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Farming feature: Janie’s childhood idyll at Osea remains a magical place

PUBLISHED: 06:00 19 October 2013


Current Osea Leisure Park managing director Janie Robinson is the little girl in front, next to her brother, William. Behind is her mother Ann Eaton, great grandmother Mabel Speakman and grandmother, Pamela Boutflour

Current Osea Leisure Park managing director Janie Robinson is the little girl in front, next to her brother, William. Behind is her mother Ann Eaton, great grandmother Mabel Speakman and grandmother, Pamela Boutflour

Maldon-based Osea Leisure Park is a family business which this 
year celebrates its 80th year. Started by farmer’s daughter, Mabel Speakman, it has gone on to become a thriving tourism operation, managed through the female line. SARAH CHAMBERS caught up 
with its current managing director, and the founder’s great grand-daughter, Janie Robinson.

Osea Leisure Park's current managing director, Janie Robinson, her grandmother, Pamela Boutflour and her mother, Ann EatonOsea Leisure Park's current managing director, Janie Robinson, her grandmother, Pamela Boutflour and her mother, Ann Eaton

Janie Robinson has very fond memories of childhood summers spent on the family campsite at Maldon.

Now at the helm of Osea Leisure Park, the holiday enterprise which her great grandmother Mabel Speakman formed, building up the business has been as much a labour of love as an entrepreneurial challenge.

This year, the venerable park celebrates its 80th year and is still going strong, thanks to the new dynamism Janie has been able to bring to the business.

The park, which now employs around 10 staff, was born in 1933, when farmer’s daughter Mabel opened up her land to pea and fruit pickers so that they could camp and enjoy time with their families.

Holidaymakers at Osea Leisure Park in the 1950sHolidaymakers at Osea Leisure Park in the 1950s

In those days, Mabel’s family farmed Vaulty Farm, grazing cattle on the salt marshes that surrounded what is now Osea Leisure Park.

“It became a destination to come here. We were the first one that really kicked it all off,” says Janie. Today there are four holiday parks in the area, which sprang up as more landowners woke up to the popularity of the area with campers and holidaymakers.

Mabel’s daughter, Pamela Boutflour, who herself married a farmer, adding in more parcels of land, fondly recalls her childhood on the farm and swimming in the Blackwater.

“Of course, there weren’t any caravans in those days, just tents and canvas structures. The campers would come to the farm to buy eggs and milk and we all collected water from the communal well on the Osea Road,” she says.

Holidaymakers at Osea Leisure Park in the late 1950s or early 1960sHolidaymakers at Osea Leisure Park in the late 1950s or early 1960s

Janie, an ex-professional rally driver, grew up involved in the business, but developed her own career and has used her experience to good effect in building in child-friendly features at the park. She became directly responsible for the business in 2007, making her fourth in an all-female line of owner-managers, and has diversified the business to reflect new trends in the holiday industry.

She has vivid recollections of her doughty great grandmother and campsite founder Mabel and believes she shares many of her traits.

“As a woman in those days you weren’t able to do anything but sitting or cleaning. She wasn’t like that. She wanted to get her hands dirty and get stuck in.

“She put a bit aside then a bit more and more and the demand grew. It’s nothing like it is now. It was literally marshy field and cattle in the background and it ran into the river. She died in 1986 aged 94. I was nine when she died. Most people thought she was quite scary but I didn’t,” says Janie.

“She was very straight-talking - she didn’t beat about the bush - very much like me. She was very assertive. She was lovely, really lovely, very clever, very driven, very determined.”

For Janie, diversifying the traditional business to bring it in line with changing consumer tastes and requirements has been a challenge. But moving with the times and creating new facets to the business, such as glamping - or glamorous camping - have been key to its success.

Demanding holidaymakers of today want high standards, whether staying in a hotel, a caravan or a tent, as well as something which offers a unique experience. Janie has also been keen to appeal to the imaginations of young campers as she knows that’s where the long-term future of the campsite lies.

“Diversifying our business in line with changing consumer needs - such as the trend for glamping - has been an important factor in our success. A lot has changed since 1933, but one thing that has remained constant is the need for families to have a place where they can relax, spend time together and be close to nature. We want to offer a home from home environment and create the community spirit that has continued to attract holidaymakers year after year to the park. That is the true essence of Osea Leisure Park - family, friends and fun - and the reason we believe we will be equally, if not more successful, during the next 80 years,” she says.

“Over the past few years we have heavily invested into the park and its facilities, I can’t improve the designs of caravans which are produced today, but I can design a park that makes the experience of owning one here an even better.

