We looked at each other, then back at him.

“We’re working there,” Ginny said, already defensive and not sure why.

He let out an involuntary guffaw and didn’t stop chuckling the entire length of the ride.

Fifteen minutes later, after passing dozens of red-bricked industrial buildings and following a narrow street with a sea wall on one side and dark brown cottages on the other, he stopped the cab. We lined up our bags in front of a compound of low-lying buildings cloaked in mist and surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. The cabbie wished us luck and drove off, leaving us in the hands of a uniformed guard who stood at the entrance and glumly inspected our papers.

Ginny introduced herself. “We’re from Texas,” she said, trying to be friendly.

The guard stared at our belongings, then picked up two of the bags with a gruff “hmmpf.” We followed him through rows of two-story concrete buildings until he pointed to our room number. We opened the door to a small rectangular space with peeling green paint and just enough room for a bunk bed, a pole for our clothes, a sink, and a foreboding-looking intercom mounted on one corner of the ceiling. Were we in prison? We fell onto our bunks and submerged into sleep. After what seemed like mere seconds, the intercom started blaring a song:

“Do your singing in the chalet
As you start this happy day.
While you’re singing in the chalet
Think of all the fun you’ll get the Butlin’s way.”

Neither of us stirred. But there it was half an hour later, another loud and zany song. When it blasted a third cheery song announcing breakfast, Ginny lunged toward it, looking desperately for the on-off switch. There wasn’t one. We would come to find out that all Butlin’s rooms, even the guestrooms, were subject to these intrusions, alerting everyone to their mealtimes and daily schedule of activities.

It was all part of the master plan.

Butlin’s Holiday Camps were the inspired creation of a former carnival worker who, shortly before WWII, saw British working-class families bored, isolated and unhappy during their brief, hard-earned vacations. He decided folks just weren’t having enough fun. After the war, Sir Billy Butlin (he was knighted for his efforts) slowly began to buy up former army bases and motels in village towns across England. He hired small-time singers, dancers, and comedians and called them “Redcoats,” the glamorous stars and entertainment ambassadors for the camps. It was absolutely mandatory at Butlin’s to have a good time. The visitors were kept busy day and night with games, dancing, contests and Redcoat-led fun. It was inexpensive and predictable, and countless British families flocked to the easy refuge of one week’s pay for a week of regimented play.

Butlin’s directors wore bright green jackets; supervisors wore blue; managers wore maroon; and we, as service-hands, were issued a drab brown uniform that suggested we were on the bottom rung of our new hierarchy. “Welcome to the British class system,” the young Icelandic girl said cheerfully as she handed us our uniforms.

“Better raise that hem six inches if you don’t want the blokes to laugh,” advised the rough-looking girl with dark curly hair who walked us to our new job. Her skirt showed almost all of her considerable thighs.

It was sound advice. The miniskirt ruled the day, and Nora, our new Irish friend, had worked here for several summers and knew the ropes. Nora showed us the massive cauldrons where we were to steam milk for morning tea and demonstrated how to position our heads as far away as possible to clean the rancid-smelling crust left on the sides each night. She warned us not to be late for our early shift serving tea, never to be caught talking to the Redcoats, and to studiously avoid dates with the guys from Poland. Ginny and I were assigned a split shift from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. and then 4 to 10 p.m., six days a week for the equivalent of $12.50 per week.

That night after our evening shift ended, Ginny and I decided to check out the camp. The campers’ rooms, called “chalets,” were shockingly similar to our own quarters: long straight lines of concrete buildings with rooms of barebones furnishings. Even the yellow, pink and green paint couldn’t hide the resemblance to military barracks. In the evenings, parents were allowed to leave children in their rooms and go out for the evening. Roaming nannies rode bicycles up and down the rows of chalets to listen for crying babies or out-of-bed children and if need be, locate the parents, who were usually enjoying a show at one of the pubs.

