Last year, thanks to various twists of good fortune, we bought a holiday chalet in Camber Sands – every Cockney’s dream! It takes us two and a half hours, door-to-door, by public transport from Bethnal Green, to arrive at a very different place. Our chalet is on a very large – and sometimes boisterous – holiday park. But five seconds front our front door and you look out over the vast emptiness of Romney Marsh, where all you can hear are mating frogs and birdsong and the idea that London is 60 miles away seems absurd.
I spent a lot of childhood holidays in chalets and I’m sure nostalgia, or redemption, is part of the reasons I’m here now. My Uncle Jim had a chalet at Kessingland on the grey Suffolk coast and we went every year just before Christmas. It was bloody freezing! Me and my mate would barely leave our sleeping bags, often damp with overnight condensation. I also have vivid memories of coming to Camber (presumably to the same site we’re on now) when I went fishing with my Uncle Ray. I caught an eel and in what seems like a story from Disney Cockneyfication, my nan and grandad jellied it. I’m not sure if there are any eels left in the many waterways on the marshes (unpromisingly, they’re called sewers) of if, like Buffalo in the Wild West, invading forces have hunted them to extinction!
Like the West, there’s an element of frontier outlawism about Camber and its surrounds. This partly relates to the inter-war Plotlands movement, when Londoners came here and appropriated land to build improvised holiday homes. You can still see the remnants of this exercise in subverting the norms of private land ownership around here, including some homes in Winchelsea that are made from railway carriages. This fits with the longer history of the area, which was notorious for smuggling and the peculiarities of nearby Rye, which embodies the idea of a place that isn’t quite what it seems. It was a coastal town until the sea changed direction in the 13th century and there’s long been a unilateral form of self-government.
This past is somewhat reflected in the people who come here today. Of course, it’s a mix – and one of the things I like about Camber Sands is that the people who enjoy the wonderful beach are very ethnically diverse, at least by traditional English seaside standards. But there’s still an air of non-conformity about people who gravitate here. There’s a sense of a hidden world, with a shadow economy, which while it isn’t remotely like living “off gird”, has a similar flavour. Soon after we came here, I got talking to the bloke who has the chalet opposite ours. I had an instant feeling that I knew him, but wasn’t sure how. We sound similar and shared an interest in a certain east London football team. Further exploration confirmed that we were brought up two roads from each other and went to the same schools. We had various friends in common, but I really only knew him by reputation and that reputation was as what my granddad would have termed “a bit of a hound”. He lived slightly on the edge, so no real surprise that he’s ended up in Camber, where he lives half the year, when he’s not in Spain or doing “house clearances”.
This idea of holiday park living as a bit disreputable intrigues me because I’ve spent a bit of time learning about trailer parks in the US, which are famously associated with “trash”. Living in prefabricated housing seems to disturb something about western capitalist societies’ concept of domestic respectability, which is a shame, partly because there are lots of good environmental reasons for it. But the contrast between how US trailer parks and UK holiday parks are perceived confirms that these notions are socially constructed. Although there is a definite snobbishness about how some people react to places like our Camber Sands site, they are not treated with the same kind of social ostracization as US trailer parks.
But like everything else, things are changing. The former Camber plotlands now have some multi-million-pound homes being built on them and I suppose partly because of COVID, there seems to be a creeping class shift in who’s coming here. That’s fine, but gentrification-on-sea isn’t really what I want and although it’s still reassuringly difficult to buy fresh vegetables around here, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the first signs of artisan bread.