Sun, sand, sea … staycation Skegness

Tim Adams
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Early on Friday morning, with the sun already promising the hottest day of the year, an age-old British ritual was taking place in the car park beside the pier in Skegness. “Stand there, son,” the dad in the car next to mine was saying to his boy as they unpacked beach chairs and slapped on sunscreen. “Close your eyes, and breathe that in!” And his son, six years old, dutifully took in his summer’s first lungful of British seaside – his smile widening as that mix of sea salt, fish and chips, candyfloss and generator diesel hit him, the skirl of seagulls and Wurlitzers in the air. Who could resist?

Friday was one of those mornings when, from the pier – with the new morning’s golden sand stretching away in both directions and the first arrivals bashing in the poles of wind breaks – you could see Skegness as 30-year-old Billy Butlin must have seen it when he took the train to the sleepy Victorian resort in 1927. Butlin, who had a travelling fair, took one look at Skegness and decided he had finally found his promised land.

Well before he built his first holiday camp a mile up the coast, Butlin, from his home in a caravan in a field of cows near the seafront clock tower, brought to Skegness not only Europe’s first dodgems but wall-of-death motorcyclists, a flea circus, high divers and a zoo. Skegness was sold as a place where anything might be possible.

Skegness seaside resort in Lincolnshire, UK, after the easing of covid 19 pandemic lockdown restrictions.

In nearly a century since, that can-do vision had hardened into something more dispiriting. Last month, in a survey by Which?, Skegness came out bottom of 100 British coastal destinations for customer satisfaction, receiving a one-star rating, the lowest possible, for its attractions, scenery, peace and quiet and value for money.

In a landscape of furlough and shutdown, optimism here can seem as distant as the wind turbines on the North Sea horizon. Even so, another statistic from last month might have mitigated the gloom of those Which? findings just a little. In the first half of July, lastminute.com reported that Skegness had an 800% increase in bookings on its site year-on-year, as Britons, wary of airports and quarantine, scrambled for a holiday.

Each week through the pandemic, the tourist board, VisitBritain, has been measuring consumer sentiment in relation to travel. As I sat by the pier in Skegness, Patricia Yates, its strategy director, talked me through the latest findings on the phone. Most of the news is clearly still dismal. The hospitality industry is nearly £8bn down on the year; 7% of coastal businesses have closed for good; city breaks have fallen off a cliff.

“Not surprisingly, though,” she says, “the survey shows people want to travel by car, and they want coast and countryside.” Hotel occupancy is still below 50%, “but the sectors that are recording a real uptick are camping and caravanning and self-catering, where your contact with others is limited. Traditional resorts are faring particularly well.”

There are 28,000 caravans that line the coast from here up to South Somercotes. Bookings are in heavy demand.

“For a long time,” Yates suggests, “such domestic holidays have been the preserve of an older age group. What we are seeing from our feedback is a different sort of customer coming. Families with young children, who might have gone abroad for years. The hope is that what has been forced on people this year could become a lasting habit.”

Passing time on Skegness beach.

Down on the beach – where flesh is already reddening by 11 in the morning, and there is plenty of space to accommodate social distancing – I talk to one or two families who have changed their plans in this way. Richard Leigh, 42, from Northampton, last came to this coast as a child. He and his wife, Ann, and their two young children were due to be in Spain this summer, but are glad they have struck lucky with some Costa del Sol weather in Lincolnshire. “If you could guarantee it was going to be like this every day, it would be a no-brainer, wouldn’t it?”

The stallholders of Skegness know that wisdom only too well. Darryl Woods has had the concession for children’s rides and a bouncy slide up on the pier for eight years. The sunshine is welcome, he says, but it’s going to take much more fine weather to recover what has been lost in the past months of shutdown. “And it’s not as if last year was great either.”

At the other end of the promenade, past the stalls selling edible pebbles and Skegness rock and marshmallow willies, past the morning queues at the vodka slushy bars, next to the statue of the town’s Jolly Fisherman mascot, John Stead is setting up his sunglasses pitch. He fondly recalls the days when the Radio One roadshow used to pack the beach.

At least the sun is shining, I suggest.

“Nah, it’s too hot,” he says. “Everyone’s on the beach, rather than up here.”

“What’s ideal?”

“Overcast,” says the sunglasses seller, “with a chance of drizzle.”

Butlin’s itself, just along the coast, was originally imagined to cater for just that eventuality.

Chris Baron, the resort director, has been here 30 years. He was supposed to retire in March but he has hung on to see the camp through the pandemic. They finally reopened at 25% occupancy – 2,000 people – last week. Despite everything, Baron retains his well-practised Mr Brightside as he talks me through the new one-way system in the Octopus lounge and the distancing restrictions on Splash Waterworld.