After inspecting the guestrooms, we slipped into the back of one such pub, arriving just in time to see a Redcoat placing tiny chairs in a small circle on the stage. He called for volunteers. Multiple hands went up, but he was only interested in the largest and heaviest members of the crowd, and he wasn’t afraid to point them out (even if they hadn’t volunteered) and coerce them to the stage. A game of musical chairs began, always with one chair too few, and we watched as the guests competed for the tiny chairs and fell awkwardly on the floor, their corpulent bodies like overturned tops struggling to get up. The crowd loved every pratfall, and no one seemed embarrassed. I watched them enjoying themselves and remembered something my Mom used to tell me: “Get off your high horse.”

At 5:30 the next morning Ginny and I found the workers’ mess hall, smelling it blocks before we arrived. Kippers-dried and salted fish were the first things to greet us in the dark. Luckily, we did have other choices: eggs swimming in grease, sliced white bread smeared with yellow margarine, bacon submerged in even more grease, and tea with milk. We forced down a few eggs and arrived at our posts behind the counter of a tea station.

“I must have my tea boiling hot,” the first customer insisted.

“Mine must have one-quarter milk with tea to the brim, medium hot,” said the next.
I leaned in and listened hard, struggling to understand the thick British slang as each customer specified the precise temperature they needed their tea. It seemed this was the one department in which they were particular, though. I was continually astonished by their utter acceptance of mediocre service, rigid schedules, bland food, and intrusions of the ubiquitous intercom offerings.

Sir Billy’s taste clearly informed the décor of the camp. The walls were orange, green and purple, and plastic flowers were everywhere. Virtually all the tables were covered with garish paper-mache decorations, and large objects hung from the ceilings: painted chairs, buckets and big glittery stars. One coffee shop even offered an underwater view of the glass-bottom swimming pool so diners could enjoy their tea and watercress sandwiches while watching the bottom half of kids treading water across the glass, occasionally submerging to make faces at them. Contests were also immensely popular at Butlin’s, and Ginny and I eventually witnessed the crowning of “Snorer of the Week,” “Baldest Man,” and “Miss Knobby Knees.”

After a few days, the four other American workers showed up at our chalet door with their backpacks. “We’re getting out of here tomorrow,” one announced. “This place is too weird, too much work, and it’s just not worth the money. You two should come with us.”

Our chance to escape! That night, I wrote plaintively to my mother about the “inexcusable” conditions of the camp: miserable working shifts, terrible food, the carnival-like atmosphere. Ginny and I pondered our options, but we’d been raised to finish our commitments like good Southern girls, and the next morning, we watched as the last link to our American lives packed up and disappeared out the front gate. We stayed on.

“How far is Texas from the United States?” a plain-faced woman asked me as I lined up bread across the counter. Her hairnet was pulled tight over her unruly hair.

I was on special assignment now, working in a small back room with the “sandwich ladies,” helping spread thick margarine over the hundreds of slices of white bread they used to prepare sandwiches each day for picnics and lunches.

“Texas is a part of the United States, Dorothy,” one of the women corrected her.

Undeterred, Dorothy persisted, curious about the cowboys I knew, the wild saloons I must have frequented, and the horses I surely owned. I was amazed by their ignorance – though not yet by my own – but in the end, I loved being with these rumpled, silver-haired, gregarious ladies. They spent six days a week in this back room, perched on high stools around a big square table, talking nonstop as they buttered the bread, laid out mystery meats, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce, and finally wrapped the finished sandwiches carefully in cellophane for campers on-the-go.

I sat quietly during most of the chatter: Dorothy’s daughter had become pregnant at 15 and was now living at home again. Glenda’s husband worked at a nearby factory and stayed drunk at the pubs most nights. Amanda lived in a boarding house and had met an imperfect suitor at her dance lesson on Saturday night. All had dropped out of high school. They got only one day off a week from this repetitive work, yet they seemed strangely content – happy, even. They didn’t yearn to be American, as I had previously assumed the entirety of humanity did. In fact, they might not have yearned for anything more than what they already had.

It was in that room, with morning light coming in through the dark wooden shutters around a big table with the Sandwich Ladies, that my mind finally cracked open to life’s diverse riches. The simple activity of making sandwiches for hours on end while savoring what the present circumstances had to offer was my entry to other customs and ways of living. I felt completely at ease at this table, in a place I hadn’t known existed, with friends I could never before have imagined. From then on, whenever I was invited into unusual or foreign situations that might previously have provoked fear in me, my answer was always: yes.

