This article was written by Ian in 1995 following a visit to say goodbye to the site one last time. Article and images © Ian Hughes.
I parked at Filey, got my gear together and off I went down to the beach on my long-promised pilgrimage to tread the hallowed ground of Butlins one final time. I'd been told by someone that I was in for a shock, that it was derelict now, but I still had to do this, as Butlins, Filey had been a large and important part of my youth. The family holiday there was the highlight of every year, always on the penultimate or last week of the season as it was cheaper then (we were never a well off family in monetary terms, but we were rich in other ways).
I'd opted to go this way as walking along the beach there was as much a part of the holiday as queueing up to get on the 'overhead buckets' (the aerial ropeway). We never went just as a single family, friends from Bolton and relatives from Blackpool always booked at the same time for the same week with selfcatering chalets close to each other (we lived in Morecambe, I still do).
My first memory was of my dad and Uncle Alan on the archery range at Filey laughing so hysterically it's a wonder they didn't accidentally shoot the man in the kiosk. My dad gets a lot of mentions here as he was game for anything, the life and soul and as much a kid at heart as my sister and I were in age. With a bow and arrow in his hands he was Robin Hood, with a golf club on the pitch and putt he was playing in the Masters Tournament and with a pair of my mum's tights on with the Nutcracker Suite playing, he was Rudolf Nureyev (his party piece...has was 'odd', but not that way!)
The tide was rolling in to the shore quite well up, but it had turned and was on its way out. The muddy clay cliffs dotted with pebbles and even coal, were eroding badly. All along the beach there have been great lumps broken away, and the old concrete 'Look out Pill Boxes (2nd World War)', which once stood atop the cliff now lay at drunken angles on the beach.
I walked on remembering, that the last time I had been there was in the company of my mum and dad and the rest of the extended family. I came upon a pathway down from the tops, which had been broken up by the elements where it met the beach. It didn't look like the old path to Butlins, so I carried on, and on, and on, almost to the base of the landmark white cliffs at Flamborough Head. It was noon by now. I had been walking along that wonderful beach for over an hour. I reckon I'd walked about 4 miles. I turned back thinking to try the path I'd seen earlier.
My heart started beating faster with anticipation as I scrambled up the giant broken concrete pieces. A few more paces up the loose stone way, and there it was, the path that I remembered so well, except now it was much narrower, as nature was well in the throes of reclaiming it, stretching out from either side soon to meet in the middle. Lumbered with a big coat and a heavy camera bag, I trundled onwards to the top.
First, I saw the mesh fencing, which had once upon a time kept us secure inside, confirmation, as if I needed it by now, of exactly where I was. As I moved higher up the hill 'Butlins' began to materialise before my eyes, but not as I last saw it nearly 20 years ago. This was Butlins as I had never imagined it in my wildest dreams, or more to the point, nightmares! I think sub-consciously I had perhaps thought (or wished) that it would be much the same as it had been in my childhood, perhaps a little neglected, needing a coat of paint and some tender loving care. It would need considerably more that that now. All I could see so far from the gates, which were chained shut, were the ruins of the overhead bucket station where it had once stood, and eight rows of dilapidated chalets (White Camp, I think) at the top of the hill, minus roofs, windows or doors.
I had come so far and was not going to be put off by what looked to be a redundant sign on the gate warning, 'Keep Out, Guard Dogs Loose!' I only needed to move along the fence a couple of yards to find a place where it had been breached on a previous occasion, maybe by another sentimental fool like myself, eager to tread the hallowed ground of 'Butlins at Filey' for a final time.
I went in. I could hear my breathing and my heart pounding, anxious, partly in fear of vicious dogs appearing from nowhere, too far in for me to effect my escape, but mainly in awe of how this could possibly be.
Standing amidst the ruins of the 'bucket station', I stood, frozen and silent as I listened for the clanking and whirring of the machinery and the excited voices of people waiting to get onto the aerial ropeway, my own family amongst them. There was just stillness, broken only by the magnificent sound of a skylark soaring above on the wind. I tentatively walked up the hill to the rows of chalets. It was awful.
The remnants of the furniture, simple though it had been, still there, though the weather and time had played its part in rendering it useless. Beds, mattresses, drawers and cupboards stood out of place amongst the rubble, broken mirrors were left swinging on the walls next to shaver sockets. A tree had grown across one of the pathways that I, and so many others, had once eagerly walked, nae, hurried along in anticipation of the forthcoming joyful and happy day ahead of us. Perhaps most poignant of all was a chair outside one of the doorways which conjured up the ghostly vision of some carefree camper soaking up the sun and the atmosphere outside their chalet, taking a short breather before the onslaught of the next round of entertainment.
