With ridiculously comfortable beds, a wood-burning stove and even a flushing loo, staying in a tent on Dolphinholme House Farm in Lancashire is camping, yes - but not as we know it...
Our last holiday destination was a goat farm in rural Lancashire. Try saying that to your hairdresser and making it sound like an attractive proposition! The reason? For a while, I'd been intrigued by the idea of Feather Down Farm Days (a holiday company operating in 23 working farms across the country) - and when I received an unexpected windfall, we got the chance to find out if they could live up to their promise of providing 'the most unique holiday you can experience in Britain today'.
Our expectations were high: the brochure was a work of art. With sumptuous photos, evocative writing and choice quotes from reviews, it set the scene for an idyllic and refreshingly simple family holiday. It didn’t pretend to be proper camping. Instead, this was the world of luxury camping, where your tent comes fully equipped with beds, running water, a wood-burning stove, oil lamps and even a loo.
Although we’d studied the brochure carefully, we were still wowed by our accommodation. At five by nine metres and three metres high, these sturdy constructions are more large log cabin with canvas roof than mere tent. Two bedrooms are separated off from the main living area and the olde-style loo has a locking door and flush. And those beds were ridiculously comfortable.
At six and seven, our children were just the right age to enjoy this holiday to the full. They were still young enough to be delighted by the farm activities (including ‘helping’ to milk all 600 goats – twice) but old enough to blossom in the new freedom they just don’t get at home.
They particularly loved the honesty shop, open 24 hours a day and stocking all the essentials - including the essential essentials like candles, beer and chocolate. That, and feeding the pigs, who, I quickly discovered, didn't have names. (As my husband pointed out after that faux pas, "they are actually there for their meat, Hannah!").
There were seven tents on the farm, and the children quickly palled up. All sorts of weird and wonderful games evolved in the fields and they made good use of the play barn with its climbing frame of bales of hay. Paddling in the stream, collecting eggs from the chicken coop, getting the wood-burning stove to burn rather than merely to smoke... all were, as promised, simple but very genuine pleasures. Despite the incessant rain. And though a shower block and washing machine were available to us, the mud and the goats ensured we were dirty and smelly throughout. - but we really didn’t care.
The destination - Dolphinholme, on the edge of the Trough of Bowland - was truly beautiful. The field that the tents are sited on is bordered on two sides by a river that offers plenty of scope for stone-skimming and paddling and - as we discovered - kingfisher-spotting. We were reliably informed that the really brave (and really stupid, judging by the temperature) find pools large enough to swim in.
The farmer, John, was willing to involve his guests as much or as little as they wanted in the running of the farm. He was also patient in answering our (probably rather stupid) questions. We (the grown-ups) really valued getting to understand something of his way of life. For their part, John and his family seem to be enjoying their diversification, and I'm sure the financial rewards must help ease the burden of talking to townies under the impression they're being right-on by choosing an environmentally-friendly rural retreat.
Out and about
If the weather had been better (by which I mean if it had stopped raining for at least an hour), we probably wouldn't have felt any urge to venture off-site, but as it was we did seek out some external entertainment. The Bowland Wild Boar Park, a windy and bumpy half-hour car journey away (don't forget the paper bags for travel sickness suffers!) was a great place to spend an afternoon, and pleasingly on the kooky side.
Most of the Lake District is hit-able from Dolphinholme, though to be honest, if you're interested in making it that far up the M6, you're probably just not feeling the Feather Down Farm vibe, best described as chilled, timeless and simple.
We made it up to Arnside, on the southern tip of the Lakes, a beautiful little town with a beach, a bridge across the water that very satisfyingly (for six-year-old boys at least) carries trains fairly frequently, and even its own tidal bore (which wasn't quite as exciting as billed). But after a few days in a tent, even a palatial one, it was the lure of Arnside's many coffee shops that really drew us there. I can still taste the meringues!
Other easy day trips from Dolphinholme Farm are Lancaster and Morecambe, or just pootling around the gorgeous local countryside.
We copped out of cooking for a couple of evenings (well, these wood-burning stoves are very temperamental) and tried out some local pubs. The Fleece Inn at Dolphinholme (www.thefleeceinndolphinholme.co.uk), just a couple of miles away from the farm, was pretty perfect. Forget all your stereotypes about miserable, anti-social Lancastrians: the staff were lovely, the food was lovely, the beer was lovely. (Though my six-year-old insists I mention that he found his sausages too spicy.)
All in all, it was a pretty perfect family holiday. And although this was by no means a relaxing break, it opened our eyes, made us feel free and was enormously memorable. If only we’d shared it all with some sun!