Carry on camping
Our self-confessed snob took a trip down memory lane in a static mobile home.
Kids love the outdoor nature of a holiday at Shorefield Country Park
It's at least three decades since I stayed in a caravan. I loved visiting my grandparents on Brean Down in Weston-Super-Mare, but it could never have been described as "five-star", the designation given to Shorefield Country Park, a large holiday village of fixed mobile homes and chalet-style lodges situated near Milford-on-Sea on the Hampshire coast.
Even so, this particular holiday snob was more than a little nervous about the prospect of the classic English holiday experience. But things have moved on.
My grandmother would have struggled to visit on an onsite beauty spa for a facial all those years ago (even if she had known what it was). Nor did I ever see a Bentley parked on site, as I did at Shorefield. We were staying in a basic static mobile home (a familiar design from my childhood), which was adequate for our self-catering needs. But it was evident from a nose around Shorefield that there is a sophisticated hierarchy of "executive" cabins and "elite" caravans. I had no idea campsite homes came in so many shapes and sizes, including lodges with hot tubs, saunas and flat-screen TVs.
For our two young boys, aged five and nine, this could not have been a better place to spend a holiday. Situated on the edge of the New Forest, but within walking distance of the sea, this gave them a degree of open-air freedom they can never enjoy in London.
The indoor swimming pool was also a hit as, indeed, were Cyril and Cybil, the campsite squirrel mascots whose giant furry presence dominated the activities of the kids' club.
For the grown-ups there were certain drawbacks including a canteen that would struggle to be awarded one star, let alone five. Entertainment took the form of various rock and pop tribute acts, so we avoided that too.
Stay: Prices start from £117 in a four-six berth Danestream Chalet (up to six people) for four nights (Mon-Thurs) and from £175 for a seven-night holiday. Facilities include in and out- door swimming pools, live entertainment, floodlit tennis, astro-turf football pitch, spa, shops and activities for children. Tel 01590 64833, www.shorefield.co.uk
Drive: A337 from Lymington, turn left into Downton Lane at Royal Oak pub at Downton. After half a mile left into Shorefield Road.
Bike hire can be arranged and the terrain in the surrounding area is flat enough not to deter young riders. We ventured as far as the Isle-of-Wight, which is accessible by ferry from Lymington, four miles away. Highly recommended is Salty's at Yarmouth, where we enjoyed an excellent lunch of local fish before the return ferry journey.
We also enjoyed The Marine at Milford-on-Sea, a child-friendly restaurant in a beautifully maintained 1930s building right on the seafront. However, a note of caution should be sounded about the promenade at Milford, where bikes and pedestrians share a hazardous path.
Nearby Hurst Castle juts out on a shingle spit between the mainland and the Isle-of-Wight. This spectacular redoubt was built in the reign of Henry the Eighth as a prison to Charles I after the English Civil War and was then reinforced in the Victorian era to act as a forbidding bulwark against a French invasion that never came. It is possible to walk to the castle, but much more fun are the ferries crewed by local amateurs that set out from the tiny port of Keyhaven.
Slightly further afield is Exbury Gardens, an extraordinary horticultural fantasia deep in the Hampshire countryside which serves as a tribute to Lionel de Rothschild's passion for the rhododendron. The scion of the great dynasty, who bought the gardens in 1919, described himself as "a banker by hobby but a gardener by profession". Exbury is his floral legacy.
We had the privilege of being given a golf-buggy tour of the gardens by an ancient retainer who still referred to the various masters of the house as Mister Lionel, Mister Eddy and so on. His knowledge of the gardens, where he had worked for 70 years, was detailed to the point of obsession. He remembered every tree and shrub he had ever planted. And every disagreement he'd had with Mister Lionel. There is the stump of an ancient tree in Exbury Gardens, felled during a storm in 1990, where the rings have been marked with some of the great events of history and significant dates for the Rothschilds to signify their national roots.
The surrounding countryside is dominated by the country houses of England's aristocratic families. Just next door stretches the domain of Beaulieu, home to the Montagu family since 1538. Now most famous as the home of the National Motor Museum, the collection is impressive.
Our boys loved the cars, the Outspan Orange-mobile as well as the graceful beasts in the land-speed record section. But they were also taken by the living history displays on the estate and particularly impressed by a young man riding a penny-farthing around the grounds at high speed.
On the way back to London we stopped off at Paulton's Park, a vast theme park on the northern edge of the New Forest, now most famous as the home of Peppa Pig World. Although our boys initially complained that Peppa was a little beneath them, they were soon convinced when their father was clearly terrified by the Windy Castle ride, in which visitors are spun high above the park in innocent-seeming carriages shaped like clouds. Thankfully, an adult's presence was not required on George's Dinosaur Adventure or Mister Potato's Playground.
Snobbery is never an attractive quality and completely useless in helping to select a holiday that children will enjoy. Three decades on from my last stay at a caravan park, would I recommend the experience? With certain reservation about the food and entertainment, yes I would.