Skegness seaside resort in Lincolnshire, UK, after the easing of covid 19 pandemic lockdown restrictions.

“I think we’ve actually opened at just the right time because things are starting to loosen off with regards to live entertainment,” he says. “So from next week, we’re probably the only place in the country that will be able to offer a pantomime.” There is a new outdoor stage for Diversity, the Britain’s Got Talent winners.

In line with the staycation trend, bookings for 2021, Baron suggests, are 60% up compared with this time last year, though that includes those who have rolled over cancellations. He is positive, too, about the prospects for the town. He thought the Which? survey was unfair, suggesting, reasonably, that questions about peace and quiet were inevitably loaded against Skegness.

Training brings pride. And if you can get back that pride, you can get that Greek cafe culture here

Sid Dennis

The huge challenge, he feels, remains to sell this stretch of coast as an out-of-season destination. Other traditional coastal resorts, particularly those in closer proximity to the capital, navigated that shift better than Skegness. Whitstable has become a foodie destination, with its microbreweries and oyster festival. With the help of Tracey Emin, Margate managed to make ramshackle retro. Here, the money that flooded into the town from the holiday fortnights of the east Midlands, ended with the closure of the mines in the 1980s and has never properly been replaced.

Former Skegness mayor Sid Dennis, 69, fervently believes that reinvention is happening. Dennis is chairman of the town’s latest funding committee, with plans for a £30m redevelopment, that hopes to tap into the government’s promises to regenerate coastal towns.

The Dennis family has been in the recycling – scrap metal – business here since 1888. His grandfather owned one of the first caravan sites on the coast here. As well as his day job at the scrapyard, Dennis has been a standup comedian for 30 years, with a previous residency at Skegness Butlins.

Skegness seaside resort in Lincolnshire, UK, after the easing of covid 19 pandemic lockdown restrictions.

Dennis’s bread and butter is waste collection for the resorts. During the pandemic, he says, his regular collection of 4,000 industrial bins went down to 200 overnight.

“We are used to factoring in bad weather, floods, snow, but you can’t factor in waking up to fuck all,” he says. “For a week, not a cheque dropped on the mat. I said to my wife – who is also my PA – stop everything going out, all the direct debits. We’ve been married 46 years and when she’s anxious, she calls me husband. ‘Husband, whatever is going to happen?’ she said.” Don’t worry, Dennis replied, they will be in touch.

Dennis believes that the crisis, and the renewed interest in staycations, has presented an opportunity as well as a challenge, but only if the town can seize it. “Billy Butlin was always an innovator,” he says, “and there is a lot of vision in the town still.”

With some zeal, he talks me through the out-of-season possibilities of the “wild coast” harking back to the health benefits of the big skies and sea air.

“People think Skegness is a bit working class,” Dennis says, “and it is. People work hard and they want to come and enjoy themselves. I’ve got a bit of money but I still love walking along the seafront having fish and chips out of the bag. That’s our street food. But there needs to be an extra offer.”

What success Skegness has had in changing its traditional image has centred around the annual SO arts festival, which – until plans were scuppered this year – brought a broader demographic to the town. “Publicans always tell me they always know when SO is on,” he says, with a laugh. “Because suddenly they have people ordering starter, main, pudding, bottle of wine. Which makes a change from the early bird special between five of them.”

Skegness seaside resort in Lincolnshire, UK, after the easing of covid 19 pandemic lockdown restrictions.

The fund committee’s aim is to build on that possibility, with a redevelopment of the seafront that will include a new permanent indoor arts pavilion and cinema (as well as a dramatic observation tower). He gestures to the weather outside: “We can’t rely on this.”

He admits that not everything in the Which? survey was wide of the mark. Dennis has a holiday flat in Crete. He would love above all to import a Greek sense of hospitality to Lincolnshire.

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“If you order a cup of coffee, the Greek waiter carefully turns the cup in its saucer to you, just so,” he says, “and gives you a little biscuit. Here they whack a mug down in front of you while they are talking to a mate on their mobile phone.”

His committee plans an FE college that offers a degree or a diploma in hospitality. “Training brings pride. And if you can get back that pride, you can get that Greek cafe culture here,” he insists. “Get a farmer’s market going, an antiques festival, a steampunk festival. I still think,” he says, with the kind of Billy Butlin enthusiasm that comes from closing your eyes and taking a deep gulp of seaside air, “despite everything, this town can offer whatever people like.”

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