Please feed the animals

By Ivor Baddiel, May 22, 2008

Enjoy an eco-conscious, child-friendly holiday down on the farm

Aside from 40 years in the wilderness, Jews are not the keenest of campers, preferring in the main the comforts of Marbella and Tel Aviv. But, thanks to Feather Down Farm Days, that might be about to change.

Feather Down Farm Days bills itself as, “the most unique holiday experience in Britain”. A lofty claim when, essentially, it is camping on a farm, but having just sampled its formula, I can report that it is indeed a unique experience and, furthermore one that is exhilarating, relaxing and — crucially in this day and age — eco-friendly.

The organisation hit the UK last year, when nine farms offered the experience, and currently there are 13 on its books, stretching from Cornwall to East Lothian.

While the set-up on each farm is essentially the same, being working farms, each offers a different experience in terms of what is actually going on, and of course, the areas they are situated in have their own specific charms. For our Feather Down Farm Days, we ventured off to Pettywood Farm in Lincolnshire.

The sight that greeted us on arrival was what I imagine a prairie homestead looked like — eight, rectangular brown structures, each about the size of a garage, spread out in a semi-circle, with chimneys poking out from the roofs.

These were the tents, but, having spent a goodly chunk of my youth under canvas with Habonim , I can assure you they were unlike any tents I had ever inhabited.

Each has a wood floor with a large main dining/cooking area dominated by a wood stove. There is a dining table and chairs, a cool-chest (a camping fridge) and a couple of large, rather comfy deck chairs, all apparently 1930s-style Dutch farmhouse furniture. At the back is a toilet, a master bedroom, a bunk bed and a canopy bed, which is essentially a bed in a cupboard and a huge favourite with the kids.

The overall impression is most pleasing: it is clean, comfortable and, gratifyingly, I didn’t have to erect it myself.But, having drunk it in, the first job was to get that wood stove going.

Each tent comes with a starter pack of logs and coal, but as any seasoned firestarter will tell you, you need kindling to get a fire going, and that meant grabbing the hatchet and attacking those logs. And boy was it satisfying: I definitely connected with my inner prehistoric man and felt about as close to being a hunter-gatherer as it is possible for a nice Jewish boy to be.

All kindlinged-up, getting the actual fire going was not too difficult, though it takes some time for the stove to heat up enough to boil the kettle. But herein lies another valuable lesson about our instant gratification culture; I can assure you, having chopped the logs, built the fire and shlepped our bags from the car to the tent by wheelbarrow while the kettle was boiling, when it arrived, that cuppa was marvellous. 

Next on the agenda was getting the wellies on (they are essential) and exploring. Pettywood Farm is an 800-acre arable and livestock farm, and right on our doorstep were sheep, cows, pigs and chickens which roamed freely and seemed so at home around humans that they almost hopped on to a chair and joined us at mealtimes.

The big attraction for the children were the lambs, which were equally at ease around our species and didn’t bat an eyelid when their pen was invaded and they were picked up and lugged around as if they were toys. Of course, the neurotic in me was thinking of the hygiene implications, but there were plenty of “Now Wash Your Hands” signs to remind us to do just that.

Also worth getting acquainted with early in your visit is the “honesty shop”. Basically it is a trailer which stocks farm and local produce, as well as essential bits and bobs. The only thing missing is a shop assistant. In its place is a sheet of paper to note down what you take, so you can settle up at the end of your stay. It is a brilliant way of doing things and really rams home the ethos of the organisation.

Back at our tent, the fire was giving out a decent amount of heat, and the eggs and beans cooked in no time and were hastily devoured in the way that only spending time outdoors imbues.

By now darkness had descended and, with no central heating and only candles and tilly lamps for light, it did get a bit chilly. Clearly this won’t be such a problem in the summer — though you never know in this country — but I would strongly recommend taking extra blankets and duvets to supplement those provided, whatever time of year you go.

The following morning I had high hopes of being the first to the chicken coop and helping myself to the freshest of fresh eggs, but alas, though I was there by 7.30, a young whippersnapper from a neighbouring tent had beaten me, by about an hour and a half.

Getting the wood stove going again was the next imperative, and here I learnt a harsh lesson; before lighting the fire, make sure you clean it out from the previous night. I spectacularly failed to do this, and consequently had to wait even longer for that first cup of tea.

The rest of the morning was spent rather idly with us adults milling around the tent, and the kids romping around the field and petting the lambs — the immediate vicinity felt very safe and we had no qualms letting the kids run free.

Then it was off to explore what our neck of the Lincolnshire/Rutland border had to offer. And, in that respect, I can report that the town of Stamford is well worth a visit, as is the nearby village of Oakham. A little further afield is Rutland Water with its many attractions. We sampled the Butterfly Farm and Aquatic Centre, which was fun, if a bit pricey. I would also recommend checking out Yew Tree Avenue, a long boulevard lined with Yew Trees cut in all manner of different shapes — really top topiary.

Nearest to our farm was the village of Clipsham, home to the Michelin-starred Olive Branch pub which is definitely worth a visit, but make sure you book as it is mighty popular.

Back at the farm it was time for the highlight of the day; feeding the lambs. Anticipation was huge as we waited in the pen for the milk — among young humans and young ovine alike, and the frenzy that ensued when the bottles arrived was a sight to behold. Forget cute, fluffly little creatures, when there’s milk to be had, it’s every lamb for itself.

Other highlights of the stay included cooking in the clay oven — every Feather Down farm has one — a farm tour and hiring bikes to explore the countryside.

All in all a very enjoyable, educational and genuinely environmentally-friendly experience, made all the more so by our hosts Katy and Richard. Their farm was delightful and, from their point of view, Feather Down Farm Days provides much needed additional income and a chance to show us city dwellers what life is really like for them.

For me, the outdoors has to earn the epithet “great”, but in this case it was more than deserved. I loved it and the kids loved it, though, when it comes to my son, I am under no illusions as to where his future lies; I knew he’d always be a city boy when he asked if the reason the cows were having injections was to change them in to horses.

Last updated: 1:46pm, September 10 2008