The Ocean Hotel has always, in one way or another, been associated with love and romance. From the time it first opened in 1938 it was known as the ‘Honeymoon Hotel’. With its discreet entrance facing the Downs, it attracted lots of ‘Just Married’ guests, as well as numerous couples calling themselves ‘Mr & Mrs Smith’, who hadn’t actually married but wanted to take advantage of the privacy the Hotel had to offer. It was also a great place to meet lots of single people your own age, and to have a fun time.
For 60 years the Ocean, Saltdean was Butlin’s Brighton hotel. A lot of the staff were young, and worked long hours in a very sociable atmosphere – making sure all the holidaymakers had a great time. They became part of one big happy family living and working together. But no matter what the ‘honeymoon’ couples got up to in the privacy of their own rooms, no hanky panky was allowed amongst the staff at Butlin’s – to have guests in your room you needed a written pass from the General Manager. Although the management often turned a blind eye, if you broke this rule and were found out, you did run the risk of losing your job on the spot.
Neil and Jean, like many other members of staff at Butlin’s, started dating whilst they were working there, and later married. Neil had been living in Peacehaven when, in 1992, he was made redundant. His sister, a receptionist at the Hotel, told him about a cleaning job that was going, so although it wasn’t what he ideally wanted to do, he applied for it. He was interviewed by the Head Housekeeper, a very old (Neil’s words), chain-smoking lady called Dora, who offered him the job straightaway – £65 cash for 6 days a week.
You will love it here
Seven years later, when Jean’s brother was working at the Hotel, he told her “you will love it here” and encouraged her to apply for a job. She was interviewed over the ‘phone by Neil, who was then the Bars Supervisor. At the end of October 1999 she travelled overnight to Brighton from her home in Ayrshire, Scotland to start a new chapter in her life. Little did she know she was about to meet her future husband….
Neil first saw Jean at the top of the main staircase at the Hotel’s Reception:
“All I had was this very dodgy looking picture-you know one of those passport pictures ”
“The first time I actually met her she was getting her brother into trouble because he should have picked her up off the bus at Pool Valley and he left her waiting.
So my first impression was of this feisty woman walking down the stairs having a go at her brother”
Neil was 28 and Jean was 33 when, a month later, they started ‘seeing each other’ on a regular basis:
“We had our first date at the bowling alley at the Marina, and our first kiss at the bus stop across the road”
Jean’s first job was working in ‘Everydays Supermarket’ the little shop on the corner of the Butlin’s site. Then the shop moved inside the hotel, and Neil trained her to work in the bar. She later became Head Housekeeper; overseeing 345 rooms and organising rotas for a staff of 50; then Duty Manager, when she was in charge of the hotel for 2 nights a week.
The Wedding Day
Neil and Jean finally tied the knot on the 15th September 2001. Jean spent the night before the wedding in one of the Hotel’s Premier rooms. The next day, on her way to the ceremony at the local Telscombe United Reformed Church, she walked down the staircase where she and Neil had first set eyes on each other, and posed for photographs with her stepfather and bridesmaids by her side.
After a surprise honeymoon on a Caribbean cruise, they settled down to married life: for two years living in room SD9 in the Hotel’s staff quarters, sharing a single bed for 3 months until a double bed, which took up most of the room space, became available. To liven the room up a bit, Jean decorated it in bright yellow and lime green – fashionable colours at the time!
They later moved out of the Hotel into a flat in Peacehaven and in 2003, just a year before the Ocean Hotel closed, Neil and Jean gave up their jobs at Butlin’s, and went to work at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. Active members of Telscombe Cliffs Community Church, and leaders of the local Scout group they continue to work together to help other people enjoy their lives just like they did at Butlin’s.
Many thanks to Neil and Jean Watts for sharing their happy memories
For more stories about Butlin’s Ocean Hotel in Saltdean, Brighton follow these links to some other Saltdean Zone blogs
Photo credits Feature stairwell and stairs image – copyright and permission from Explore Living
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