From the road, all you can see of Pontins in Camber Sands is the hulking purple reception building and a locked gate. Its sudden closure this week – alongside that of sister resort Prestatyn in North Wales – marks the end of an era for a seaside holiday park that opened its doors in 1968 and had its heyday in the decade that followed.
In 2011, Pontins was saved from administration by current owners Britannia Hotels, but in recent years Camber Sands reviews have sometimes been less than kind – see Booking.com: “Think prisoner-of-war camps in old movies”, and TripAdvisor: “This is the worst caravan we have ever stayed in and we will never return.”
Despite lots of positive reviews too (particularly about Pontins staff), it’s clear that holidaymakers expected better from this once-loved holiday park.
Camber itself is a small village strung along the magnificent beach of Camber Sands just over the border from Kent, in East Sussex. If you approach from the east, your first sight of Camber is lines of white static caravans hunkered down behind sea defences – Parkdean Resorts caravans and lodges, which, together with Pontins, dwarf the footprint of the village. In summer, visitors outnumber locals 250-to-1 (in 2020, Rother District Council reported as many as 25,000 people heading to Camber Sands each day) and tourism businesses rely on this seasonal income (just don’t mention parking to the locals).
On a cold and sunny day in December, many of Camber’s businesses are closed and the huge sandy beach and its car parks are sparsely populated with dog walkers. In the cafes and businesses that are open, rumour and speculation is rife about what will happen next at the Pontins site. From re-development and reopening, to rewilding, new homes, or even an asylum seekers’ detention centre, everyone has an opinion.
In the well-heeled cobbled lanes of nearby Rye, there’s far less chatter about Pontins sudden closure, though in the Heritage Centre on Strand Quay (ryeheritage.co.uk), volunteers Steve and Lee are concerned about a knock-on effect. Holidaymakers would often pop to Rye to visit a cafe, or for fish and chips, and on a rainy day would spend time in the centre’s penny arcade and Town Model light and sound show.
Steve’s fondest Pontins memories are of huge work events with bands like Showaddywaddy and Boney M, and the more recent Rockabilly Rave weekends, when Sunday would bring vintage American cars cruising into town (there’s no update yet on whether the 26th annual Rockabilly Rave will go ahead in 2024 – or where it might be hosted).
Lee lives in Camber and she says that “people had got used to Pontins being there; they liked to knock it, but there’s a feeling of ‘better the devil you know’”. Her biggest concern about the closure is that it will be turned into a migrant centre (something the Home Office is strongly refuting).
Lee tells me, “It’s impractical, there’s only just over a thousand residents in Camber, and there was talk at one time [before Pontins signed their most recent lease] of more than 2,000 migrants. Imagine them wandering around, with nothing to do.” She points out that there’s no infrastructure of schools, doctors or public transport, and says that residents are worried about what a migrant centre would mean for the village, and for house prices.
“It’s all the not knowing; no one is coming out and saying what the plan actually is.”
Back in Camber in the Marina Cafe on the beach, which is open year-round and has been since 1985, cafe worker Louise hopes that someone will take on the holiday park and put some money into it. She tells me: “I know it’s not the best place, but at least people can afford to go. Some people hate it, but others come back every year because it’s reasonable.” She points out that Pontins staff got just two hours’ notice of the closure (and some heard about it on social media), and that letting everyone go just before Christmas was pretty rough: “This is a holiday village, so where are people going to get work?”
By all accounts, Rother District Council, which owns the freehold of the site, was also taken aback by the sudden announcement. A spokesperson said: “Rother District Council was surprised to learn of the closure of Pontins in Camber, a popular holiday destination for thousands of families in the summer months. As freeholder of the site, we have had no communication from Pontins or their parent company Britannia Hotels about the closure, its duration, or their intentions for the site in the long-term. We sympathise with those who may have lost their employment at this time of year, and we are disappointed for customers whose holiday plans have been disrupted.”
So what about those who still want to stay in Camber for a holiday? Pontins was pretty self-sufficient as far as facilities and entertainment went, and after its closure, visitors won’t find a great deal to do (part of the village’s appeal, for many). Families love the whacking great big beach and dunes, and The Kitesurf Centre (thekitesurfcentre.com), run by Rupert and his brothers, is the spot for kite buggying, kite landboarding, hydrofoiling, stand-up paddleboarding and windsurfing. Rupert says they rarely saw customers from Pontins – maybe the occasional stag do – so the closure shouldn’t have a big impact on business, though he expects an impact on the village: “some good, some bad”.
Finally, just metres from the Pontins entrance, but at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of holiday accommodation, is The Gallivant (thegallivant.co.uk), an adults-only wellbeing retreat aimed squarely at the city crowd who want good food, good wine, rest and rejuvenation. Not a bluecoat in sight, and definitely not a destination for a sports tour (Pontins bread-and-butter weekend events).
It’s clear there’s a sea change happening in Camber, but for those who hope to have a cheap family-friendly holiday at the British seaside, their options just got more limited.