Here’s what happened when I spent a night at Pontins — the worst-rated holiday park in the U.K.
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I didn’t grow up in the United Kingdom so since moving here more than three years ago, I have been trying to acquaint myself with as many U.K. traditions and cultural activities as possible.
One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by following local travel news… and one of the things that keeps cropping up is Pontins Holiday Parks.
While the concept of a holiday park is not unusual to me, the crazy stories coming out of this place are. Examples include:
- Inside Pontins resort “from hell” where guests were injured by falling ceiling
- Mum compares “horrific” Pontins holiday to being “a prisoner in a war film”
- Pontins holidaymaker says he “wouldn’t let his worst enemy’s dog” stay at filthy site
- “THIS CAN’T BE REAL” Mum abandoned £1,200 Pontins holiday after ONE NIGHT in disgust after room had stained carpets and dirty furniture
- Pontins mum’s horror stay after scrubbing “filthy” chalet with bleach before fleeing with kids early
- Disgusted family found “pubic hair on microwave” at Pontins
- Human faeces, vomit and cigarette butts found in Pontins holiday park
I couldn’t quite believe that any business that appeared to be this bad would still be in operation (or that anyone would continue to stay there), so in the interests of both finding the truth, and your entertainment, I stayed a night.
Pontins operates six holiday parks across the country, and I checked the reviews of each to find the worst rated. Two parks, Brean Sands in Somerset and Camber Sands in East Sussex, both came in with the lowest scored — a 2.0/5 on TripAdvisor with thousands of reviews each. I chose Camber Sands as it was closer to London and easier to get to.
I booked one night on a Sunday at the end of September in a standard two-bedroom family apartment (though I was travelling by myself). The cost was a pretty reasonable £40 per night.
I took the train to Rye — it was a beautiful day and the little town of Rye was gorgeous — I highly recommend it. My trip was off to a good start.
It was a few miles on to Camber Sands. Pontins is just a few minutes from the beachfront. I had a quick look at the sea and the beach, which was decent, with plenty of space and plenty of families enjoying the late summer weather.
I had read that Pontins was extremely strict on check-in times, and that some guests were forced to queue for hours. Check-in time was listed from “approximately” 4:00 p.m. and fearing a long queue, I arrived just before 3:00 p.m. prepared for a long wait.
I followed the signs from the main entrance to the “main venue” for check-in.
First impressions were okay — it was a huge colourful site with plenty to interest kids and a huge amount of signage everywhere.
Next to the main reception was a huge wedding-style marquee. I initially thought Pontins might put on special events here (or even host weddings, though it seemed an odd place to get married), but it wasn’t until I took a closer look that I realised this was purely a check-in area with room for hundreds and hundreds of people.
Fortunately this marquee was not in use. I assume Pontins receives the vast majority of its guests during school holidays and my visit was just outside this period, so the site was not busy. I could definitely understand long check-in queues in this marquee on the first weekend of school holidays which would be unpleasant with restless children who just want to start their holiday.
The first weird part of my journey happened when I entered the main building which was used for check-in when the outdoor marquee was not.
It doubled as a bingo hall and the check-in desk was a fake pirate ship.
There was a family in front of me at the only open window lodging a series of complaints and wishing to leave early and receive a refund. This wasn’t looking good.
The receptionist called for a manager to “receive a complaint” in such a calm and unbothered way it made me suspect this task was a large and very regular part of her job.
She quickly checked me in, a little confused as to why I was only staying one night and travelling by myself. She noted the time being five minutes to 3:00 p.m. and said “oh good — only five minutes of my shift left”. This seemed unusual considering the main check-in time was from 4:00 p.m.
Once I had my key I had a quick look around the main building — there was a fairly large arcade area with signs everywhere that either forbade alcohol, refused refunds or indicated machines were out of order.
I was keen to check out my apartment, so I headed outside and followed the signs to my block.
I was expecting a pretty basic, self-catering older-style flat and that was exactly what I got.
The majority of complaints I had read about Pontins online were that the rooms were not cleaned properly between guests with people checking in and finding all sorts of disgusting items in their apartment.
I have to hand it to Pontins — although the decor may have been grim and the facilities extremely basic, my apartment was clean.
I even checked under the beds, which had been cleaned properly.
The only really filthy part of the room were the windows – you could barely see out of them because it appears they had not been cleaned in a very long time.
There was the odd cleaning oversight as I checked the drawers.
And the bedroom door didn’t shut properly. I quickly realised why.
On closer inspection I realised the door had been re-patched several times – I’m guessing previous guests had kicked holes in it which would match previous guests reviews.
The room was by no means luxurious, but for very inexpensive family accommodation, I thought it was okay for the price.
None of the beds were made, but I then remembered that you had to either bring your own bedding or you could purchase it when booking the room. I had purchased one set when booking for the night and searched the room, but it was nowhere to be seen. In hindsight I should have asked when checking in.
