The happy holiday we outgrew

As Butlins celebrates its 70th birthday, William Cook pays tribute to a much-maligned British instit

A few miles north of Skegness, on the wind swept coast of Lincolnshire, there is a resort that represents a slice of social history. It's not run by the National Trust, but it reveals far more about our national life than any stately home or monument. This year, Butlins celebrates its 70th birthday, and last month I spent a day there, in search of the traditional British seaside.

The 1930s Butlins brochure promised "plenty of indoor fun and outdoor sport". A lifetime later, that promise still stands. Outside, on tidy football pitches, boys in smart sports kit are policed by dapper referees. Inside, in the amusement arcade, adults feed hungry fruit machines. "No football boots in the arcade," reads a sign outside. There are slot machines all over - even in the theatre foyer. There's a branch of Ladbrokes, if you'd rather place a bet. It's heaven or hell for small-time gamblers, depending on your point of view.

The bar was full of blokes watching Sky Sports. "Are you a football widow?" inquired a sign outside the spa. "All men are animals," read a mug in the gift shop. "Some just make better pets." Yet Butlins isn't just about booze, betting and football. The pottery studio is full of families. There are kids' swimming lessons in the indoor pool. Lads and dads pot balls on full-sized tables in the snooker hall.

Like most British institutions (curry, fish and chips, the royal family), Butlins is an immigrant invention. Billy Butlin was born in South Africa in 1899 and grew up in Canada, where a trip to a summer camp sowed a seed that grew. After serving in the Canadian army during the First World War, he came to England to work for his uncle, who came from a long line of fairground showmen, and wound up running a funfair in Skegness. Seeing landladies chucking out their bed-and-breakfast guests, making them stay out all day, whatever the weather, inspired him to open a camp where working families could afford an all-inclusive, all-weather break.

"Our true intent is all for your delight," was Billy Butlin's poetic mission statement. Business boomed. He opened a second camp at Clacton and built a third at Filey, and after the minor inconvenience of the Second World War (when his camps became military bases and were bombed by the Luftwaffe) he opened several more. By the 1970s, there were nine in Britain and even one in Ireland. "All the fascination of a holiday across the sea," read the brochure, "with none of the strangeness of completely foreign shores."

However, as air travel became cheaper, those strange foreign shores began to steal away the Butlins market. Since Sir Billy died in 1980, seven sites have been shut or sold (the Irish camp now houses asylum-seekers) and for a decade the remaining resorts laboured under cheesy names such as Starcoast World and Funcoast World. Yet despite the lure of budget flights to far warmer foreign beaches, the three surviving Butlinses (Skegness, Minehead and Bognor Regis) still attract 1.3 million happy campers every year.

At the Skyline Pavilion (strangely reminiscent of an airport departure lounge) those indefati gably jolly Redcoats were judging a kids' fancy-dress contest: a dead heat between Dennis the Menace and Darth Vader. With their remorseless cheerleaders' cheerfulness, Redcoats are an easy target for cheap jokes, but watching them at work, you realise what a good job they do. Without them, these mums and dads would be working harder than ever. Thanks to the showbiz wannabes, they can relax and read the paper.

And you never know - you might see someone really good. Ringo Starr was drumming here when John Lennon asked him to join the Beatles. Famous former Redcoats include Dave Allen, Michael Barrymore and Benny Hill. That afternoon, the Redcoats put on a panto mime (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and although I'd been dreading it, it was really rather charming. The acting was adept and engaging. There were even a few half-decent gags. I've certainly seen far worse in London's West End.

Butlins is smarter yet less spectacular than it used to be. The modern chalets are much plusher, but the monorail and the chairlifts are long gone. The restaurants are pleasant, and remarkably good value: two courses for £5.95 (£3.95 for under-12s), including unlimited soft drinks, tea and coffee. With a week for two adults and two children in high season costing roughly £800 full board (or £600 self-catering), this is still a place where an ordinary family can buy "a week's holiday for a week's wage".

Yet there's nothing to compare with forgotten curios like the Viennese Beer Garden. There is not much demand for foreign follies nowadays, not now that punters can fly away to see the real thing. Some of the original chalets survive as listed buildings, but there's not much sense of history. It's as comfortable and anodyne as any upmarket theme park or shopping centre. That devout moderniser, Billy Butlin, would surely have approved.

On my way out, I took a stroll along the seafront. "Skegness Is So Bracing," warned the Edwardian poster, and Skeggy doesn't disappoint. A few toddlers tiptoed at the ocean's edge, but there was no one in the water. Yet there were loads of children on the beach - digging tunnels and building sandcastles, just as their grandparents did when Butlins opened 70 years ago. With our airports full of polluting planes and stressed-out passengers, who's to say this isn't a more civilised way to spend a holiday than jetting off to Spain?

"Oh, so they let you out, then," scoffed a passing cyclist as I left. To my surprise, I felt a sudden surge of indignation. Suddenly, I felt like sticking up for this unpretentious place, where normal families can afford to have a good time without worrying too much about money. People love poking fun at Butlins. They always have done. They always will. But deep down, they're not just mocking Billy Butlin's utopian vision: what they're really mocking is the unfashionable aspirations of the British working class.