Grin and brave it
Fed up with the family frame tent? Maybe you need a teepee. Alexandra Buxton and her family tried out one in Norfolk.
"Chilly, isn't it?" says the smiley lady in the warmth of the Burnham Market tearoom as she hands over the piping hot lattes. I agree - and nearly add: "Especially if you are staying in a teepee."
Spring may have sprung but the countryside is at its muddiest, and I have persuaded my husband and teenage daughters (aged 17 and 15) to spend the weekend in a teepee in north Norfolk, leaving behind shops, homework, ponies and boyfriends for a bit of back-to-nature stuff. Ever since I spotted the word "teepee" on Deepdale Farm's website, I have longed to curl up in one.
My husband has not been hard to persuade: he is game for anything. The girls are reluctant. "Mum, a tent in April is a sure sign of a mid-life crisis," says Miranda. Their curiosity wins them over. "I'm only sleeping in it if it's round and has a hole in the top," announces Ros. The dog is a push-over: lurchers love slumbering next to their owners and relish open spaces.
The teepee is circular and it does have a hole at the top. When we arrive at Deepdale Farm, just outside Brancaster Staithe, we find our teepee in a walled paddock looking like a pointy meringue. Crunching across the gravel drive to greet us is Jason Borthwick who, with his father Alister, has developed the family farm to encompass a backpackers' hostel, campsite and information centre.
Jason opens the canvas door of the teepee and shows us inside. Four airbeds are ranged round a pot-bellied stove, fuelled by briquettes. If we want to light the fire, we must open the top of the teepee by moving two bamboo poles. It's exciting to be organising our bedding and getting out our spotted tea-pot. "You, busy squaw - me, mighty brave," says my husband.
Later that night, I tell myself sternly that there are compensations to lying sleepless in a teepee. It's eerily quiet and you can see the sky through the criss-crossing of the poles. From the outside comes the sound of owls hooting; from the inside come the snores of my husband, replete with fish and chips washed down by two pints of Old Les ale at the Jolly Sailors pub down the road.
Morning dawns, grey and misty. Jason has drawn up a programme based on cycling and walking round the area, stopping off for sustaining meals. We've decided to do everything on the list. Barely have we drunk our morning tea than our hired mountain bikes arrive and we set off, avoiding the fast coast road and taking the small lanes that meander inland.
Our route takes us first to Burnham Market where, true to its reputation as "Chelsea-on-Sea", the village is bustling with well-dressed couples briskly purchasing local delicacies. There's not a scrap of litter and the bank is painted a tasteful shade of pink.
By riding a bicycle you discover that Norfolk isn't flat after all. Ros and I push our bikes up the long hill leading to the great wall that surrounds the 3,000 acres of Holkham Park. Turning into the estate, we are rewarded by a dead straight, mile-long drive bordered by evergreen oaks leading to the obelisk that stands like an exclamation mark at the highest point of the park.
You can't go to Holkham without walking on the beach. My husband can't go to the sea without going into it, and his chilly dip earns him a cheer from a group of walkers as their dogs run circles on the sand. We deserve several slices of cake at the Marsh Larder in Holkham's 16th-century Ancient House, where everything is made on the premises.
Cycling in the dusk past Holkham Hall, we startle a herd of deer who disappear into the darkness, moving in perfect synchrony. Signs in the hedgerows guide us to Branthill Farm.
Here Teddy Maufe, a tenant of the Holkham Estate, farms 1,000 acres. Each year his best barley goes for malting, and the farm shop sells real ale from Norfolk breweries. North Norfolk Beauty, Reed Cutter, Fine Soft Day: the names given to these artisan beers are positively poetic. The ale itself ranges in colour from palest amber to peaty brown, and the taste from light and thirst-quenching to strong and smooth. Barley has been grown here since Roman times.
Until the 1940s Norfolk boasted scores of breweries; by the mid-1980s just one remained. The smallest of the current dozen is the Brancaster Brewery; one of the newest is Elveden Ales, set up by a school-leaver in her gap year.
Nelson's Blood Bitter, bitter with a splash of rum, is the brew to ask for at the Lord Nelson in Burnham Thorpe, where the interior has survived largely unaltered for 400 years.
Horatio Nelson was brought up in the village parsonage, until he left to join the Navy at the age of 12. In February 1793 he entertained the whole village to a meal in the pub, which now draws Nelson enthusiasts from all over the world. It continues to serve excellent food: don't miss a scrumptious pudding called Nelson's Mess.
Walking along the edge of the marshes westwards from Burnham Deepdale the next morning, we see flocks of pink-footed and Brent geese, and pass old mussel pits, dilapidated fishermen's huts and patches of reed bed being cut for thatching.
At Brancaster, the North Norfolk coast path turns inland and we walk along grassy tracks overhung by wind-shaped beeches.
Our lunch destination is the Lifeboat Inn at Thornham, where Thomas Large, the fisherman who supplies the pub's mussels, joins us in the bar. Each spring seed mussels are harvested in the Wash and laid down in beds in Brancaster Bay. The plump mussels we are eating are around four years old.
The Coast Hopper bus arrives bang on time and carries us back to Deepdale Farm. The driver is Ben Colson, who helped to set up this service, which runs between Hunstanton and Sheringham, 10 years ago. It's won several awards and letters have arrived from near and far praising its reliability and helpfulness. "It took all morning to walk there and just ten minutes to get back. What was the point of that?" demands Ros.
Time to go home: the dog collapses into the car, Miranda plugs into her CD player, and Ros turns the heater up. It's amazing how much we have learnt in the past two days: about barley and brewing, the migration of geese, the role of the marshes in stemming coastal erosion, the Battle of Trafalgar and the transportation of Nelson's body in a barrel of rum, how mussels filter-feed on plankton… My eyes close; luckily the mighty brave is doing the driving.
Jolly Sailors pub, Brancaster Staithe (01485 210314, www.jollysailors.co.uk) Lord Nelson, Burnham Thorpe (01328 738241, www.nelsonslocal.co.uk) Lifeboat Inn, Thornham (01485 512236, www.lifeboatinn.co.uk) Marsh Larder and Tearooms, Holkham (01328 711285 ) Real Ale Shop, Branthill Farm (01328 710810, www.therealaleshop.co.uk) On Yer Bike Cycle Hire, Wells-next-the-Sea (01328 820719, www.norfolkcyclehire.co.uk), adults £11 a day, children £5. Holkham Hall (01328 710227, www.holkham.co.uk) is open daily except Tuesday and Wednesday Norfolk Coast Path (01328 850530, www.nationaltrail.co.uk). Coast Hopper bus (01553 776980, www.norfolkgreen.co.uk).
Teepees sleeping up to six can be booked in advance from Deepdale Farm, Burnham Deepdale (01485 210256 www.deepdalefarm.co.uk for £75 a night Sunday to Thursday or £90 a night at weekends, including mattresses, chairs, barbecue, lantern and cast-iron chiminea for heat. The farm also offers year-round camping, a backpackers' hostel and information centre and hosts jazz and food festivals.
The Telegraph - Journalist: Alexandra Buxton