British seaside stalwart Butlins teamed up with the Science Museum this September to offer what turned out to be a really brilliant weekend of family fun in their Minehead resort. We pootled down to find out for ourselves how a combination of old-fashioned seaside fun and a bit of hands-on scientific exploration would go down with our kids, who ranged in age from nine to a gangling 13.
We arrived late on Friday evening and were met by friendly greeters (who, interestingly, had none of the scripted patter and reflexive 'customer services' grins we're now used to - they seemed genuinely relaxed and pleased to see us, and this was true of every member of Butlin's staff we interacted with over the weekend).
We were whisked to our chalets - Butlins at Minehead have a new, and really pretty swanky, range of accommodation which certainly give upmarket competitors a run for their money. They're very contemporary, withfancy-pants bathrooms, L-shaped sofas, - all generally very light and airy, with glass balconies and a beachy feel. They're ranged around a rather lovely lakeland setting: Minehead meets Scandi-luxe, with a bit of retro, lovingly mined from Butlins' British heritage, thrown in for good measure.
The following morning we were out early - the kids all very keen to get cracking, the adults fortified by coffee brewed in the chalet's open plan kitchen, which are well kitted out with cafetieres and pretty much everything you might need to cook a three course meal, were you so inclined (we weren't).
The various activities were spread across the (much bigger than we expected) site, with repeated sessions throughout the weekend, so no need to panic if there were programming clashes. We spent half an hour mapping out who wanted to do what, and put our names down for a couple of things that you had to book for - though most of the sessions were either ongoing throughout the weekend, or repeated at regular intervals. All remarkably stress-free: the atmosphere was one of relaxed organisation.
There was an indoor area where various sciencey principles were being demonstrated in engaging style by young, friendly staff. If you've been to the Science Museum in London, you'll know that they go large on letting kids learn by doing - and at Butlins this principle was taken up a level by the friendly support of young staff who were able to explain clearly and in age-appropriate language what exactly the experiments were all about. We wandered around here for an hour or two, the younger kids enjoying the hands-on science, the older ones having goes on the Oculus Rift and working their way with terrifying poise through a selection of computer systems 'from the olden days', and some nostalgia-inducing (for the adults) video games. Outside, kids (and adults) were whipping off their shoes and walking across a huge vat of custard, to demonstrate the principle of 'if you hit a viscous liquid with enough force you won't sink' <scientific term> - and there was the chance to have a go at flying a drone and riding Segways and their handle-less cousins, Swegways, which got everyone wildly excited.
There was a fantastic session with the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, which involved working through various kinds of codes and cyphers in order to find the combination to a locked briefcase packed with mysterious riches (well, Haribo - close enough). It was a brilliant way to get families working together, and was something that all our groups' kids - who ranged from 8 to 13 - could contribute to. AND you could have a go on the actual original Enigma machine - really genuinely exciting.
All this was, of course, on top of the standard Butlins activities which includes (mainly free) fairground rides in the evenings, and a brilliant mega-pool with flumes and slides aplenty (huge hit - we did four visits in the space of two days). A few things - both Science-y and standard - cost a bit extra, but prices were generally very reasonable. There was a small extra charge of a fiver to model your own Aardman character, but it was well worth stumping up for. To be honest, though, there was so much free stuff going on that we spent very little extra - the exception being the multi-person pedal go-carts in which you could whizz around the site- and with which all the children were obsessed. The town and beach are a short jog away - and rather beautiful - if you run out of things to do (which we didn't - only discovering the beauty of both on the drive back to the station, alas).
It really was a brilliant family weekend. For the adults, who perhaps came with some preconceptions, it was remarkably stress-free and relaxing break - and the kids have been chattering about it ever since. More Butlins Science Weekenders are planned for 2016 - April 15 at Bognor Regis, June 10 at Skegness, and September 16 at Minehead - so if you're thinking about a weekend away which combines a bit of brain food with some proper seaside fun, now's your chance.
(Accommodation was provided by the Science Museum and Butlins, though this review is of course an accurate reflection of my experience and opinion)