I headed back to reception, which from the horror stories I had heard about Pontins, seemed to be the standard process for most guests to lodge a complaint about their room. The reception area was completely closed at 3:10 p.m. with a sign saying I had to find the guest services centre. Given check-in time was supposed to be at 4:00 p.m. it seemed odd to close reception before check-in even started.
I found the guest services area and explained my situation. The helpful employee simply asked what bedding I needed without asking for a room number or verifying what I had prepaid. I went back to my apartment and made my own bed — this was a long way from some of the five-star hotels I have reviewed for TPG in the past!
The sheets certainly weren’t 1,000 thread-count Egyptian cotton — but they were bearable.
I didn’t really want to hang out in my apartment all day so I went for a walk around the site to see just what Pontins had to offer. Nearby was a bouncing area…that was thoroughly deflated and covered up.
There was also an English-style pub, which looked okay.
I was excited to see signs for a dinosaur park as I’m a huge Jurassic Park fan. This was closed at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday in September.
There was a sign on the door expressly forbidding the use of drugs in the park. I couldn’t quite work out who would visit a holiday park with their children and take drugs there.
I managed to have a look at the dinosaur park over the fence — it didn’t look too bad.
There were a huge amount of signs listing various rules all around the park — especially in regards to littering.
I soon realised why — as I was walking around I would see rubbish, especially food scraps flung out of guests’ doors and windows which would attract flocks of seagulls.
There was a swimming pool, which was closed and had opening hours almost as restrictive as reception.
Despite being within the Session #3 opening hours, the doors were locked and the lights were off.
There were also parties advertised though no dates or times.
The various playgrounds looked fun but they were completely deserted when I was there.
There didn’t appear to be any dining establishments open anywhere in the park for dinner so I wandered down outside to grab some food in the local village of Camber Sands. There are some nice pubs in the town and the food there was decent.
As I headed out there was a Nisa supermarket next to the entrance where people could stock up on supplies. Though it seemed there was a real alcohol problem at Pontins — I’m not sure why a supermarket attached to a major holiday park would sell alcohol to the public but then not allow you to take it into your private apartment to enjoy on your holiday.
Was this just a ploy to sell more drinks at the pub or did they really want to dissuade people from drinking at all?
There were security guards at the main entrance (where you would walk from the supermarket into the park) — presumably to search guests for contraband alcohol, though I was not stopped or searched as I came and went.
What was even stranger was that directly across the road was an off-licence selling a wide range of alcohol with no signs warning that it could not be taken into the park.
As the sun set I remembered that one of the most favourably reviewed aspects of Pontins were the “Bluecoats”. This was the entertainment staff that put on shows each night for guests. Despite the park being almost deserted, I went in search of these entertainers and discovered them already performing in the main hall to a sparse crowd.
While I was not the target audience for this type of entertainment, I have to hand it to the Bluecoats — they danced and sang tirelessly and worked very hard to ensure kids and adults alike had a good time.
The show continued with female singers and dancers on the stage itself — one of the singers belted out a live cover of Ariana Grande’s “One Last Time” which would have made it through to the live shows of The X Factor — she had a great voice and stage presence.
I was impressed how much effort the staff went to given there were so few guests there.
After an hour or so of watching the entertainment I retreated to my room for the night.
The walls between the apartment were paper thin and I could clearly hear every word the family occupying the apartment next to me were saying. I popped in some earplugs and managed to get an okay night’s sleep although I could feel every single spring of the old lumpy, stained mattress in my back the entire evening.
The next morning I packed up my things and headed back to the main reception building both to checkout and see if any breakfast was available.
As I walked out the family staying next to me was also checking out. The parents had faces like thunder and the kids looked equally miserable — I can’t imagine they could have arrived in a worse mood then they departed in.
The restaurant area in the main building, which was closed the previous evening for dinner, appeared to be open, though was very dark inside.
The staff had put out a Full English buffet breakfast in the dreary cafeteria area, which while no comparison to a luxury hotel breakfast, didn’t look too bad.
I checked out quickly without a fuss and made my way back to London.
With the explosion of cheap budget airfares to mainland Europe it must be difficult for domestic tourism to compete — there’s undoubtedly much better beaches and weather in the likes of Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey than there is in Camber Sands, and the costs while you are there can be much lower than the U.K. as well.
Pontins was not the horror story I had expected from the various shocking media reports. What struck me most was that outside of school holidays, even in September when it was actually nice beach weather, the place was almost deserted and there was very little to do there with so many amenities closed. The park is huge and must rely on making big profits during school holidays to keep the business running during the other weeks of the year.
My apartment was clean, spacious and functional despite being very dated and very basic. The staff was perfectly pleasant and it was good value for what it was. Had I had to queue for an hour to check in inside the wedding marquee, arrived to a filthy, dangerous apartment, observed some alcohol-fuelled violence in the arcade and some recreational drug use in the dinosaur park it might have been a different story.
I can’t say I would ever want to spend another night at a Pontins but I recognise I’m not the target market. If this sort of holiday appeals to you and your family I wouldn’t talk you out of trying it, but also consider how far your pounds will go abroad too.
All photos by the author.