My Working Class Holiday In England

Part of the beauty of being an expatriate is that just when you think you really “get” another culture, you find out that you actually don’t, and peel off a whole new layer of understanding.

My first inkling that I still had way more to learn about the UK came several years ago, when I first grasped the profoundly important place of alcohol in British culture.

I had another such realization this past weekend, as my family and I – by virtue of attending a chess tournament for my son – ventured out to sample a working-class holiday camp in England.

Yes, that’s right. A “working-class holiday camp.” Americans in the audience may be scratching their heads at this point, since there really isn’t an equivalent in the U.S.. I guess the closest thing would be the sprawling family vacation resorts out in the Poconos Mountains or up in the Catskills, but I’ve been to some of those resorts and they don’t even approximate what I’m describing.

Imagine your worst Motel Six – the grimiest, most fleabag hotel room you’ve ever frequented –  and then add another 800 rooms or so to produce an endless, Soviet-block style chain of  purpose-built “chalets” (I use that term advisedly) where people come to vacation en masse.

Now add some chipped pastel paint, a handful of broken down children’s rides (several of which have been condemned and are covered in yellow tape) and an all-you-can-eat buffet for two quid (roughly three bucks) and you will begin to get the picture.

But the picture would not be complete without the odors. Everywhere you go on this compound, you confront an array of different scents- some smelling of urine and cheap alcohol, and others entirely unrecognizable.

And then there is the smoke. Almost everyone we met was smoking a cigarette. When I saw a couple simultaneously ash on their toddler’s stroller (buggy), I knew we weren’t on the Hampstead High Street anymore.

As my ten year-old son summed it up: “This place is just sad.”

I say all of this not to denigrate the place, sad though it truly was. The problem has more to do with me, with how utterly gob-smacked I was – to employ an English term – when I arrived and began to take it all in.

And that’s because – let’s face it – this was not an England I’d encountered before. I say this as someone who lives in an urban environment, has a daughter in a quite diverse state (public) school, and has relied on public transport nearly every day since moving here five years ago.

And yet…I somehow hadn’t grasped that there was such a thing as a working-class holiday “camp.”

Of course, I should have known. Britain is famously class-conscious. While I’ve never bought into the American myth that we are a classless society, “class” is not a vocabulary or paradigm that we Americans traffic in. (We have other narratives and other dividing lines.)

But here in the U.K., people are not only acutely aware of social class, they don’t even pretend to hide it. There’s actually a new book out entitled Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, which argues that to laugh at, ridicule and despise working class people has now become socially acceptable. (Chav is slang for working class.)

That may or may not be so. But it is definitely the case that the thatched roofs, rolling hills and tea and scone England that we’ve all come to know and love (helped in no small measure by the recent Royal Wedding and hullabalo around it), does not even come close to approximating the reality of the touristic experience on offer.

Am I mortified that I, too, seem to have bought into the whole Shakespearean, ye-olde-worlde vibe that is still the signature mystique around this country (at least to its quaint, country-bumpkin cousins on the other side of the Atlantic)?

You betcha. (To coin a phrase from a quaint American female politician.)

But there it is.

And now, the bloom is off the rose. I can officially state that I see my host country not just as the average tourist sees it, but from the inside.

I wonder what I’ll learn next.


Image: AboveUs by brutalSoCal via Flickr on a Creative Commons license


Image: AboveUs by brutalSoCal via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

  • Reply Shelley

    June 29, 2011, 8:26 am

    I recently met up with some old friends from Oklahoma (teetotal, church-going Baptists) in York when they were over for a British vacation. He included Blackpool in their itenerary, which amazed me. They apparently took it in stride…I told them it was part of the British culture. I’m sure I’ll never ‘get’ it all, but that’s part of what makes living abroad so much fun, right?

  • Reply Patricia

    June 29, 2011, 11:30 pm

    Seeing other folks with their class systems allows us to understand our own – or rather what we did not see as children. When I was working as a itinerant counselor, I personally felt middle class and wealthy. Now after 2008, I feel like only my education sets me apart and I worry about how “they” will survive – already the “meanness” is coming through and the gated communities grow.

    Fear is such a master – we are privileged if we only feel sad

  • Reply Delia Lloyd

    June 30, 2011, 7:54 am

    @patricia-this is a very thoughtful comment. I love your last line.

  • Reply C.M. Mayo

    June 30, 2011, 11:23 pm

    Methinks one might take a long shower with some lavender-scented Crabtree & Evelyn product…

  • Reply C.M. Mayo

    June 30, 2011, 11:24 pm

    … it’s funny how we all get ideas about other countries that leave out huge patches of reality. Thanks for a very chewy blog post.

  • Reply daryl boylan

    July 1, 2011, 2:27 pm

    “Holiday camps” exist in the US too, only we don’t call them that & they tend to be clusters of smaller units. There are vacation communities on the Jersey shore, for instance, which feel remarkably like what you describe, only no big buildings. Of course, what struck me as depressing seemed like fun to the people who go there in droves.

  • Reply John Bates

    July 5, 2011, 7:27 pm

    I was hoping that you would “name and shame”.

    Surely the chess tournament was not hosted in that awful place. At least you can take away from the experience the great news that, even at the innocent age of ten, your son is capable of distinguishing good from grotty.

    • Reply delialloyd

      July 6, 2011, 9:49 am

      @John-the original draft contained the name but then I decided to leave it out…I actually have to write a travel piece on our “holiday” so I thought I’d save the real name for that one…but I did debate this. Thanks for noticing-grotty is the word!

  • Reply John Bates

    July 8, 2011, 12:06 pm

    When you write that article it might be interesting to see what TripAdvisor has to say about that place. It might tell you more about TripAdvisor, of course.

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