Free-Range Children: A U.K. Family Farm Stay

Camping?  Your kids have been begging you!  You know the outdoors would be great for them — but on holiday?  How could you relax? You need your creature comforts!  Enter “glamping”  “Glamorous camping” offers a great compromise — you get the nature vibe without getting too, well, dirty.

On a trip to visit family in the the U.K. last April, we carved out a few days to spend on a real working farm.  It was an opportunity to show the children the English countryside, get muddy, see some stars and teach our Hong Kong city-slickers (that’s cowboy slang for kids who think all eggs come from ParknShop) a thing or two about where food actually comes from. Since the price for a four-night, midweek stay starts at HK$3,200 (rates are higher during the busier season), I considered it a bargain for our family of six, compared to what we’d normally pay for two hotel rooms!

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Feather Down Farms is just one of the companies taking advantage of the “glamping” trend. The outfitters actually launched in the Netherlands ten years ago, but their original Dutch name “The Better Farmer’s Bed” didn’t exactly translate well into English. So, in an effort to attract English-speaking clients, they wisely altered the name to Feather Down Farms. Partnering with a select group of small working farms throughout the U.K., France, Germany, Holland and the U.S., Feather Down help erect two to ten canvas tents (picture a safari tent, but without the lions) on rural family-run farms. The farmers agree to involve guests in the activities of the farm while earning much-needed extra income to support their farms.

Feather Down Farm Tent Inside

Each tent has a double bed, bunk bed and “cupboard room” (hands down the most coveted spot), accommodating up to six people. And, as the name suggests, there are cozy duvets on each bed to keep campers toasty at night. There is a wood-burning stove, dining room table, running water, a comfy sofa, basic cooking tools, and an indoor flushing toilet (this alone is enough to convince even the most wary camper!).

What you will not find: electricity, WiFi or television. We read by candlelight in the evenings and the kids were too exhausted to miss their iPads. Since everything you need is provided, you won’t need to buy a pile of expensive camping gear (that you will not know how to use and have no place to store in Hong Kong).

The most important item to pack: Wellies! It wouldn’t be England without a bit of rain and mud.

Hammock

The hardest part of planning our holiday was choosing among all of the bucolic farms on the website. We selected Manor Farm because it was about one hour south of London. (Full disclosure: We sweetened the deal by treating the kids to a stay at the nearby Legoland hotel the night before our simple life began!)

Ahead of our arrival, the friendly farm owners contacted us to discuss our food requests. Would we like a selection of local meats for the barbecue? A breakfast hamper? The ingredients for a beef stew to cook over a fire? Yes, please, to all that. But, if you’re too tired to cook your own meal when you arrive, there is also the option of a ready-made meal from the farmer’s kitchen.

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Inevitably, you will be missing something you need for dinner and that is where the “honesty shop” saves the day. Each farm has a store that sells everything you forgot (or didn’t bother) to bring, from marshmallows to ketchup and, most importantly, wine and beer. You collect what you need and jot it down, settling your bill before your departure. This concept was entirely foreign to the kids, and it took a lot of convincing for them to believe we were not stealing!

The tent was already set up when we arrived (avoiding the usual confusion about the tent that looked so easy to assemble in the store). But, that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of work to be done. Everyone had a job to do: the kids collected kindling and shooed the chickens out of the tent while we built a fire in the kitchen stove and in the barbecue.

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Some of the farms offer what they call “frills” tents that include a shower and hot tub. Before you get too excited, just know that it’s you who makes the hot tub hot: After several hours of feeding the fire, the water was finally warm enough. It was hard work, but delicious and worth the wait. The shower was slightly less labour-intensive, but still required advance planning and expedient soaping and rinsing to clean a family of six with one large bucket of hot water.

Every morning, the children would race to the chicken coop to look for eggs. Giving true meaning to the expression farm-to-table, the eggs were still warm as we cracked them into the frying pan for breakfast. While we washed up the dishes, the children climbed the haystacks, terrorized the chickens and fed food scraps to the pigs.

Fresh Eggs from the Coop

After breakfast, we explored the local area on a day trip down to Portsmouth, where we toured the HMS Victory (Admiral Nelson’s flagship in the Battle of Trafalgar and still the flagship of the First Sea Lord). After lunch in Portsmouth, we headed back to the farm to prepare for the evening meal. We chopped vegetables and put the beef stew in
a pot hanging on a tripod over the camp fire, stirring it every half hour (or when we remembered). The children fetched more firewood and swung in the hammock. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables or the work that went into making it, but it was just about the best beef stew we had all ever eaten. Later, the children roasted marshmallows while we drank wine and watched the sky change from dusk to dark. We finished the day gazing at a sky full of stars.

But, the absolute highlight of the stay was our farm tour with Lucy the farmhand. April happens to be lambing season and lambs were being born nearly every day. With so many sheep, the lambs can easily become separated from their mothers, so each ewe has a number spray-painted on her side. On our tour, we needed to locate six lambs that had been born in the last two days that needed to be sprayed with the corresponding number of their mums. I have not seen anything funnier than watching our two boys, aged seven and six, chase after lambs (who are surprisingly fast and agile despite being two days old) with a shepherd’s crook.

Holding a Lamb

This was not your typical beach resort holiday, and nor was it the kind of trip that’s packed with sightseeing and museums. This time, our over-scheduled Hong Kong children truly became “free-range children” for a few days.

Free Range Children

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