Funstar for a day
CAISTER Holiday Park is 100 years old this year, and gone are the days of the Donkey Derby and tea dances but knobbly knees and glamorous grans are back.
CAISTER Holiday Park is 100 years old this year, and gone are the days of the Donkey Derby and tea dances but knobbly knees and glamorous grans are back. Feature-writer-turned-trainee 'funstar' JAMES MARSTON visits the modern world of Britain's first holiday park, which is loved by many across Suffolk.
I'VE done some things in the name of journalism in my time, but this assignment was frankly not one I was looking forward to with undiluted enthusiasm.
Told by the powers that be to “Get yourself to Caister and be a redcoat or a bluecoat or whatever they are called for the day, and pen us an entertaining feature,” I was a bit unsure exactly what I was letting myself in for.
After finding out where Caister-on-Sea is - a few miles north of Great Yarmouth past the Suffolk border-I realised Haven Caister Holiday Park is a couple of hours drive away from Ipswich.
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When the photographer and I arrived, we were met at the camp's welcome centre by the modern day equivalent of a bluecoat, a 'Funstar'. Katie Rees, assistant entertainments manager, has been doing the job she loves since she was 18. Smiling and cracking jokes, the 24-year-old quickly put me at my ease.
“You'll be fine,” she said. “We've got a few things lined up for you to do, and a Funstar uniform for you to wear.”
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Great. I hope it fits.
As we toured the 75-acre camp, Katie still didn't let on exactly what had been lined up for me, but she seemed pleasant enough and she was very enthusiastic so I felt I was in safe hands.
Half an hour later we found ourselves back where we started, and Katie said: “Right. Are you ready James?”
I said I thought I was - probably.
As we walked in to the park's main entertainments venue called Neptunes I could hear the excited chatter of children and parents.
No sooner had I got my notebook out, than I saw Katie jump on the stage and introduce me.
With a confidence I had yet to gain, she addressed the children and families taking part in the morning's planned activity. She called: “Let's all welcome our trainee Funstar James! Hello James!”
There was a half hearted “Hello James.”
Katie worked the crowd: “I think we can do better than that don't you? Hello James!”
Twenty or so young heads stopped what they were doing - mask making -and peered in my direction.
Before I knew it, I was wearing the uniform, kneeling next to eight-year-old Tempany Lowry from Norwich. She was soon telling me what to do.
“Right, we have to colour in this bit so you can do that. Then we can glue on some of this paper,” she said. I picked up a crayon did what I was told.
A few bits of colouring in, a little bit of string, and a red, white and blue colour scheme, and 20 minutes of kneeling on the floor trying to get access to the very popular pot of glue, I had finished our mask.
I even found myself proudly showing Katie the fruits of my labour.
“Well done,” she said as she presented me with a certificate. I beamed in reply.
Energetic Katie, ably assisted by Funstar colleague 20-year-old Dani Brent, was soon on the microphone again keeping the momentum and excitement going.
She said: “Have we all finished our masks? Shall we teach James the tiger dance? Shall we?”
The crowd seemed to think it was a good idea, I wasn't so convinced.
“Come on James, come on get on stage.”
Within seconds the photographer was doubled up with laughter, and I was pretending to search for a tiger, and be a monkey in time with the music.
Thought I've never had much of a dancer's physique, the dancing, once I got over the initial embarrassment, wasn't that bad. I suddenly thought that entertaining children could be quite good fun. They seemed to be enjoying it too.
Katie beckoned me over. “Would you like to meet our mascot?” she said.
A hit with the children, Rory the Tiger is a popular character who, along with his friend Bradley Bear, makes regular appearances throughout out the day.
I met him backstage just before he started his midday kid's rock and roll concert. While he was doing the hard work of entertaining I spoke to Tempany's mum Sarah Lowry.
She said: “I'm here with my three children and my partner. They're really loving it. There's lots for the children to do and lots of choice. They haven't sat down for more than half an hour since we have been here.”
Impressed by my Funstar efforts, though she didn't actually say so, mum-of-two Sarah Watkins from Dunstable in Bedfordshire, summed up the atmosphere.
She said: “We came on the spur of the moment. For me and my mum and my two children for four nights it only cost £79. I spend more on the weekly shop. It's a great atmosphere and we are really enjoying it. There's entertainment for everyone.”
By the time I was taking what I thought was a well-deserved nap, as we headed south back to reality on the A12, Katie and her team were organising more activities and preparing for the evening's entertainments. They get a break in the afternoon but it is quite a long day ensuring everyone has a good time.
I recalled Katie's words: “We say we are here to provide those magical moments. You've got to be outgoing and friendly, but the best bit is you meet new people very day. I love it here.
“I know it's work but I like it so much it doesn't really feel like it.”
10am Character breakfast: a traditional English breakfast with Rory the tiger and friends.
