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A weekend teepee in Norfolk


Badgers and strange brews were not enough to spoil the romance for Ginny McGrath

It sounds romantic: a faux fur mattress, an open fire and the company of a loved one in the North Norfolk countryside.

But throw in separate sleeping bags, an open-air sprint to the bathroom and an inquisitive badger… and a weekend in a tipi (as the company spells it) is not your average chocolate-covered strawberries and fluffy bathrobes break.

It was certainly more memorable than a boutique hotel though, and I’d venture more romantic - snuggling is vital when there’s only canvas between you and a cloudless winter night sky.

We were staying in one of four tipis in Burnham Deepdale, a village in what is now a trendy length of North Norfolk coastline. The tipis are part of a happy little commune of hostel accommodation, a cafe, shop and campsite. The site buzzes in summer and quietly simmers the rest of the year when only the brave venture under canvas.

It dipped to nine degrees one evening, and well below that at night – I could see my breath inside the tipi, nevermind outside.

Apart from the canvas walls, rough carpeted floor on a raised wooden platform and the faux fur mattresses, our other item of life sustaining kit was a chimnea. It took a couple of attempts to master - via near suffocation by smoke inhalation for trying to burn damp wood - but before long the tipi was toasty.

That said, we slept in tracksuit bottoms, sweaters and alpaca socks that haven’t seen the light of day since leaving Peru. This is essential gear for the small hours, when the glow has gone from your chimnea embers and the mercury drops to single digits.

It was late October when I stayed there with three friends – yes, the other two might have taken the edge off the romance, but we needed them for their body warmth…

I was also pleased of the company when one of our party, a wildlife enthusiast, chased a furry interloper from the threshold our tipi.

Whether a badger had really tried to invade our tipi at 3am I’ll never know, but my suspicions rest with the mind-bending properties of Norfolk Wherry, the peaty local ale that we’d enjoyed in abundance at the excellent White Horse pub, a ten-minute walk from the site.

Each tipi sleeps up to six people in the basic accommodation described above, and while the toilet block is a two-minute dash across the field, its under-floor heating and blasting hot showers are worth the soggy feet. The lights are on sensors to save electricity, and there are other environmentally-sound practices - recycling bins, solar panels, hedges retained for wildlife habitats, and crop rotation.

The information centre is also well equipped, with a shop selling all manner of camping paraphernalia, including charcoal (to use on the metal barbeques dotted around the site), torches, batteries, folding chairs, beach towels, games, plus OS maps, leaflets on local attractions, pubs and restaurants and local transport information.

It’s here where tipi guests check-in and are given a rechargeable lantern and a lesson on handling the flaps of the tipi and lighting the chimnea. Then you’re on your own, with just a 24-hour mobile number to reach whoever is on call. This number is also to report noise, strictly banned after 10pm to deter party animals who pine for the raucous campsites and open-air parties of other coastal hostpots, like Newquay.

That’s not to say there’s no party spirit. The White Horse is a lively pub where bar billiards, live sports screenings and the afore-mentioned selection of local ales attract residents and tourists. The back of the pub is an elegant restaurant overlooking the Norfolk marshes and Scolt Head Island in the distance – a stunning backdrop at sunset.

Order mussels from the daily-changing menu (£7.25 starter, £9.50 main) and they will have travelled a matter of metres from the mussel beds on the marshes. Other specialities include innovative fish dishes with samphire, sometimes called sea asparagus, which is an acquired seweedy taste best eaten in July and August, and is harvested nearby. There are also plenty of meat and vegetarian dishes – pan-fried fillet of Norfolk pork with roasted root vegetables (£11.95), cassoulet with Puy lentils and thyme jus (£11.95) and home-made tagliatelle with baby spinach and oven-dried tomatoes (£9.50) are some examples.

There’s also great food at the Deepdale Café on-site, which includes some wonderful warming breakfasts, from a Full English (£6.50) to steaming porridge (£1.50) and home-made muesli (£1.50). The afternoon cakes are superb, and the lunch menu includes daily specials, with imaginative dishes such as crayfish and parma ham salad and classics like fish pie, all for around £8 a dish.

Working off this hearty food is no problem with the breadth of activities you can do from Deepdale. Walks from the site include two circular routes into the countryside keeping to the grassy strips set aside for walkers, horse riders and cyclists, around the edge of the fields. The Deepdale website has maps to download or there are various guided walks throughout the year, including fun themed events such as a walking Christmas quiz, a spooky Halloween walk, and events throughout the year taking in coastal scenery and wildlife commentary.

Cookery courses, pub quizzes and Sunday night barbeques are also laid on, so there’s no chance of running out of things to do. We booked a day’s sailing with the Oceanus Sailing Scool in Wells-next-the-Sea, which is 15 minute’s drive away.

It’s run by a laid-back local lad Jimmy Goodley, whose host of equally easy-going instructors offer professional and fun courses, from a two-hour taster session to a full Royal Yachting Association qualification. We spent a glorious afternoon bobbing along the coast at the mercy of limp winds, admiring the coastline and enjoying Jimmy’s sea faring yarns.

We also took a trip to see the seal colony at Blakeney Point. Around 500 Common and Grey seals live on the remote stretch of sand, amusing sightseers with their barking, lolloping and playful swimming.

After a wind-whipped speedboat ride back to Wells we were chilled to the bone and were directed to the Albatros, a pub, guesthouse, restaurant and café aboard a Dutch North Sea Klipper, run by an eccentric couple. They serve what in my book beats a Hot Toddy hands down as the ultimate winter warmer. Horlicks and Amaretto is liquid blanket and slippers – a mug later we were warmed and rosy-cheeked, ready for another night in the tipi. If wherry brought badger hallucinations, what would this wicked concoction bring?

Need to know

Deepdale Tipis (tel. 01485 210256) charge from £40 per tipi per night for up to two people and from £75 per night for three to six people. Each tipi sleeps up to six people. There is a toilet and shower block on site with underfloor heating, and there are a number of metal BBQs for use on the site.

The Deepdale Information shop is a treasure trove of maps, leaflets on local attractions, pubs and restaurants, local transport information and camping essentials including charcoal, batteries, torches, beach games, drinks and snacks. It also offers internet access.

Those staying in tipis should bring pillows, sleeping bags or duvets, towels and cooking or eating equipment if they intend to self-cater. Faux fur mattresses, foldaway chairs, and the chimnea with wood is provided, plus a rechargeable lantern. Dogs are allowed on the campsite but not in the tipis.

Deepdale Cafe (tel. 01485 211055) on site serves food from 7.30am to 4.30pm (last orders), and is licensed. There is a petrol station and supermarket on site, which sells bread, milk, toiletries and other basic provisions.

Tables at The White Horse (tel. 01485 210262) should be booked ahead as it is popular for lunch and dinner. The pub/restaurant also has 15 bedrooms, with rates from £50 per night.

For more information about the East of England region, to get ideas on accommodation, restaurants, events etc, go to www.visiteastofengland.com

The Times - Journalist: Ginny McGrath
10/01/2008