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It was a spur of the moment decision. Nhung phoned up Camber Sands Pontins on spec and discovered three things; 1) they were refurbishing in January, 2) before then it’s crazy-cheap to stay there, and 3) they were booked up through to Christmas except for the coming weekend. It had to be done and it was. We booked one night only, Guy Fawkes Night. One night was all we would need. This is it, the trip we’ve all been waiting for – The Lost Promenade experience The British Holiday Camp Out of Season. Paydirt.
We arrived after dark and immediately got upgraded to “Club Class”. Win! The place is nearly deserted and the only sound is the occasional firework going off at a distance. Or is it gunshots? We definitely feel like we’ve just walked into a straight-to-video 1980s horror movie. A kind word to describe the camp’s appearance is “institutional”, a not so kind one “Auschwitz”. Rows and rows of two-storey prefabs lined up like a Monday morning bus queue, resigned and wheezing and quietly despairing. It reminds us a bit of the Cabrini-Green housing projects in the film Candyman.
Into our “chalet” and we’re all over-excited again – two bedrooms, a microwave, a kettle and a television showing Pontins TV. When we first turn it on, and I promise you I’m not kidding, PTV is playing ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. It’s time to explore.
Inside the main complex, through the mouth of a giant plastic octopus is a magnificent ballroom furnished with a garish carpet, hanging strands of tinsel, a mural of can-can dancers and an army of empty grey chairs, like massed tubular ghosts . Later we explore upstairs and find yet another cavernous deserted ballroom – this one with an even more lurid carpet (brown op art swirls) and blue chairs. There are left over Halloween decorations and a faint smell of damp.
In the bar (the Queen Vic), Bluecoat Dan* comes over to talk to us and we ask him if we need to buy electricity – “You’re in Club Class darling!”, he exclaims. He tells us about tonight’s entertainment; “I’ll go out and Captain Crocodile will come on. The two aren’t related” (giant wink). Nhung asks, “Is it like a pantomine horse and you’re at the back end?”, “Darling, that would be my dream!”
We ask why he became a Bluecoat. “It’s that typical thing”, he says, “Your friend says “you’re fat and dull – here, do something exciting”, and I’ve been here ever since.” “So now you work here are you slim and interesting?”asks Tamsin (while also secretly thinking, “SHIT! Dan has rubbish friends”), but it seems the answer is yes. Since he got here, Dan has lost 2 stone “from sweating and dancing”. He cajoles us into playing a game of bingo. Inevitably, “House” comes up on everybody’s favourite number; “Claim on 69!”.
Mel, the other Bluecoat on duty is a bit less cheery. As she arranges the children in line to meet Captain Crocodile, her non-smiling eyes say “I’m dying inside”. Other notable events of the night’s entertainment include; Lindsey recognising a boob tube she once owned (but only as part of a mermaid outfit) , Team Lost Prom receiving (suprisingly, as we pride ourselves on our musical knowledge), an absolute hammering in the pop quiz, Dan saying “I may be fat but I’m not ugly” after a small child insulted him and Mel telling some unfathomable “jokes” about “chavs” that rightly fall on death ears to all present. As the Bluecoats lead the children in the “Pontins Dance”, we decide to retire. As we leave through the ballroom, we overhear someone saying, “This really reminds me of The Shining”.
Back in our chalet, we eat some pasta and immediately manage to blow the portable speakers we’ve brought with us, meaning we’re reliant on the TV for music. Rolf Harris is on. We crack open the wine…
A few glasses later, it’s getting late and suddenly we hear something clatter by our balcony, banging on our door as it passes and instantly freaking us out. It’s obviously the Pontins serial killer, Iron Hoof and our only weapon is blue face packs, so we woad ourselves up, hoping that our terrifying visages will scare away the bogeyman. We had bought musical instruments with us, in the vague idea of recording a Lost Prom theme, but we’re concerned about the thinness of the walls, so instead we just watch the Best Selling Hits of the 90s on TV. Time for bed, with any portable pieces of furniture shoved up against the door to keep Iron Hoof out.
It’s OK. We wake up unscathed, and as most of the camp’s eating establishments are shut, decide to explore Camber in search of breakfast. Passing on a local shop called BJs on the Beach, we follow some signs in the road for a cafe, including one on the top of a car parked by the side of the road. As we walk past the car, Lindsey screams in shock. What is it? Oh my god, the car appears to be full of effigies of dead people. Nightmare in Camber Part 2: Iron Hoof Returns.
At first glance the cafe is unremarkable; brown vinyl seats, cream formica tables, UKIP poster behind the counter, but in the window there are photographs of the same strange creatures we saw in the car and the proprietor looks like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Peter Stringfellow.
We pluck up the courage to ask her what the deal with the sinister figures is and it turns out they are life-size effigies of the local council’s highways committee. She’s in a dispute with the council over the signage she uses to advertize the cafe from the road and has had an injunction placed on her, to stop her from placing the signs and “using obscene language”.
We want to find out more, but at that moment a very boring man comes in and embarks upon a seemingly endless anecdote about being sent on a driving awareness course for speeding, although we do get a few more terse responses out of her. When we say we’re staying at Pontins she goes “Grrrrrrr”, when we ask her what else there is to do in Camber she says “Nothing!” and when we ask what else is in the town, she says, “Town? Hah!”
She’s right, apart from the cafe and a few small shops, the area is almost entirely residential. What it has going for it is the stupendously lovely beach, fringed in dunes and dog walkers. Apart from that the main sights are boarded up chalets, an old-fashioned post office and launderette and a depressing looking pub.
Camber reminds us of a slightly more upmarket Jaywick, it has the same eerie flavour of silence and secret breakdown. A ramshackle emptiness – communities like these are the truly hidden areas of the UK.
Back at Pontins to explore and photograph it by day. After a go on the slide and a watery hot chocolate in the pastel-painted restaurant, we squeeze in a quick swim in the pool before checking-out time. We’d planned to go earlier but got too gripped by Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which we watch with the Bluecoats (who are in daywear of shiny blue tracksuits), sniggering childishly whenever anybody says the word “knob.”
It’s time to take our leave. Pontins has been an experience, and a never-to-be-repeated one, because next year it will be done-up and shiny. The smell of damp may have gone but probably also the decrepit charm. And Iron Hoof will be cast out to wander the long sands, yesterday’s bogeyman, looking for victims who don’t scare so easily now. Next time you go to a holiday camp, listen closely, you might hear him, last thing before you go to sleep. He’s saying “Claim on 69, claim on 69”…
Tamsin’s snake-shaped ring
Miss Pontins 2011 – PTV said it was on but the Bluecoats told us not to trust anything PTV says
The pop quiz – miserably (and the prize bottle of Lambrini)
Our heads, worrying about Iron Hoof
Free upgrade to Club Class
Corpse-like effigies on the streets of Camber
Lost Promenade ultimate seaside trip
* Names of Bluecoats have been changed