11am Paws: One to four-year-olds having fun with paper, glue and paint.
11.30am Rory and Bradley fun time: Competitions and prizes for five to 11 year olds.
12pm Kids 'n' Characters Rock with Rory: Sing along with his very own concert.
12.30pm T-Co: Team games and competitions for 12 to 16 year olds.
1pm Family quiz
1.30pm Family hour: A star is born competition.
7pm Rory and Bradley's show time: An hour of fun and games with the Funstars
8.15pm Party Dances
IMAGINE a holiday where alcohol is banned, no talking is allowed after 11pm and the highlight of the week is a Sunday afternoon lecture about the Labour movement.
That was what tourists enjoyed in Caister 100 years ago.
Three generations of the Pearce family from Ipswich have holidayed at the Caister Holiday Park.
Emma Pearce, of Riverside Close, is 36-years-old now but was taken to the park when she was as young as two. She said: “The holiday park was already a favourite for the family by the time my parents were choosing where to go for a week.
“Both sets of my grandparents used to go along and it would be one massive holiday. I will never forget the outdoor pool because it was so cold and you would always have to brace yourself before going in.
“I also remember the clubhouse as it was 'adults only' after a certain time in the evening. I always remember wanting to know what the adults got up to after I had to go to bed!”
Peter Pearce, Emma's dad, said: “I started going when I was 26 with my wife, Shirley and her parents and sister. It was always good fun and there was never any trouble from people who had drunk too much.”
The 72-year-old, of Riverside Close, went to the camp every year for a holiday until around 20 years ago. He said: “All the families really entered into the spirit of fun and I remember one time the father of another family asked me to pretend to have a fight with him around the poolside. All the other holidaymakers really believed we were angry with each other and I ended up throwing him into the water.
“There were tiny beach huts when we first went and there was no room in them at all. But meals were provided in a canteen so you didn't need much space. After a while they introduced chalets and now there are caravans there.”
How the holiday camp has changed over the years -
1906 - Political activist Fletcher Dodd opened the camp to promote his socialist ideals, by offering holidays to the working men of East London.
They looked forward to lectures from well-known socialists such as George Bernard Shaw.
The first campers stayed in bell tents and picked their own vegetables on the camp allotments. The beach-side camp was soon attracting up to 1,000 holidaymakers a week and the tents were gradually replaced by huts and chalets.
In the 1930s - Entertainment was organised by committees elected by the campers. Sport featured high on the agenda and campers were allocated to two teams - the Lions and the Bears - and wore their team badges at all times.
A big expansion took place when special trains known as the Holiday Camp Express travelled direct from London Liverpool Street to the park.
After 1945 - A more light-hearted programme of activities was introduced if you “Took the Road to Happiness” and booked a holiday at Caister.
Fancy dress, the Miss Caister beauty competition on the beach, quizzes, card games, beach games, roller skating and “jolly games of cricket” were all part of the fun. The highlight of the week was the Grand Get-Together Dance, with 600 couples dancing to resident band The Imeson Brothers.
1970s - The camp attracted a star cabaret with names like Roy Castle, Ronnie Corbett, Frankie Vaughan, Roy Hudd, and Des O'Connor.
1980s and 90s - The Prince of Wales, who was a regular visitor. He recalled his association with the park through his Prince's Trust in a foreword to an exhibition charting 100 years of history at Caister.
He wrote: "The great British tradition of holiday camps started here 100 years ago.
"Tens of thousands of families have since enjoyed all that you have to offer and I could not be more delighted to send Caister and Haven and British Holidays my warmest congratulations on reaching your centenary, and I can only wish you a happy and prosperous future."
2000s - Caister Holiday Park offers heated indoor and outdoor pools, SplashZone activities, kid's clubs, daytime sports and live family entertainment every night.
To celebrate the centenary, the spirit of the last century is being recaptured with weekly evenings of Retro Fun. The Bonny Baby, Glamorous Granny and Knobbly Knees competitions are revived, along with dancing through the decades.
For more information about Haven Holidays visit www.havenholidays.com or call Caister Holiday Park on 0870 4050124.
Caister Holiday Park welcomes more than 100,000 holiday makers a year.
WHEN full to capacity, there can be 3,200 holidaymakers at Caister Holiday Park.
General manager Debbie Wheeler is in charge of the 350 or so staff that make it work.
She said: “It has been interesting to look back at how things were 100 years ago. I think the reason why we are still popular is we have moved with the times. Every year we sit down and discuss what types of entertainment families will want and expect to keep it up to date and new.
“People chose to come here rather than abroad, it is still a cost effective holiday and there's no stress of the airport or flying with youngsters.
“Most of our customers come from within a two and a half hour drive. Holidays are about children and if they're happy then everyone is happy. We are still geared to family based entertainment and our activities are for families to enjoy together.”