IN AN ENGLISH COUN­TRY TENT

Jeremy Seal dis­cov­ers fam­ily camp­ing for softies

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Family Holidays -

PANDA, hisses Lizzie, age five, which is ask­ing a lot of the Hamp­shire coun­try­side. We are sit­ting out­side on an Au­gust evening in Eng­land, watch­ing for bats, when some­thing black and white clam­bers out of a nearby black­berry hedge and lum­bers across the wheat stub­ble in front of us.

‘‘ Bad­ger,’’ nine-year-old Anna cor­rects her sis­ter as it passes within 10m of our tent.

Al­though I say tent, I mean the cot­ta­ge­sized combo of can­vas and tim­ber that out­classes even the bad­ger sight­ing in the ex­cite­ment stakes. My wife’s not one for camp­ing if it means sleep­ing bags, guy ropes, out­door cook­ing and squat­ting in the gorse, but even she hollers with de­light when she dis­cov­ers what this week­end pitch comes with. There is plenty of liv­ing and stor­age space plus stand­ing room ga­lore, not to men­tion a flush­ing loo, cold tap and sink, a fully stocked kitchen unit with cook­ing stove and cool chest.

Three sep­a­rate ar­eas sleep­ing up to six in proper beds or bunks come with daz­zling white du­vets and pil­lows, while a can­de­labra has been hung from the tent ceil­ing above the ta­ble and chairs.

Dutch­man Luite Mo­raal is the man be­hind this revo­lu­tion­ary camp­ing unit, with its wood-walled bed­rooms, bed­stee (tra­di­tional Dutch sleep­ing cup­board) and raised plank floor. Mo­raal, who brought Cen­ter Parcs to Bri­tain, opened his first lux­ury tent site here at Manor Farm near Al­ton late last year. He has since fol­lowed up with eight more across Eng­land and one in Scot­land.

The has­sle-free tents, which are lo­cated on tra­di­tional fam­ily-run farms that ring with the restora­tive rural rhythms of yes­ter­year, have clearly chimed with camp­ing’s sud­den shift up-mar­ket.

We ar­rive at Manor Farm to be met by own­ers Will and Anna Brock, who show us to the shower block (proper shower heads, no timers or coin slots), a store of sea­soned fire­wood and a fleet of wheel­bar­rows for cart­ing lug­gage. The farm shop is stocked with ba­sic es­sen­tials but also lo­cally pro­duced cheeses and pates and Anna’s award-win­ning ready meals (casseroles, stroganoffs, tagines and a wicked se­lec­tion of pud­dings) largely cre­ated from the farm’s own pro­duce.

Our tent, which is one of five, stands be­neath an oak tree at the edge of a grassy meadow, with un­in­ter­rupted views across the fields. Anna talks us through the work­ings of the stove and hur­ri­cane lamps, and pro­vides us with a frozen hot-wa­ter bot­tle for chill­ing the cool box. I set a pan of fried pota­toes and sausages on the stove while the girls ex­plore.

They check out the ad­ja­cent meadow, with its wood oven, chil­dren’s swing and pad­dock of friendly sheep and hens. A suit­ably rick­ety coop (which we are en­cour­aged to raid for break­fast eggs) and some ex­otic lla­mas (ap­par­ently an ef­fec­tive fox de­ter­rent) com­plete the pic­ture.

We plan to stay close to the farm but the sur­round­ing re­gion, just one hour south of Lon­don, proves a reve­la­tion. The area is no­table for the past and present homes of writ­ers of some ex­tremely fa­mous books, from Jane Austen ( Pride and Prej­u­dice ) and Gil­bert White ( A Nat­u­ral His­tory of Sel­borne ) to Sarah (Fergie) Fer­gu­son ( Budgie the He­li­copter ); only the homes of the first two, how­ever, are open to vis­i­tors.

Raf­fle tick­ets for Sel­borne’s church roof are on sale when we visit the home of the great 18th-cen­tury nat­u­ral­ist. We wan­der the beau­ti­ful gar­dens, where White’s ground­break­ing in­ter­est in the lo­cal flora and fauna was nur­tured. We also visit the in-house mu­seum to the Oates fam­ily, most fa­mously Antarc­tic ex­plorer Lawrence Oates (no book, but his ‘‘ I am just go­ing out­side and may be some time’’ is per­haps the most fa­mous of all exit lines).

It could seem oddly out of con­text ex­cept that watch­ing early footage of po­lar ex­plor­ers erect­ing a bam­boo tent frame in sub-zero con­di­tions re­minds us how com­fort­able camp­ing has since be­come at nearby Manor Farm.

We go black­berry pick­ing along the lo­cal hang­ers, or steeply wooded es­carp­ments, that of­fer stu­pen­dous views to­wards the South Downs. We take bikes, avail­able for hire from the farm, down the deep sunken lanes that criss-cross the area. There is even time for a ride on a steam train along the much loved Wa­ter­cress Line (the area has long been known for its wa­ter­cress beds), which hoots and belches out coal smuts on its way to the coun­try town of Al­res­ford.

Back at the farm, the Brocks are fir­ing up the wood oven to cook whole chick­ens, sausages and baked pota­toes (£20, or $47, a tent) while guests so­cialise over beak­ers of wine. Ma­ture cou­ples, groups of sin­gle pro­fes­sion­als and young fam­i­lies all pro­fess to be en­chanted by the tents’ home-spun in­te­ri­ors and wa­ter­tight ex­te­ri­ors. The stoves draw the odd grum­ble — the tents’ smoke alarms can put up a morn­ing cho­rus to ri­val even the lo­cal rooster — though most of us con­cede townie in­ep­ti­tude plays a part.

Come the last evening and I fi­nally re­alise what the ex­pe­ri­ence re­minds me of. Self­catered Lit­tle House on the Prairie in­te­ri­ors, cer­tainly, but strong echoes, too, of the tented camps of the su­pe­rior African sa­fari. Bats and badgers (if not pan­das), then, in the heart of the, er, Sel­bor­negeti.

Check­list

Tents at Feath­er­down Farms from £185 for a four-night mid­week break. More: www.feath­er­down.co.uk. www.gilber­twhiteshouse www.wa­ter­cressline.co.uk www.vis­itbri­tain.com.au

Lit­tle house in the for­est: Mak­ing friends with the chooks, left; camp­ing it up on a Feath­er­down Farms hol­i­day

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