We were camping, but not conventionally. A new concept to me, we had come to stay in a stone tent, otherwise known as a camping barn, on the south side of Dartmoor.
Most of the national park was shrouded in drizzle during our stay, but we set off to see some of it on bicycles, and headed for the village of Milton Combe in a nearby valley. It had become our target after studying the map - in search of the little letters PH, denoting a public house.
We cycled through a wood, emerging on to a single-track road bordered by lush, plentiful hedgerows made luminous by the incessant rain. The valley felt narrow and claustrophobic as we approached this apparent backwater. Holy Grail-like, the pub (appropriately named Who'd Have Thought It) emerged from the mist at the end of the street, with the tables and chairs outside dripping continuously. "I've only had the sun brollies out for two days the whole of this summer," the landlord told us.
With weather like this, inside is definitely the place to be. A friendly pub, a glass of West Country cider and a hot broth with warm bread set us up for the wet journey home. The children built up their insulation with turkey dinosaurs and chips; after all, we weren't that far away from the modern world.
Back at the barn, the one serious drawback to this otherwise excellent adventure was beginning to dawn on us: we weren't cold, but our clothes were wet and there was no heating at all. It was our second day, and already we were down to our last items of dry clothing. Every beam upstairs was groaning under the weight of clothing hanging up to dry. Or not, as it turned out.
Since 1990, the YHA has worked in conjunction with the Countryside Commission to enable individual farmers to provide a basic standard of accommodation with these camping barns. Most of them are in the north of the country; there are nearly 40 in north Yorkshire, the Peak District, the Lake District and the north Pennines. There are 11 to choose from in the West Country, all around Exmoor and Dartmoor.
Lopwell Barn, sited on the banks of the river Tavy just north of Plymouth, has been converted to accommodate 16 people; other barns have a capacity of between six and 24. In some of them you sleep on the floor; in others, bunks are provided. At Lopwell Barn, we slept on the floor and, frankly, I was worried I wouldn't be able to sleep a wink, but I awoke not wanting to leave my sleeping bag. One of my sons got up and declared it to have been the best night's sleep he'd ever had.
The living and sleeping areas of the barns are generally communal, so you may find yourself sharing with other visitors, although it is possible to book any of the barns so that you and your party have sole use. Families with children under the age of five are required to book under the sole- use arrangement. Taddington Barn, in the Peak District, also has wheelchair access.
Each barn, owned and operated by farmers, is different in style and facilities. You can choose between a former farmhouse, a set of converted stables, a watermill, an old bakery, a cider barn, a field barn, a former wheelhouse, a corn store and a granary. It is not necessary to be a YHA member in order to book a camping barn.
As for facilities, Lopwell Barn was fairly basic. The furniture in the living-area was simply tables and benches, of the pub-garden variety. Running hot and cold water, a camping-fridge and microwave oven were provided. There were no other cooking facilities, although some barns provide Calor Gas cooking rings or an electric cooker. There were plenty of plates and cutlery, but no bowls. This was great because it enabled the children to eat their morning cereal from a saucepan, and what could be better than that? Well, maybe the fact that the barn at Higher Cadham, near Dartmoor, is situated next door to the farmer's small licensed restaurant, which just happens to sell breakfast and hot carry-out meals. At other barns, farm produce may be on sale.
There was a shower room, but the loos weren't in the main building; they were in an adjacent building and were for use by the public, too. There was an electricity meter, which the booking form told us would take 50p pieces. We arrived with pockets bursting, only to find it had been converted to take pound coins. Although there was no heating at Lopwell, some barns do have electric heaters or wood burners, always handy in the middle of a British summer.
To visit a camping barn you need to take everything you would normally take on a camping trip, except the tent. Sleeping bags, a foam mat and a torch are essential and, as we discovered, so are rainwear and a good supply of dry clothes to change into, should the weather turn wet.
By day three, we felt we'd had enough. We had nothing dry left to wear and the rain wasn't ever going to stop. We rolled up our sleeping bags, packed the car with piles of soggy clothing, drove home and played video games. Next time, and there will be one, we'll go better prepared, and try a different, less basic, barn.
More information about camping barns from the YHA (England and Wales), 8 St Stephen's Hill, St Albans, Herts AL1 2DY (01727 845047). Prices start at pounds 3.50 per person per night. Sole use of a barn costs between pounds 19.50 and pounds 90 (Lopwell Barn cost pounds 56) per night.Reuse content