Feather Down Farms, England: Wholesome free range fun
The Feather Down concept is a simple one. Guests, predominantly urban couples with young children and a vaguely eco-friendly consciousness, get back to nature on a small, working farm in a ‘tented cottage’. We’re talking canvas, but with wooden floors, real beds and duvets, and even a flushing loo – although there’s no electricity or hot water. The farmer goes about his or her daily work, and guests can get involved, or enjoy the great outdoors in their own way. Being on a real working farm, the children get to go semi-feral for a while. And, for a slummy mummy, it’s fun to wear the same clothes day after day, not put on make-up – a rare break from Nappy Valley of the Dolls where immaculate mums push equally immaculate children around all day.
Manor Farm in Hampshire, run by thirtysomethings Anna and Will Brock, is the first of ten Feather Down Farms planned around the UK. Ferrying our luggage in a wheelbarrow across the field, our tent, one of five, looked worryingly primitive. But inside it had a charming Little-House-on-the-Prairie-meets-Heidi vibe. A collection of mismatched wooden chairs sits around a huge table, and the focal point is a wood-burning stove. There’s a sink, enamel crockery and glasses (no plastic here), framed photographs of cute animals straight from central casting, and a vintage toy or two. Beds are in three sleeping areas: a double room (two singles pulled together), a room with bunks and a ‘canopy bed’ – a cupboard with mattress. The latter, with hinged doors and heart-shaped cut-outs, was a huge hit with the four children in our party, who rolled around in it like puppies.
Don’t be misled Feather Down’s cutesy good looks, because a stay here is surprisingly hard work. You cook on top of a wood-burning stove that’s easy to light but takes a while to get going. It also goes out overnight. Washing up is a nightmare in the tiny sink, and nights with real darkness are a shock to urbanites. Cooking, even with the help of Anna’s Kitchen, an established business selling ready meals (we had excellent lamb tagine and beef stroganoff), took imagination. But it’s these ‘hardships’ that make staying in a Feather Down Farm such a worthwhile experience. Basically, you’re forced to relax into a slower pace of life, because there isn’t any choice. When it takes an hour to make a cup of coffee, you appreciate drinking it all the more.
Get away from Nappy Valley
Getting into this way of thinking at the beginning is a fairly tortuous process, especially when you wake up in a freezing tent and aren’t able to flick on a radiator or have a bath. But by the end you’re more organised and try not to let the fire go out and, more importantly, you learn not to get so stressed about stupid things like the pasta taking an extra half hour to make. You also find yourself with more time on your hands, despite being busy keeping the fire stoked and endlessly hosing mud off the children.
I stayed with my sister-in-law (a first-time camper, who didn’t find even the halfway house of a Feather Down experience the most relaxing holiday of her life), her seventeen-month-old son and his three male cousins aged seven to eleven. The children loved it, they climbed on to enormous combine harvesters, were chased across a field by llama, and the little one fell face first into a dung-filled puddle (admittedly, he didn’t like that bit much). The older boys churned up fields on hired bikes. Little girls in neighbouring tents made friends with the chickens and sheep housed in a pen in front of the tents and swung on rope swings. It was good old-fashioned fun. The Feather Down Farm concept is idealistic, not necessarily for everyone, but you return looking at your electric kettle in a new way, and proud at having ‘survived’. And if survival means a real duvet, then I say carry on camping.
Ideal Age: 2–16
Top Tip: Feather Down Farms are a little too cold for comfort at the beginning and end of the season. Take thick, warm socks.
N.B: There are also farms in Somerset, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Lancashire, Warwickshire and Scotland. There are five tents at each site. Accommodation is in tents sleeping up to six people