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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.

institutional

institutional

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.

club class

club class

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.

festive

festive

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.

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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!”

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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!”.

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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”.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

camber cafe

camber cafe

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!”

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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.

launderette

launderette

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.

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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.”

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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”…

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Lost

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

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Found

Free upgrade to Club Class

Corpse-like effigies on the streets of Camber

Lost Promenade ultimate seaside trip

 

* Names of Bluecoats have been changed

Camber TV Centre

Camber TV Centre

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Swapshop

Swapshop

Darn we’re excited, glee is bubbling out of us like synthetic cream squidgeting from a vanilla slice. The reason? Tonight the Lost Promenade are realising a long-held dream – we’re staying at Pontins!

 Sorry to tease you, but you’re going to have to wait for the next blog entry to find out what happened on our out-of-season-British-holiday-camp adventure. Because first things first, along with honorary Lost Prommer Lindsey, we’re in Rye for the day, and the plan is to head to nearby Camber Sands later for a spur-of-the-moment night at Pontins. We’ve been to Rye before separately and found it dull so we weren’t expecting much, but maybe because we’re so geed up about Pontins, this time we have a bumper good time, and there’s so much to write that it deserves a blog entry by itself.

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 Like our last destination, Liverpool, Rye isn’t really by the sea. – the nearest beach is two miles away. However, in medieval times, Rye was one of the Cinque Ports and was almost entirely surrounded by ocean. So more than anywhere else we’ve visited, it’s a true Lost Promenade. Rye lies amongst the wetlands of Romney Marsh, has a past full of smugglers, invasion threats and drownings and nowadays is very, very posh. On first glance it exudes smugness; perfectly preserved heritage buildings, peachy prosperity, polite prejudice, floral emptiness. However, the Rope Walk Shopping Centre outside the town centre is an unexpected oasis of unvarnished fun. A warehouse full of funny little unglitzy shops: Lady Penelope Hair & Beauty, Chez Maureen, Candy Cascade, Frankie G’s Snack Bar. Maggots are on sale for £3.50 a pint and the crowning glory is tucked away at one end – a collection of working vintage penny slot machines. Nhung tries the fortune telling machine which goes on for ages in a Northern accent; stuck on some sort of loop telling every possible fortune, not one of which we can remember. We’re tempted by the Fun Photo Stickers machine, but even better than that is Harry Corbett’s Sooty TV Concert, a glorious bimbo box, the equal to the monkey orchestra at the end of Worthing Pier, with Sooty on drums, Sweep on sax and Soo on vibes playing a fantastic big band swirling stomper. “I can’t believe it gets so good so quickly!”, says Nhung. Too late, Tamsin remembers she has a video recorder on her camera, so she gets a brief snatch of it, before Sooty’s song sputters and dies. We give the machine a careful slap, not wanting to break it, but that’s that, it plays no more. A man who looks like The Fonz approaches us and tells us that if we like these; Rye heritage centre holds the UK’s biggest collection of Victorian slot machines. But sadly we don’t have time to visit it today.

Cleaning up

Cleaning up

 Whilst in the shopping centre, we also spend a long time in a junk shop called Swapshop, which sells vintage bits of technology (like suitcase record players) along with an extensive selection of guns. Nhung is captivated by a miniature TV, and we outstay our welcome by sleevefacing with various LPs. Our discussions vary from forced moustache growing, forming an “intimidating smile gang” and making an action film about a Kent-set vendetta that ends in arson, just to use the line; “Your oast is toast”.

 Rye’s high street abounds with boring designer shops, but despite that, there’s a few gems here and there – in particular Grammar School Records and its offer of £1 for a lucky bag of 10 singles. All 3 of us have a go and score some pop magic with a pretty good ratio of yay to yuck – about half of the songs are goodies, with the winner being ‘Clouds Across the Moon’ by The Rah Band. The man in the shop says, “People always come back for more”, however when we try to give back the records we don’t want he says, “That’s not really the point, I’m trying to get rid of this shit!”

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 We stop for lunch in the Mariners Coterie Tea Rooms and have pizza, chips and Earl Grey. There we discuss animal jumpers; Tamsin has a swan, Lindsey has a fox but Nhung wins with a horse and two deer. We also marvel at how cheap Pontins is and Nhung accidentally says “Fuck!” too loudly and everybody turns around and stares at us.

 Next stop is a craft fair, at which we suffer the usual modern craft fair disappointment. The trouble with craft fairs these days is old ladies don’t seem to make anything for them any more. When I was little, they were full of faux Fabergé eggs and novelty wooden spoons. OK, those things weren’t exactly nice but they had an innocent charm. These days it’s all owl-shaped knowing twee and faux-naif felt hair decorations made by bored Tory wives. Everyone has the right to exercise their creativity, but frankly it would be better for all concerned if these people used their energy to do something useful, like campaigning to save their local rape crisis centre, instead of making POINTLESS CUTESY SHIT. Ahem

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 We do have one good craft experience though; The Black Sheep is a knitwear shop which sells new jumpers unironically made (by old ladies natch) to 1980s patterns. Batwing enthusiast Nhung is in her absolute element.

 After that we find loads of good antique shops and junk shops. And I mean loads. Vintage children’s clothing, 60s & 70s ceramics, kitchenalia, menswear (a shop called Classic Chaps) – there is an exhaustive supply of the second-hand. Nhung is mainly taken up with hunting for a one particular butter dish – a brown and orange daisy print in the Hornsea Pottery ‘Saffron’ pattern. We see lots of Saffron china that day, but the butter dish remains elusive. We head back, laden with booty, to the Rope Walk so Nhung can buy the mini TV and Tamsin gets told off by the man in the café for walking in to take a photo, “I’ve just mopped!”

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 Finally we head to Budgens to stock up on food for the evening and have a last minute dash to a fireworks shop to get some sparklers (An old man in front of us says, with a quiet dignity. “I’ll have one rocket please”). For tonight is Guy Fawkes night and did I already say? We’re going to Pontins!

 Rye has exceeded our expectations, and provided a perfect warm-up to the next act. Although on the surface, it’s all gloss and half timbers, in the right mood and with the right company it’s a winner. Just make sure you go to the Rope Walk Shopping Centre instead of the hoity-toity town centre, and say hello to Sooty from us.

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 Lost

Nhung’s dream butter dish (again)

Child’s owl jumper (too small)

Vintage Victorian slot machines at the Heritage Centre

Nhung’s hairslide (broke)

Lindsey’s hairbrush she bought in Clacton

 Found

Green geometric print silk scarf

1970s oversized sunglasses

Mustard yellow 1970s Habitat plastic bath rack (like in Sindy’s bathroom)

Rabbit-shaped jelly mould

Vintage Madeline pan

1980s miniature black & white TV

1960s yellow leather shoulder bag

Green crochet blanket

Brown & orange floral print 1960s dress

1930s teapot with chrome and bakelite cover

30 7” singles

Handknit striped batwing jumper

2 sets of sparklers and a lighter

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