IN AN ENGLISH COUNTRY TENT
Jeremy Seal discovers family camping for softies
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.
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