One night in January, I was at a low ebb in a period of particularly low ebbs, when a friend messaged to say she’d booked a caravan in Croyde for the last week of the Easter school holidays. She and her husband had crunched the data on vaccine distribution and the likely effects of lockdown on hospital admissions, and felt it was worth taking a chance.
I was less optimistic, but Parkdean Resorts, which operates Ruda Holiday Park in north Devon, has a Covid policy that meant we could shift the trip to another time of year if things hadn’t opened up by then – though you do have to pay the difference in price for your stay. I transferred the deposit for our family of four, thinking October half-term seemed more realistic.
Amazingly, my friends got it spot on. So, here we are sitting in camping chairs above one of the most picturesque beaches in the country on the first day that self-contained holidays are permitted in England, bathing in beautiful Devonian light, despite having driven through grey skies and snow to get here, while our kids are charging about in a field. Feeling fortunate doesn’t cover it. We owe these friends, who are also here,in a separate caravan, an outdoor socially-distanced drink.
The holiday park is full of smiling faces, the sense of a collective breath having been long drawn and now released.
Liz Bolger, a teacher from Dorset has just arrived with her family, including her nine- and 12-year-old children.
“We all found this third lockdown much harder,” she says, while both kids nod vigorously. “The fact we weren’t expecting it, and then the weather in January and February being so bad. We felt a lot more trapped within our same four walls.”
“To be here now with all this space and the sun glinting off the water feels liberating, especially on the date that things are opening up. It’s serendipitous but it makes it special, as if we’re celebrating things getting better.”
The elation isn’t contained to guests.
“Holiday parks can be quite eerie places when they’re closed,” Rob Warner, operations director of Parkdean Resorts South told me last week. “About 90% of our staff are locals, they’re attracted to the job as they like working in a vibrant environment with guests bobbing about everywhere. I’ve visited 42 holiday parks in the last three weeks and there’s excitement for opening.”
By the nature of their design, holiday parks are thought to be relatively safe when it comes to airborne Covid transmission: self-catered accommodation five metres apart, with no shared facilities except the pool, which is open for pre-booked limited numbers only. Instead of checking in at reception, we drove straight to our van, which had a green light taped to the window letting us know we could enter. The outdoor beer garden is open, but restaurant facilities offer takeaway only.
“Across the holiday park sector we had 4.1 million visitors in 2020, even in that short window of opening and there were only 16 cases through test-and-trace,” says Warner.
At the local surf school, Surfing Croyde Bay, owner Nathan Hill-Haimes is also happy to have holidaymakers back.
“Like a lot of local businesses, lockdown has been tough for us,” he says. “We’re a remote area of the country and it’s a fantastic boost for the local tourist economy to be opening up again.”
Surf school bookings have been rising throughout March, as the government’s roadmap out of lockdown has been laid out, and Hill-Haimes concedes this week could well be hectic. But he’s keen to play a part in the nation’s healing process and thinks having fun outdoors as a family at the beach can help with that. It’s certainly what I plan to do with my kids this week.
He says: “People seem to be looking forward to coming down, for that physical and mental wellbeing, the ‘blue health’ you can get from surfing and being by the sea. It’s easy to safely socially distance and a fantastic way to bring some normality back into our lives. We just encourage people to respect the coastline and not drop litter as it’s such a wonderful part of the world.”
The prohibitive cost of UK breaks has been much discussed, but we’ve paid £431 for a four-night stay at Ruda. Does Warner from Parkdean Resorts hope it will lead to more of us regularly choosing UK holiday parks over trips abroad?
“The normality of today is not the normality of yesterday,” he says. “People who would have normally gone on holiday abroad will be experiencing places they’ve never been in the UK and going home feeling refreshed and reinvigorated.”
“We’ve been through such a low point as a country, to make these happy memories now, they’ll take on an extra significance. Will we become more attached to our UK breaks? Hopefully!”
Four nights at Ruda Holiday Park in Devon for a family of four from £431