Back home, Ginny had been my only “political” friend. Her boyfriend’s draft number had come up just before we left, so he had conceded and joined the Navy. And suddenly war became very personal. But in long conversations with our young multi-national coworkers, all of whom were outraged by the U.S. war on Vietnam, she couldn’t win an argument.

“How do they know more about us than us?” she complained.

“America sends your brothers to kill thousands of people in a place you know nothing about to prevent Communism from spreading?” Ali from Afghanistan would pin us in. With each night spent out in the company of “the servants of the working class,” we grew more distant from the paper–thin perceptions we’d held so close.

“I luv ya, ya big Yanks ya,” the short, red-haired Scottish boy greeted us every morning at 5:30 as we began our first shift. Ginny and I settled into our daily chores and started making plans. We shipped the overstuffed suitcases home at considerable expense and bought a train pass to travel during our last few weeks. I was promoted to a maroon uniform, much to Ginny’s dismay. We both knew it was only because our blue-coated supervisor was after me, but that bump in class was still a sweet, guilty pleasure.

Late one night halfway through the summer, Ginny and I walked to a community staff room that housed a small black-and-white television set, mostly cabinet with a many-framed small screen in the middle. We sat on the floor with a few dozen coworkers, half-asleep, with sweaters and blankets around us as the evening chill set in. We could barely see the ghostlike figure that stepped off the spaceship and onto the moon, but there was silence among the small group of people from at least ten different countries. A sense of human pride seemed shared, beyond our cultural divide, and I felt all of humanity sitting there with me. And later, when the moon was visible, I could picture someone up there, right then, and imagine millions of people around the world also staring up at this white, round, mystical moon, all seeing a different part of the exact same, wonderful thing.

It was my richest souvenir from Sir Billy’s holiday camp: knowing that we all are, in dissimilar conditions, simply seeing a different side of the same place, while striving to relish our small distinct lives.

In the end, Ginny and I did make it to London. We shopped at Carnaby Street for the latest androgynous fashions not far from where Twiggy had made her start, and we toured Buckingham Palace where the Queen was in residence. We even saw Mick Jagger, after spending an evening with a couple of animated young French guys who spoke no English but were comical company, making us goofy pointed hats out of newspapers to protect us from the next day’s sun. Sharing blankets, cold tea, and baguettes throughout the long summer night, we staked out a place in the front row for a free concert in Hyde Park the next day. The Rolling Stones performed for 250,000 fans a month before Woodstock, letting three thousand white butterflies loose into the London sky in honor of their dead overdosed guitarist.

We left Butlin’s shortly thereafter, bound for the European rails with two small backpacks. We rode up and down the Eurail lines, sleeping nights on the trains, waking up many mornings in a country different from the one in which we’d gone to sleep. I met my first New Yorker in Amsterdam, an attractive, sarcastic young guy as foreign to me as the Italians. We held long conversations in bohemian cafes with fellow backpackers, and Ginny became increasingly able to defend – and adjust – her political positions. We feigned nonchalance as we befriended a striking black man in Paris who spoke impeccable English in addition to his native French. We three walked the Champs Elysées together at midnight, newly minted friends.

Returning home weeks later, I peeled the “America: Love it or Leave It” banner from my bulletin board and replaced it with a group shot of the Butlin’s crew. Ginny impulsively married her boyfriend the day before he shipped out to Saigon. We stopped wearing dresses and started wearing jeans, every single day. The revolution had arrived.

Martha Ezell has worked as an educator, social worker, mortgage broker, apple picker, artist’s assistant, and short-form documentary maker. Her films include “Taking Up Space: Socrates Sculpture Park,” “Elephant Seals of Ano Nuevo,” and “Szechuan Summer.” She’s addicted to the ocean and has recently learned to surf near her home in Sonoma County. This is her first published piece.

This story is excerpted from ”The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2012,” edited by Lavinia Spalding, published by Travelers Tales, a division of Solas House, Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Solas House. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and the author.