“I have many memories of my childhood at Osea whether these are swimming from the beach huts or spending summer in the family’s caravan. I have particularly fond memories of running around the park on my summer holidays with my brother William and making so many new friends - every day was a new adventure. I also remember spending my Christmas holidays painting the toilet blocks ready for the next year. All four generations have been taught to throw their hands at anything.

“Many older owners will remember my mother’s cake shop she ran as a teenager here called Annie’s Cake Shop, a firm favourite with our caravan owners. I would like to think that many others will have similar memories in years to come.”

Many of the park’s clients are fourth generation, and this sense of continuity is important in driving success, Janie believes. These clients have grown up visiting Osea and now bring their own families so that they can enjoy space, the great outdoors, and the sense of getting away from it all.

Peter Gould, 72, has been visiting Osea Leisure Park for over 65 years. Peter, who is a keen sailor, now has his own caravan on the site and visits the coastal park most weekends. He has very fond memories of the time he has spent in Osea over the years, witnessing many changes, and he and his wife remain avid fans.

“I was seven when I first visited Osea Leisure Park when my family purchased their first caravan at the site. It was a great place for youngsters to visit and we spent a lot of time on the beach and exploring the surroundings. The park has changed a lot over the years but it has always been a really nice place for families to spend time which is why my wife and I still stay there most weekends.”

Today, the park boasts an abundance of outdoor activities including sea and fresh water fishing, swimming, cycling, boating, kayaking, bird watching and walking.

Janie has worked hard to build relationships with local businesses and the community outside of the park, including holding regular family fun days and refurbishing the bar and restaurant facilities to attract more outside visitors.

The holiday homes of today are lightyears away from their predecessors, and a new development of luxury lodges at Saltmarsh Point reflects this trend. The 29 privately-owned luxury holiday lodges sit within an exclusive enclave. These are set along a quiet and very beautiful stretch of coastline, and boast verandas to take full advantage of the scenic setting.

The Blackwater Estuary is teeming with wildlife and much of the area surrounding Osea Leisure Park has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Importance (SSSI).

The grounds have been awarded the prestigious David Bellamy Gold Award for Conservation, and the park has been working with Natural England and Essex Wildlife Trust to re-establish natural grazing on the land next to the campsite.

With the caravans owned by their occupants, Janie was keen to ensure others could experience the park and with that in mind, she has invested in new camping facilities to attract short-term holidaymakers on an area of land beside the established holiday homes.

“We have a brand new toilet block. It’s like a five star hotel toilet block. We have got two shepherd huts and the teepees - it’s their second full season.Then the glamping tent and the big safari tent so you can cater for eight in there. and it’s got its own toilet and shower,” she says.

These are set on a beautiful stretch of meadow land, where new trees have been planted to provide different spaces for holidaymakers, and include a host of play facilities. There’s playground zipwire, climbing frame, adventure trail and roundabout. Shepherds’ huts equipped with beds mean that campers aren’t restricted to staying under canvas.

“There was definitely a demand for it. Some of the family members when we bought the land said we should carry on with the caravan park there, but I said no. I wanted it to be a beautiful piece of pasture as it always had been and also there is a need in the area for the camping. It’s part of trying to promote the whole of the park to families as well. The whole ethos of the park is family fun and friendship. it brings certain parts of the park alive as well and brings new generations.”

The campsite attracts a lot of European visitors, as well as local customers trying out camping, often for the first time.

“It’s all about that fourth generation thing. It’s about getting that younger generation down here. It really is home from home. There are little communities here and you do start chatting with the person over the fence,” she says.

Janie wants the demographic of the park, which has shifted, to reflect that of the park of her youth. To that end, she has invested heavily over the last three or four years in areas such as the clubhouse and play areas and she has more ambitions still.

There are around 400 caravan units dotted around the park, and she has been keen to get clients to invest in upgrades - not always easy post-recession.

Along the beach area, she has put in an application to build a pontoon and wants to restore five beach huts along the shore.

Janie, whose husband, William Robinson, is a farmer, has a five-year-old son, Jack, and she wants him to enjoy the park in the same way as she did as a child.

While trying to drive tourism in the area, she is also keen to preserve its natural assets. In all, the site including the campsite extends to nearly 60 acres, and she feels a sense of responsibility for every part of it.

“We have got an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) at the top of the park which we have got cattle and sheep on and we want to look after what we have here. I see myself as like a guardian of the park. I think I’m very fortunate to have what I have here. I have got the responsibility of this land,” she says.

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