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Pwllheli - A personal account by Neil Hilton Back

The following is a personal reflection of the experiences and detail of the camp as fondly remembered by Neil Hilton. Thanks to Neil for sharing this with us.

Butlins Holiday Camp at Pwllheli on the Lleyn peninsular in North Wales was one of the most scenic locations chosen by Sir Billy Butlin in the early days of the holiday camps. In addition to the land Billy also bought the coastline that went with it including several coves and a beach. Situated on a stretch of headland out to the sea this site provided a vast area for development and Billy made the most of its geographical qualities. The camp could be seen from a distance of five miles on the approach road from Criccieth. The chairlift, some chalets and the steep sloping building roofs were clearly visible from a distance despite the dense foliage which sheltered the site.

Much local stone and rock was used in the construction of the Rock Gardens, Borders and walls. The chairlift was simply the best in the Butlin collection. It took guests high up over the rocky headland across fields and hedgerows down to the extreme point of the headland by the sea. Views from the chairlift and the headland of the coastline and distant hills were spectacular. A functional miniature railway also operated from the rear of the camp out along the headland to the beach area.

The entertainment buildings here were mainly single storey concrete rendered and painted in pastel colours. The exceptions were the original Indoor Heated Swimming Pool building , South Games Room and the Gaiety Building complex. The Gaiety Building complex was a vast area on the north side of the camp with a service road and arcade running through it. In the autumn of 1973 a massive fire gutted the whole Gaiety complex and it was subsequently rebuilt as a few smaller modern looking buildings. I visited Pwllheli for a day in late September 1973 with my dad who was on business and saw for myself the extent of the damage. The whole Gaiety complex was destroyed and left as a mass of melted and twisted metal girders. There were scorched light fittings dangling from sparse corrugated roofing and debris lay everywhere. The area was sealed off with temporary iron railings and huge cranes were employed to dismantle the wrecked structure. It was a miracle nobody was killed although guests in some yellow camp chalets were evacuated. The fire occurred sometime around midnight and was said to have been started deliberately. It was reported that there were insufficient fire appliances in the nearby rural areas to tackle the blaze and this led to the outright destruction of the complex.

Pwllheli once boasted a small zoo built on the site which became the south car park area. The camp was divided into two areas, North camp and South camp, by the British Rail line to the town of Pwllheli. The road bridge over the line in the middle of the camp became a camp landmark and of course is still there today. The camp even had a filling station which was located at the edge of the green camp chalets close to the small pen-ychain railway station. A modern version of the Puffing Billy road train was still used until the camps closure in late 1998.

The front of the camp was attractive and lined by numerous flagpoles and two large welcome signs to the holiday camp as you approached from the east and west accordingly. The main entrance had a gatehouse and there was a red Welsh dragon fixed onto the gates. The outdoor swimming pool and fountains were sited on an elevated green area at the front of the camp and were clearly visible from the outside. These were set against a backdrop of seven individual single storey buildings two of which remain today. These buildings were separated by service roads and raised borders / flower beds.

The construction of chalets at Pwllheli took place over several periods the first being the original single hut type chalets in the 1940's and the latest being new apartments in the late 1980's. Modern blocks of flatlets were built in the late 1970's. Caravans and wooden lodges also appeared during the 1990's. The varying architecture made Pwllheli more interesting when compared with other camps but it was to have no place in the transformation to a Haven holiday park in 1998/1999. Most of the entertainment buildings were demolished and the remainder substantially refurbished. Most of the chalets were demolished and the only remaining blocks are the half board single storey chalets which formed blue camp in the north east and the newer self-catering apartments in the south east. They have been replaced by vast areas of static caravans. The amusement park, chairlift and miniature railway were all removed. The outdoor pool lies disused and fenced off and is expected to be filled in. The boating lake and rock gardens have been retained.

The miniature railway beach station platform and multicoloured railings are still there. Part of the fence around the old beach chairlift station has been left for some reason. Other than that, a few bricks below the patchy grass now covering the foundations are the only signs of the former building. The other chairlift station site back at the rear of the camp is now a small car park covered with tarmac. There is no evidence left of the chairlift pylons or their bases.

The area which formed red camp chalets houses more caravans and further plots are being developed next to the rear lake / pond. The row of original individual chalets next to the sports building have also vanished but the sports building remains. This was of course once the covered roller skating rink but now comprises Indoor Sports Centre, Medical Centre and Everydays supermarket. The plot which used to house the Children's Theatre and lately the Odeon Cinema is now a grassed area. The area formerly covered by the amusement park is now a children's soft play area and yes, you guessed it, more caravans. The gokart track has been moved to the old yellow camp car park plot. The old track is now becoming overgrown but I am sure they can fit more caravans on it if they so desire. The only other building remaining at the back is the old Dining Halls building. This has been completely refurbished and re roofed. It is now an entertainment venue comprising the Bongawonga Club, Arcade, indoor play area and Lakeside Inn. This building looks longer than it did previously so I think it may have been extended eastwards. The Rendezvous Ballroom, Little Darlins, Welsh Coffee Shop and Shopping Centre have all gone.

The little hire shop building and adjoining crazy golf course at the front of the camp are still there. The remaining two main buildings at the front have been re roofed and styled to face inwards from the front of the park. These were originally the reception and York buildings. They are now the Reception including Everydays supermarket and Afon Gardens half-board restaurant. The whole of the front is now toned down and there is only one entrance with security lodge (the old main / west entrance). I am not sure whether the Personnel and Staff Training building is still there at the other side near the entrance. It was in the original plan to be demolished but I think they have kept it. Some of the areas where buildings once used to be have been covered with gravel and patches of grass.

One of the main structural problems at Pwllheli was the roofing of the entertainment buildings. The roofs are steep and point inwards in the middle, a feature which is only visible from above. In heavy downpours the rain would run inwards also but the internal drain pipes could not cope with vast volumes of water at once. Inevitably the water would on occasions find its way into the buildings and this was a concern for the management. Those remaining have been re roofed but the style has been kept. So guess what, the Bongawonga Club has a fitted shower on very wet days hence the problem is not solved.

The Rank Group took the transformation of Pwllheli (and Ayr) very seriously. They planted several thousand new shrubs and trees around the periphery of the centre and throughout. They also recycled many old building materials, crushing bricks and using them for landscaping and foundations etc. This limited the movement of contractors vehicles off-site to a minimum. The idea behind the transformation was to make the centre more environmentally acceptable and to blend in with its pleasant surroundings.

Those who visit the Haven Hafan y Mor holiday park today will be impressed by the transformation as the end result is very good. No land has been lost so the new park covers the same area as before. However most will at the same time mourn the old holiday camp and all its facilities albeit old and dated. Pwllheli was another place of memories for many people. It was a large and varied camp built in an excellent location enjoying a mild climate. It was an exciting place and yet a tranquil setting. I have to say that Pwllheli was my favourite Butlins Holiday Camp and I went back purposely late in the last season of 1998 to say my goodbyes. I have been to the Haven Hafan y Mor holiday park twice since and I would still recommend it. The rock gardens, one of Sir Billys excellent creations are still there and provide a peaceful setting for relaxation and reflection.

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