I had a lump in my throat as I clicked away with my camera, clambering over corrugated roofing sheets and broken glass strewn everywhere. Could this really be where, as a child, I had wandered barefoot and in just my pyjamas on one of my notorious sleepwalking excursions? That somnambulistic experience had worried mum and dad, so every night thereafter, dad's final chore, after he'd been across to the loo of course, was to pile pots and pans on a chair behind the door in the hope that I would bring it all clattering down, probably waking the whole chalet line, should I attempt another nighttime foray into the camp.
The grassy central areas between the chalets were now almost knee deep in wild foliage, no chance of kicking a ball around here now. The same was true of the playing field with one solitary goal post still standing in the overgrown grass. Time was not important now; at least the time of day was not. Time, as in the years that had elapsed, was most certainly the focus of my thoughts. Where had it all gone? Had I blinked and missed it? Here I was, 34 years old, so much water under the bridge, so much heartache and effort expended in 'growing up', and yet I was there desperately wanting to turn back the clocks and re-live it all again, such happy memories.
It was unthinkable by now for me not to go over the brow and into the camp proper, trespassing or not! I carefully picked my way through the debris; it was quite unsafe in places. Huge holes in the ground, all but covered by thin layers of grass. Still hoping that something would be intact, I came into view of the main area. My heart sank. There was just rubble everywhere!
There was, however, part of a building still standing in the distance, with lots of windows, each one smashed. I made a bee-line for it. My insides were in knots as I went around the back of the ruin which had finally given me my bearings. There was the outdoor pool with the two kiddies' pools to left and right of it.
This was where my memories began to flood back. I could see dad's face as plain as if it were that day again, the day he entered the Swimming Gala and the Tub Race. It had been quite a cool day with a chill end of season, September breeze blowing across the camp. Dad had lined up at the far side by the diving boards, with his equally shivering opponents waiting for the Redcoat to give the command; 'GO'! He was in and across like a torpedo, winning easily. He had commented later, his hands grasped tightly around a nice warm cup of coffee, that his pre-competition psychology in its entirety amounted to a vision of me at the other side of the pool holding a big warm towel, and sure enough it had worked! The pool now contained only about 2 feet of murky, stagnant water with broken masonry pointing skywards from it at several points, and no diving boards.
I went back around the remnants of the building with the windows. These were, of course, the windows that once framed the faces of children and adults alike, swimming underwater in the indoor pool. The thickness of the broken glass, the sloping internal floor and the painted-on warning signs saying 'Shallow end- No Diving' were clear to see. Once more my thoughts turned to dad. In its day, the interior of the indoor pool had been steaming, the water was so warm, yet his words were still audible in his Lancashire dialect; 'A'mm not goin' i' theer, its ter cowd.' I automatically smiled at the thought of his expression.
I ventured on now that I could place where I was, though it still wasn't easy. The next point I truly recognised, though it was no longer standing, was the Viennese Ballroom. How sad to see it now when I remembered the marvellous times we had there. We went our own way during the day but we all invariably met up there at the end of the evening until it was time for 'Good Night Campers, See You in the Morning' to be played.
That had been the one place that I would (sometimes reluctantly and awkwardly) dance, where mum had taught me ballroom dancing, and we had all jumped up to do the famous 'SLOSH,' dad's favourite. Halcyon days indeed.
It was here that back in the present, I picked up my first 'souvenir', it was an old smashed '45 single'. It didn’t matter that it was not a record I recognised and it was certainly too much to hope that I would find "The Slosh" written on it, but it was enough to think that at sometime in its history it had been played by one of the Redcoats, and people had danced to it in that superb ballroom.
Opposite had been the fairground with the all time, much talked about and greatly feared (by dad of course) Wild Mouse! Nothing stood there now. I thought of the occasional time that I might have bumped into my sister Lynne there. She is six and a half years older than me and we hardly ever saw her from checking in to checking out. She was on the prowl for some unfortunate boy, no doubt, with the soul intention of wearing his lips out! One such 'victim' had been 'Mick from Worksop'. I'll never forget the journey home. Lynne clutching the picture-booth photograph, and swearing her undying love for him. Girls!!
We saw more of each other on our last holiday, but we were both 'grown up' then. It was the time when she had entered the 'Miss Lovely Legs' competition and a Redcoat had taken rather an unsolicited shine to them, but that's another story.
