Wakey wakey, weaving time

A Devon campsite with non-stop activities for children plus fun for tired parents has become many families' idea of heaven, says Deborah Jackson
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The Independent Travel
A July morning in 1989. Peered out of the tent to find breakfast had arrived, as quietly and efficiently as hotel room service. Sat in the sunshine enjoying croissants and cereals, fresh orange, filtercoffee and a newspaper. My kind of camping.

Our next-door-neighbour was up, too, working through an early-morning yoga routine. In the distance, I heard a call from one of the marquees and out of a dozen tents children came running. Tall children, small children, still in their pyjamas, clutching croissants and teddy bears, they ran towards the music. You could almost see the tents shake with satisfaction as a dozen mums and dads turned over for a communal lie-in.

My husband, Paul, and I joined the first Campus when our daughter, Frances, was nearly two. We had never camped before, but it was not the camping we were after. Like everyone else we met that year - a social cross-section, but almost all with children - we were seeking a civilised holiday. Since the baby had arrived, the nearest we came to a cultural evening was a bottle of wine and a video. Here, we could catch up on theatre and dance, music and intelligent conversation.

For the tentative, this is a marvellous place to try things. It always takes me two or three days to unwind and then I dip my toes in. I have sampled watercolour painting, solved a few family problems in a parenting workshop, played the flute in a scratch orchestra and become a panellist in an Any Questions-style debate. I have tried upside-down therapy, been converted to homoeopathy after a particularly bad dose of flu and helped create a giant tapestry. I have even made a mask.

It is hard to describe Campus to people who have never been there. You start by saying it is a family festival, and then you talk about the workshops, elaborate on the campfire babysitting with storytellers, and you almost forget to mention the activity crche and the teenagers' tent, the performances, village parents, sophisticated salon de th, cabarets, films, ballet and sauna corner.

It can be overwhelming. "We heard about it through friends and it sounded like hell on earth," said one devotee about to book for her third year.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted a holiday where things happened from morning till night," said another, "but it's been a unique experience."

"Campus?" said a child customer. "The fun never ends. It's so good it's brilliant."

Campus was launched in 1989 by Mike and Judy Freeman, a couple from Devon who were horrified to discover their social and cultural lives severely compromised by the arrival of children. Mike, now 44, was then a property developer with experience in festival organisation. Judy, 40, had organised conferences. These turned out to be ideal skills for setting up an annual family holiday in a field near Exeter.

"When we had our first child, we suddenly realised you can't go out and enjoy culture any more," says Judy. "You end up sitting in a family room of a pub like social outcasts. You are also put off going abroad. So we decided to create the kind of holiday we wanted - arts and relaxation for adults and freedom and safety for the children."

Six years ago, Campus 89 was a seven-day event attracting 300 people. Last year, Campus 94 welcomed 1,500 visitors for up to 10 days, without the help of advertising. Most people arrive through word-of-mouth recommendation, or share a plot with friends. Many return year after year.

Although there has been steady growth, the shape and style of Campus have not changed. Accommodation is in tents or caravans (bring your own, or rent), arranged in circular villages around a campfire and barbecue. Each village is cared for by a team of village "parents", who serve breakfast, deal with immediate problems and babysit in the evenings.

The festival programme offers a wide range of workshops and constant entertainments, from children's puppet shows to late-night jazz. You might, for instance, spend a morning in a wicker workshop, an afternoon learning Greek dance and an evening at the theatre. You might also do nothing.

It is possible to turn up at Campus, unpack your deckchair, open the newspaper and not move all week. No one forces you to rise, shine and attend one of dozens of items on the daily diary. For many parents, the beauty of Campus is the way it leaves them free and caters for the children.

Picture the scene: your child, exhausted after a day of activities, fresh air and fresh food (from the Steiner children's caf) is finally rinsed down in the shower. As the sun sets, she cuddles up in her sleeping bag around a crackling fire. Someone passes round toasted marshmallows. The story-teller begins a tale of princes and princesses, inviting the audience to join in. You whisper to the babysitters that you are off to the theatre tent. As you look wistfully back over the peaceful scene, you see your child's eyes gently closing.

Campus is safe for children, not merely because dogs are banned and every entrance is watched. This is a gathering of like-minded families, the kind of community that many parents dream of. "For many children, it is their first taste of freedom," says Judy Freeman. "Parents can let them wander around knowing that if they are lost or in trouble, another parent will take care of them."

At Campus, small children have a monitored playground with water, sand and a mini adventure area. They also have their own entertainments schedule, featuring clowns, puppeteers and sing-a-longs. Older children may venture further afield, join in with workshops, work up to end-of-week performances, or simply run off and make friends.

"One of our successes has been with teenagers," says Judy. "We only had about two in our first year and we were a bit worried about them. Now they have their own tent and have formed a social scene. They have even started to network outside Campus. It means teenagers are coming on holiday with their parents for longer than they might."

Children are welcome almost everywhere so long as they do not interrupt the adult shows. The main exception is the Quiet Corner, which is for adults only. Here you are treated to massage, reflexology and other ologies you may never have heard of. Totnes, the alternative centre of Britain, is only an hour or so away and many practitioners come to Campus on a working holiday.

Here, weary parents may take a sauna and a whirlpool bath, read a book without interruption or sip herbal tea. One of my enduring memories is sitting in a hot whirlpool bath under the stars one midsummer evening, a glass of wine in hand. My children slept peacefully and safely in their tent.

The trouble is that once the children are occupied, Campus sucks in unsuspecting grown-ups, too.

One minute you are outside the mask tent, thinking "You won't catch me in there,": next, you have spent three or four hours up to your elbows in glue and tissue paper, constructing the ultimate mask. You move on to a singing workshop, and the next day you learn to juggle. Before you know it, you are doing t'ai chi down by the lake at dawn.

We went back to Campus almost every year after 1989, with a growing family of children and sometimes a teenage cousin as nanny. It changed our lives. Travelling from Manchester to Devon gave us an insight into another place and pace of life. I suppose we were sampling another way of living. In 1991, my husband gave up his day job for a more flexible lifestyle, and we now live in Bath. I doubt we would ever have dared to do so much on our own.

Campus is bigger than the sum of its parts. You enter an individual, often tired, uptight and overworked, and emerge a family member, a part of something creative. Performers love to come to Campus, where the enthusiasm is infectious. Actor Peter Weir, a success with his one-man shows, told his audience, "I don't know what it is that you people leave behind when you come in the gate, but please don't pick it up again when you go."

Campus is growing, but the Freemans do not intend to let the event become too unwieldy or lose its sense of community. They would like a permanent site, rather than a rented field which presents enormous logistical problems - such as plumbing in 125 temporary loos and showers. They also want to retain the high-energy atmosphere, and so will extend carefully into other workshops while keeping the festival intact.


Campus 95 runs from Friday 28 July to Monday 7 August at Crealy Park, Clyst St Mary, Exeter for five- and 10-day holidays. Fees for a 10-day holiday are £300 for a plot (up to eight people) plus fees for each adult (£245), child over three (£l65) and infant (£45.) Prices include all entertainments, workshops, lectures, evening babysitting and daytime childcare for over-threes, camping with breakfast and free pass to Grealy Park's adventure playground. For more information, contact Mike and Judy Freeman, Campus Holidays, Fletcherscombe, Diptford, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7NQ (01548 821388).