‘Parents get lost’ at Devon holiday landmark
A snooty national newspaper columnist described it as a bit like a “down-market Centre Parcs”, but generations of children would argue that Torquay’s Barton Hall is much more than that. And it has its own place in the nation’s sporting history, thanks to the dry ski slope on the site that is still in use today.
Opened to great fanfare in 1963, it was the first dry ski slope in the UK, and it is thought to be one of the oldest of its kind in the world still operating today. Built in the 1830s as a luxurious private home, Barton Down looks out towards the distant sparkling waters of Tor Bay.
It was once part of Fred Pontin’s egalitarian holidays-for-all empire of camps that spread across Britain and Europe. Now it’s a place where youngsters and their families can get to grips with adventure holidays, build rafts, abseil and learn to ride a quad bike among other hearty pursuits.
The manor house high on the hill looking down over Barton was first constructed by Henry Langford Brown at a reported cost of £10,000, but it suffered a terrible fire in 1862 and was all-but destroyed. Reconstruction started almost immediately to return Barton Hall to its elegant Tudor style, and it was inherited in 1936 by Squire Thomas Hercules Langford Brown.
The building was requisitioned for military use during the Second World War and was left afterwards in a poor state. From there it was sold to a group of businessmen in 1947, and 10 years later became a holiday camp thanks to Pontins.
Fred Pontin’s arch-rival Billy Butlin never built a holiday camp west of Minehead, but wily old Fred loved South Devon, and in the Carry On Camping Sixties and Seventies there were no fewer than seven Pontins camps in Torbay. Early in the season Fred was a regular fixture of TV advertisement breaks, geeing up fun-loving families all over the country and urging them to choose a Pontins camp for their precious summer fortnight off work.
You could set the calendar by the different set holidays of the industrial North and Midlands, and you could hear the accents of the holidaymakers change across the summer in the shops and on the beaches. And Fred Pontin’s shuttle buses were there to welcome them, blue-coated couriers scooping up the excited visitors and their cases and whisking them off to camps at Kings Ash in Paignton as well as Barton Hall, the Torbay Chalet Hotel at Marldon and a choice of Bay View, Dolphin, Homelea and St Mary’s Bay at Brixham.
The Dolphin camp at Berry Head had more than 300 chalets and Fred Pontin thought of it as one of his best. Its restaurant food and entertainment were a cut above the rest. And Fred anticipated his guests’ longing for a touch of French mountain chic, and built the dry ski slope at Barton Hall to give it a touch of Alpine glamour.
Entertainment at the seven Pontins camps of South Devon was provided by performers known as Bluecoats, whose style was captured in the TV sitcom Hi-de-Hi. Famous former Bluecoats include Bobby Davro, Shane Richie, Bradley Walsh and Lee Mack. Hundreds of local people also found work in the holiday camps as business boomed.
Barton Hall remained the flagship of the company until it was sold in 1978. A string of owners took it on as a holiday destination until it began to focus on outdoor education holidays back in 2001 and became part of PGL in around 2010. PGL is best known by its nickname “Parents Get Lost”, which reflects its mission to give youngsters independence and adventure, but the initials are those of founder Peter Gordon Lawrence, who set up the company in 1957. It now operates more than a dozen holiday centres in the UK and France.
Reviewers in recent years have loved its combination of budget prices and old-fashioned outdoor fun. One wrote: “If our chalet accommodation is an episode of Sesame Street, it would be brought to you by the letter ‘b’: basic, beds, bathroom, beverages (tea and coffee facilities) and the occasional bug (we count four spiders during our stay).
“And bunk beds, for the little ones to fight over. All this talk of TV – but you won’t find one in the chalets, which is no bad thing: you’ll be so busy, there’s no time for it.”
And what’s more, the dry ski slope is still up and running, albeit somewhat upgraded from the 1963 version. The Torquay Alpine Ski Club still teaches skiing and snowboarding on Fred Pontin’s old slope.
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