News, Culture & Society

Butlin’s £40m pool and art deco glitz makes Bognor feel like Miami

Oh, this is fun. I’m hurtling down a water flume that’s shaped like a giant stick of rock, racing against three nippy riders with a combined age of less than half of mine.

Flying over stomach-flipping dips, I dramatically aquaplane to a halt — in last place. Blinking, I see the speedy trio are impatient. ‘Go again?’ Of course.

We’re weekending at Butlin’s Bognor Regis, where the enduring holiday camp brand has just unveiled a new £40 million Splash pool complex. It’s an oh-so-pretty Art Deco-themed tribute to British seaside nostalgia.

Making a splash: Butlin’s Bognor Regis has unveiled a new £40 million Splash pool complex

Alongside the Stick of Rock slides, there’s a red-and-white helter skelter flume, a rainbow of colourful beach huts, wave pool and plenty of tot-friendly thrills, too.

From the outside, the Twenties-style white-washed exterior would slot right in on Miami’s Ocean Drive.

Some 30 years have passed since I last flip-flopped over the boundary of a Butlin’s. An Eighties childhood on the Lincolnshire coast equalled trips aplenty to the one in Skegness, or Skeggie, as we called it.

The memories are dubious: blue-tinged skin from freezing outdoor pools, greasy chips drowning in squeezy-bottle ketchup and billowing clouds of cigarette smoke clinging to the ceilings in the bars.

The 21st century Butlin’s I’m strolling around now is incomparable.

It’s a million miles from the Hi-de-Hi! breaks I grew up with — and I’m heartened to see a number of older people here with their grandchildren.

This shiny flagship resort, sandwiched between the verdant South Downs and the winsome shingle beach and the big blue of the English Channel, is part love-letter to Billy Butlin’s original vision and part all mod-cons resort.

And the landscaping; rosemary bushes, lavender swaying in the breeze, the odd Cornish palm, is truly inspirational.

I’m here with quite a gang in tow, eight adults and eight children, after persuading three friends to bring their own broods along. I worry a bit about the French family; I have a horrible feeling candy floss, slot machines and Redcoats — yes, the brand’s famous cheery custodians are still very much present — might not cross La Manche so well.

We have neighbouring rooms in the swish-looking Ocean Hotel, Butlin’s most upmarket half-board accommodation, which is the first sight for guests when they roll into this sprawling 60-acre site.

Two more hotels and the modern incarnation of the humble chalet — self-catering lodges — lie further back near the beach. Our sea-view abodes are, we quickly concur, the work of an architectural genius.

The brand new pool was just one of the attractions enjoyed by Joanna, Belle, seven, and Cleo, five

The brand new pool was just one of the attractions enjoyed by Joanna, Belle, seven, and Cleo, five

They take a Russian doll approach, neatly hiding a cute children’s room — with cozy night lights and a little telly — in the main layout. Pinballing between Butlin’s myriad activities — archery, bowling, zip-wiring, mini-golf, street-dance classes, the list goes on — can deliver a special kind of exhaustion, and a little space from each other helps.

The only thing countering sleep in those genius rooms? Disco lights above the bed.

At 3am, I managed to plunge us from deep slumber to an Ibiza-style rave scenario by accidentally elbowing a switch.

We eat from the canteen-style buffet on our first night and the quality — and range — of the food impresses. A friendly lady carves me a couple of slices of honey-baked roast ham. I add stuffed peppers and slow-roasted vegetables and wonder where it all went so right for the holiday camp that once harboured a serious image problem.

Butlin’s was born in 1936, when entrepreneur Billy Butlin, depressed by dreary guesthouses at British beach resorts, bought a plot of land in Skegness.

The slogan ‘Our true intent is all for your delight’, a quote from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, became his mantra (and hangs on the wall of the new pool) and, in the post-war boom, nine more Butlin’s popped up across Britain. All but three of them, Bognor, Skegness and Minehead, have long since closed.

There are retro references everywhere we turn, though. We dine in the Traditional Fish and Chips restaurant in the main square and our food comes with a side-portion of kitsch.

There’s erstwhile black-and-white snaps of bathing beauties on the wall; we find a Tiddly Om Pom Pom on the cocktail menu; (a rum-based tipple served in a pick ’n’ mix paper bag) and chefs deliver meals through a hatch emblazoned with the words ‘Oh we do like to be beside the seaside’.

Bagging a table for 16 for haddock and chips on a Saturday night is no mean feat, but the staff, clearly busy, make it happen.

The children wolf down battered sausages and chips while the adult table chooses more refined options; seared sea bass with rock-salt peas and a gin cooler is fantastic value at just over £20. By day, the pool and the fairground draw us in, but much of the evening high-jinks centre around the Skyline Pavilion, a gargantuan white tent that houses the main entertainment complex.

It’s like stepping into a Lilliputian Las Vegas; there’s a massive arcade, ten-pin bowling, pool tables, plus a theatre and several bars and cafes.

Like Sin City, it’s strangely hypnotic and you’re left wondering how you strolled in to have a quick look and emerged two hours later having introduced your five-year-old to gambling.

'By Sunday morning, some of the grown-ups decide to press pause and head for the spa — a wallet-friendly £22 for two hours,' write Joanna

‘By Sunday morning, some of the grown-ups decide to press pause and head for the spa — a wallet-friendly £22 for two hours,’ write Joanna 

On the plus side; £1 for 50 goes on the Scooby Doo-themed two-penny slot machine is terrific value. A little healthy competition brews, and manifests most in the fairground, which, with its hall of mirrors, hook-a-duck and dodgems, is an old-school treat. I lap Violet’s dad three times on the petrol-fired go-karts and he looks a little wounded.

The older children in our group, aged eight, love the independence of exploring alone, knowing they’ll find us on the terrace of the Kaleidoscope bar that overlooks it.

By Sunday morning, some of the grown-ups decide to press pause and head for the spa — a wallet-friendly £22 for two hours.

We bake in the roomy sauna, shiver in the snow cave (-16c) and slow-poach in the outdoor spa bath, wondering who thought it was a good idea to put a disco ball next to the rain-shower.

Weather-wise, we were lucky. Mother Nature turned on the charm, offering up cloudless skies during our three-night stay. Twice we made it down to the south coast’s pebbles to spot crabs and have a paddle.

Would this be as much fun in the rain? No, but with the indoor pool, live shows — including Mr Men, Sleeping Beauty and Paddington — and the Skyline Pavilion; there’s plenty of drizzle-proof entertainment. The prospect of bidding farewell to our room-within-a-room evokes a flood of tears — and an Oscar-worthy monologue — from my now over-tired eldest Belle, seven. ‘I’ll miss that hall of mirrors, I’ll miss the pancakes at breakfast . . . why can’t we go to school at Butlin’s?’ she sobs as we get in the car.


Three-night weekend stays at the Ocean Hotel in September, including premium dining for four, starts from £538, based on a family of two adults and two children, call 0330 100 6648, or visit