Norfolk: Bedding down on College Farm
Sleeping in a tent was a no-go. John Belknap found another way to appease the kids and still enjoy the great outdoors
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Daisy, 11, loved gathering fresh eggs from the chicken coops near the tent
If your kids ever beg you to go camping but you can’t face putting up tents and sleeping on the ground, consider staying on a working farm.
Dotted all over the UK are farms with camping areas for families where the tents are actually cabins, with running water and toilets.
You can feast on the freshest food, collect chicken eggs, take care of bunnies, explore the farm and enjoy the open air with very little effort and discomfort.
My wife, three kids 11, 14 and 17 and I stayed at College Farm in Norfolk. When we arrived, Marcus and Lucy, the warm and generous young couple who run the farm, greeted us with a simple jacket potato supper that hit the spot after the three-hour drive from London.
This was in mid-November when it was getting quite chilly, too late in the season to be sleeping behind canvas walls anyway, so we fired up the wood stove and made the candle-lit cabin nice and toasty. Once you stop feeding it logs, the stove dies down we got into bed quickly to stay warm.
Before turning in, I had a look outside at the night sky, resplendent with the Milky Way, echoes of geese and the birdsong of tiny whippoorwills.
Inside the tent were separate bedrooms, a toilet, an ice-box and a little kitchen. We ordered a breakfast box specifying what we wanted and made a huge fry-up with eggs literally just out of the nest. We were one of about eight tents, all spread out to avoid noise. The front flaps fold back to reveal the front room and turn it into a big open-air porch.
After breakfast, we walked up to the main barn to see Lucy give a tour of the farmyard, where the children got to nuzzle a lot of cute animals, from rabbits to big shire horses. There was an extra buzz of excitement around Lucy because she was pregnant and due the next week.
Later, Marcus led a tour of the marsh pastures near the river, where we fed a flock of sheep and watched wild waterbirds. Some of their fields are actually below sea level, but they never flood, thanks to dykes built by Dutch engineers back in Victorian times. Marcus was keen to show off the land and tell its stories, and we took the long way back just to hear more. And we saw possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen: baby otter tracks in the mud on the path. If we hadn’t planned activities during the day, I would have happily sat down for hours waiting for them to come out. One of our boys met a friend who lives nearby to go canoeing down a small twisty river, and we left them to it. They discovered a rope swing that lands in the river and they looked like wet rats when we got back.
The rest of us went a few miles away to Hunter’s Yard, where we rented boats to sail on the Norfolk Broads.
The boats were beautiful antique gaff-rigged, half-deckers that handled like a dream, which was good, because the rivers and canals that make up the Broads are very narrow and full of other boats.
I’m originally from the East Coast of the USA and spent much of my youth hopping on and off boats, and it was bliss to enjoy them once again. You will see some extraordinary views, like where you look out to the edge of a field and there is a sail sticking up beyond it, moving fast. You don’t see the river or the boat, just a moving sail. We managed to get a long way off and back, causing maximum disruption to the boat traffic. Motorboats are supposed to give way to those with sails, but as we zigzagged upwind, one tried to get past us and crashed into the bank. Luckily, the bank was just vegetation and mud and no harm was done. Just a bit of friendly cursing and fist-shaking.
Returning to the farm we were late for dinner due to the slow roads. Marcus had promised to cook home-made pizzas in an outside oven for all the guests that night. But when we finally arrived, there were no pizzas being cooked, because they had gone off to hospital to have their baby.
So we quickly stocked up at the farm shop, leaving our honesty box list to be tallied later, and made a heap of pasta.
Cooking is limited to a hob as there is no oven, so we bought ingredients for a stovetop stew. Hey, compare that to cooking on a campfire.
Staying in the deluxe tent was a bit like living in a 19th century house, only with better plumbing. You have to light a fire and wait a while for the kettle to boil, but it was very satisfying to finally have that hot cup of tea in your hand.
Go with another family to make it even better, add that to the sweet air and the moon over the river, and you have yourself a lovely break.
College Farm is in Aldeby, Norfolk. They will send you an information pack and explain pre-ordering suppers and/or breakfast, lunch or bbq boxes. Prices are about £100 a night, and vary farm to farm. The website is very good for information, and on the phone they will put you directly in touch with the farms. Feather Down Days are situated in farms all over the country. www.featherdown.co.uk, 01420 80804.
Boats Hunter’s Yard is near Great Yarmouth. 01692 678 263. You do need some sailing experience. Four hours cost £55. Canoeing was in Outney Meadows 01986 892 338 and cost £22 for half-day and £33 for a day.