Trail of the unexpected: Unique Devon campsite offers seclusion and home comforts
Saturday 04 September 2010
Just don't call it glamping. "I don't really like the word," says Matt Bate, as he contentedly surveys his handcrafted glade: a treehouse here, a see-saw there, a hammock hoisted a safe distance from a swing. "This is all a bit more Heath Robinson."
We're standing in a lush eight-acre wood surrounded by a blanket of green fields, near the point where the M5 finally gives up and dissolves into A-roads. A few miles away the River Exe marks the beginning of the end of its grumbling journey to the south Devon coast in a huge, muddy V. The wilds of Dartmoor are over to the west. Nearby is the pretty coastal hub of Topsham, complete with antique shops, RSPB nature reserves and small, pottering boats.
But we, as I say, are in a wood. And my family and I are being introduced to what Matt calls "The Wood Life". Jokey name apart, it's an entirely appropriate description. "You can live here without fossil fuels and mains power," says Matt. "It's simple but effective." Not too simple, I hope. "No, it's comfortable camping. When people come here, we want them to say: 'You've thought of everything.'"
Conveniently, Matt is a tree surgeon by profession. He and his wife Amanda came up with the idea after doing a spot of "comfortable camping" themselves at the Jollydays site (how do they come up with these names?) in North Yorkshire. Matt's family owns much of the land around here, renting it to tenant farmers. "But," he says, "we always thought we could do something with this wood."
And what Matt and Amanda did is – from my family's perspective at least – create something very close to the perfect camping holiday. For the next few days, this will be our very own glade, in our very own wood, with our very own blackberries to pick. There are squirrels and birds (mostly pheasants) to spot; there's bracken to tramp around in; chestnut, beech and oak trees to provide verdant cover; and rhododendron bushes in which to create child-friendly dens.
In the evening we'll toast marshmallows (pre-supplied by Matt and Amanda) on our very own campfire and then we'll go to sleep in our very own, single, solitary tent: the only one in the wood. "We're offering something that a lot of people don't have access to," says Matt. "A private little enclave among the trees."
The tent is where the comfortable part of the camping really manifests itself. A large safari-style canvas stretched over a wooden base, it has a cute little front porch with a hand-tooled fence (Matt knows a terrific amount about chopping and chipping away at trees). At the back are two rooms separated by a strip of canvas, with a pair of single iron bedsteads in one and a double bed in the other, all clad in crisp, white cotton. In the main room, there's a wood-burning stove, a tiny kitchen with a pair of gas burners, a sofa bed and a solid-looking table and chairs.
There's even a plug socket, powered by a solar-charged battery rather than the mains. Matt suggests that I could charge my mobile phone or laptop from it. Given the tranquillity of the setting, I resolved to operate without both, but a bit of electricity does come in handy later when we have temporary need of more light than the on-site paraffin lanterns can supply.
Everything, as you might imagine, is properly rustic-chic. But most impressive of all is that the little details have obviously been fretted about and worked on: Amanda and Matt can arrange for a welcome pack of food sourced from the local farm shop (the Taverner's in nearby Kennford, which we later discover also offers tasty bakery bargains at the end of the day); there's a plentiful supply of family-friendly board games on offer should the weather prove inclement; there's even a treasure hunt for the children to follow as they explore the limits of the (safely fenced-in) wood itself.
And what about the, er, toilet facilities? I remember a time when one's urgent wild-camping needs involved being given a trowel and some loo-roll by your parents and being told to dig a small hole a decent distance from the tent. Happily, this being The Wood Life, it's not a conversation I need to have with my own children. Not only is there a (pleasantly) fragrant compost toilet in its own little wooden chalet, but there's a wood-fired shower, too. One of the treats of getting up each morning involves laying a small fire in the burner and waiting for enough water to heat up for a proper soaking.
Despite all these indulgences there is, as Matt suggests, nothing particularly glamorous about camping. The reason people love sleeping under canvas so much is that it connects us with the outside world, it serves the primal need of mankind (and particularly men) to light fires and chop logs; and it allows children to build teepees out of random bits of foliage. However, the fact that The Wood Life offers you the chance to do all these things without also having to pitch a tent in a rainstorm or survive on tins of haphazardly warmed baked beans can surely only be a good thing.
On our last evening I was quietly contemplating the benefits of freshly chilled white wine from the gas-powered fridge when my elder son looked up at a silent night sky freckled by the Milky Way. "Look, Dad, there's a star!" he said, entranced. As I congratulated myself on bringing my children to a place where they could commune so splendidly with nature, he then continued: "Or actually, it might be a helicopter." Clearly, you can take the boy out of London...
The Wood Life (01392 832509; thewoodlife.org), near Kenn, Exeter, is open until 15 October and has some availability until then. Four nights (Monday to Friday) or three nights (Friday to Monday) cost £300; a week is £600. The 2011 season starts on 1 April. The tent sleeps six if using the sofa bed. For more information, see canopyandstars.co.uk
Star qualities: Three more rural escapes
The Wood Life is one of the accommodation options offered by Sawday's Canopy & Stars (canopyandstars. co.uk), a collection of "quirky and beautiful places of a camping kind" which launched this summer. Other possibilities – open throughout the winter – include:
Yarlington Yurt, Somerset
The main yurt at Yarlington contains a double bed, plus colonial-style furnishings and a wood-burning stove. There's also a connected yurt with two single beds and a separate kitchen and bathroom tent. Mains electricity and hot running water keep things civilised. Sleeps four.
Nant yr Onnen, Dyfed
There are 2.5 acres of garden, streams and woodland to explore from this octagonal cabin set in the Cambrian Mountains National Park. There's a double bed and a single sofa bed, plus a shower, kitchen area and woodburner to keep things cosy.
Roulotte Retreat, Melrose
Set in a three-acre meadow in the Scottish Borders, there are two colourful French caravans to choose from here, with sumptuous furnishings. Each sleeps two. There's also a gypsy caravan plus cottage available (sleeping a total of four).
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