A little further back up the road and I was standing in one of the channels where water had once flowed in the 'Beachcomber Bar'. My mind raced back to the wonderful ambience of this themed Cocktail Bar, with its subdued lighting and imitation equatorial plants, the leaves of which now lay scattered on the dusty floor.
I thought of my childish pleasure, shared equally by the adults, of the frequent tropical thunderstorm effect, when the soft Caribbean music gave way to the sound of lashing rain and foaming breakers on the shore.
My memories were of Uncle Norbert, who, it had been a sure bet, we would find here if we were looking for him. Also Alan and Brenda came to mind, I remembered them sitting with mum and dad, all sharing a joke together. [Click] another photo for posterity.
Upstairs had been the Snooker and Table Tennis, and another dance floor and competition area. It was here where dad and I stood proudly together in the 'Dad-and-his-Lad Competition'. I wished he could have been with me today to talk of the good old days; he'd died suddenly at just 61. I suppose a part of him was there with me, I certainly found myself, on more than one occasion, talking to him as if he were.
I wandered in deep melancholy over to the 'Gaiety' building, or at least what had once been the Gaiety building, replete with café, bingo and sports hall, bar, amusements, theatre, cinema, rifle range and most importantly, our favourite table tennis area. I thought of the time when I won my first competition there, but mostly of the competitions mum, myself, my sister and dad had done battle in. There was no quarter given when playing dad, you had to beat him at all cost, or suffer the smug look on his face for at least the next hour.
Then I laughed as I remembered Norbert sat at the side watching. He had just put a cigarette in his mouth (you could smoke anywhere back then). He was ready to light-up when the ball hit him square in the eye. His reaction had been instant. As he put his hand to his smarting eye, the cigarette was destroyed leaving just the tip in his lips. I think we laughed for ages over that. Simple things!
Around the back of the bingo hall now. The film in each camera used up, I put down my coat and bag, lit a cigarette and sat on a stump at the corner of what would have been the theatre/cinema, conjuring up yet more magical moments and memories and trying desperately to recapture how I would have felt as a child on my first day of the holiday at 'Butlins, Filey'.
As I picked up my camera gear again, reluctantly bound for the exit, I spotted something on the floor and recognised it instantly. It was a shattered piece of plastic with a large clear number '56' and part of '57' on it. What was it? It was part of the old electronic bingo board used to display all the numbers that had been called out during each game. The big board that lit up above the redcoat caller on the stage in the sports hall. How many times had I seen that number 56 light up when I'd been sitting with mum, watching her play and hoping that we could win some cash to ease the financial burden on my parents, who had slogged all year round to ensure that we had one special holiday each year. And by goodness! How we did enjoy our holidays at 'Butlins, Filey.' How lucky we were!
My final poignant moment came as I made my way out of the camp and back to the present.
It was at a spot on some raised ground where I particularly remembered us having had a chalet. It was opposite the very playing field where I, young Alan, Les and Lynne's husband Ian, on our last ever Butlins holiday had played football for our part of the camp and thoroughly trounced the opposition. Where dad had, a few years previous to that, taken part in "It's-a-Knockout," what a scream that had been, here’s the team photograph.
I confess to being close to a tear or two as I stood at the doorway of what I remembered to be a former chalet of ours, looking across the overgrown playing field towards the remnants of the camp. For the endless moments of joy that I could never re-capture, not here at this most special place.
Pigeons, crows, sparrows and the skylark had been my companions for this trip down memory lane, and the wildlife I had heard scuttling around but not seen. It was nice, particularly with my environmental bent, to witness that nature does not take long to reclaim what once was hers and return it to something resembling its origins before mankind had borrowed it.
I stood and relished my final gaze over the camp, wishing to stay and immerse myself in the memories, but knowing I could not.
As I clambered back through the hole in the fence, I was saying aloud, over and over, goodbye to the old place; to the Gaiety and the Viennese Ballroom and the Beachcomber. My pilgrimage finally over, a trip I had often thought about making, I made my way back to the beach down the steep and winding track.
I ran the full gamut of emotions; sadness, euphoria, melancholy and happily warm inside from all the wonderful memories...and very tired. Quite apart from scrambling over the twisted, barely recognisable rubble and walking a good few miles on a soft, sandy beach, I felt drained by the intense emotion I had felt for the past 2 hours or more. I sauntered down the beach once more to Filey, any plans of taking anything else in that day were forgotten.