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How to make happy campers out of townies


A new kind of farm holiday involving tents with mod cons suits Sarah Marling

Young George is in the chicken pen checking for newly laid eggs for the 10th time this morning. It's only nine o'clock and we're all sitting in pyjamas and Wellingtons in our tent, waiting for the kettle to boil on the wood-burning stove. Eventually, we'll fry the eggs.

This is life in the slow groove: camping safari-style, but with the hills of Hampshire rather than the African plains in view through the rolled up window flaps; with sheep, the farm's herd of suckling cattle, some haughty llamas and those slow-laying chickens as our local wildlife.

The children love the tent, which is robust, with a proper wooden floor, shelving fashioned from apple boxes, and a flush loo with a circular plank lid, like a well.

They especially like the bunks with ladder and the central wooden bed-in-a-cupboard, which gives them the feeling of being stowaways - all the more so since there's only lamplight - which was pretty good for last night's bout of spooky storytelling.

I am a townie, taking the countryside one day at a time, so I like mattresses, mesh to keep out the bugs, the soft creamy canvas lining of the tent and running (cold) water in our kitchen area. But I also like the"candelabra" of beaten metal suspended on a beam of quartered fence post that hangs over the table, and the nice array of pans and ladles around the stove. And that there's a hook or a nail for everything.

There are five tents dotted around this former orchard. Nine handy Dutchmen put them up in just five days last August, and their arrival marked the beginning of what Luite Moraal, creator of Feather Down Farms, calls "the most unique holiday experience in Britain" - one that has been running in Holland for three years. Moraal is a savvy pioneer of holiday ideas: he introduced Centre Parcs to Britain, those "sleeze-free", year-round, healthy holiday villages.

For Anna and Will Brock, the tents represent essential diversification on the farm (which is still worked by Will's father). When the couple saw the advertisement in a farming magazine searching for "Feather Down candidates", they jumped at the chance.

"The farm can't support two families," says Anna, "and anyway the camp fits with our own ideas about ecological holidays - Will and I like diving, so our holidays have mostly been in a hut with a hammock and the sea outside."

She also runs the farm's ready-made organic meals business, and her tasty sausages, lasagnes, stews, quiches and pasta sauces are now, very usefully, stocked in the honesty shop for campers who have coaxed their stoves into fiery action. We sampled the bolognaise and some local soft cheese, and we had our milk in a tiny churn - all kept in the cool box in the tent where the temperature is maintained by iced "hot water-bottles".

The whole idea plays to our desire for simplicity, for the "ethical holiday" that keeps pace with what we take to be the rhythms of nature. So, we do not mind parking the car in the farmyard, taking our luggage in a wheelbarrow to the tent and forgetting four wheels in favour of bikes. We're happy to lose an hour petting the tame sheep in their enclosure. Happy to collect a loaf of home-baked bread and, if the hens are not rebelling from George's constant interruptions, pocketing some warm eggs.

After breakfast we shuffle across the field to the shower block. This is a converted farm building with a row of well lit, smoothly tiled new showers, which burst into life with generous hot water.

This part of Hampshire is Gilbert White territory. The naturalist (credited as the country's first ecologist) was born just up the road in Selborne, where his handsome house is now a museum. He may well have preached to the faithful at the 12th-century Church of St Nicholas, which we can see from the tent.

White's theme was the interdependence between plants and creatures in Nature. That notion has now found its way into holidaymaking. And there's nothing as powerful as an idea in its time. Our fellow campers spent part of their weekend at the farmers' market in nearby Alton; we looked at Roundhurst Farm near Haslemere where organic farming and food production were being launched as an "attraction" with a big outdoor party.

There are now nine Feather Down Farms, including one on Prince Charles' Duchy of Cornwall land. Critics may argue that this is a rural idyll invented for affluent urbanites. Maybe Feather Down does give us a false impression of life on a farm - after all, there are no piles of rusty discarded machinery, no miserable animals drowning in mud or fences patched with baler twine. We can surely hope that campers will be as good for farms as farms are for campers.

Alternative eco-friendly sites

Deepdale Farm, north Norfolk (01485 210256, www.deepdalefarm.co.uk) Close to the spectacular beaches and saltmarshes of the north Norfolk coast, this sizeable farm site has both tepees and conventional tents, as well as a backpackers' hostel. The long-distance coastal path passes nearby and there is great cycling on tracks around the farm and on quiet inland roads. Riding and sailing can also be organised locally. Tepees cost from 90 a night for three to six people, including a chiminea, ready laid with firewood, chairs, mattresses, barbecue and lantern.

The Telegraph - Journalist: Sarah Marling
09/06/2007