England's New Country Retreats
The most radical new hotel alternative in this world of 24/7 luxury: tents set up on farms. Gisela Williams investigates.
Not much more than a decade ago, the notion that pampered city dwellers would want to spend weekends camping out on farms would have sounded ridiculous. But when Dutch entrepreneur Luite Moraal tested his concept for a farm-stay program in Holland in 2003, luring guests to comfortable, furnished tents at beautiful family farms, the idea turned into a huge success. Last year Moraal expanded to the United Kingdom, launching the Feather Down Farms collection with eight properties in the English countryside and one in Scotland—and he hopes to bring the concept to the United States. Some of the farmers Moraal has teamed up with are still shocked.
"I knew there was an audience for a 'less is more' travel experience," Moraal says. "There's so much luxury these days—better sheets, bigger flat-screen TVs—that it's hard to be impressed. I wanted to give people something different, something that would take them back in time." Moraal had another goal as well: to help small farmers by giving them a way to earn additional income.
On a spring afternoon, I drive to Hampshire to check out the camping experience at Manor Farm, the first property in England to join Feather Down Farms. I take with me some friends from London—Edward, Mariah and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Gwendolyn—since Moraal's tents are designed to appeal to families. As soon as we arrive at the farm, about an hour's drive from London, the animal-loving Gwendolyn snaps to attention, running across the pasture, past flowering pear and apple trees, to a small pen of chickens and sheep. She finds a pile of hay, pulls a handful and sticks it through the fence at the sheep.
The farm's fourth-generation owner, 36-year-old Will Brock, meets us and takes us over to the tents; there are five of them, all set in an orchard on the 400-acre property on which Will raises livestock and grows vegetables. Green pastures roll gently down toward a distant church spire in the medieval market town of Alton. This still looks and feels very much like Jane Austen country; the author lived much of her life in Chawton, a few miles away.
"We're already booked every weekend until the season ends in October," Will says as he drops me off outside my tent. I walk into the roomy wood-floored space, which feels more like a cabin than a tent. Meanwhile, Edward, Mariah and Gwendolyn settle into their tent.
I set my bags on the wood-plank dining table, which is surrounded by six unmatched wooden chairs; two metal candelabras hang above. The walls are decorated with framed photos of baby farm animals. At the back of the tent, there's a large cupboard with a bed inside, big enough for two small children. There are two bedrooms, one with a double bed and the other with bunk beds. In the bathroom, I discover (thankfully) a flush toilet; the showers are in a shed nearby.
"This is our version of an eco-friendly refrigerator," Will jokes as he throws frozen water bottles into a plain wooden box, where they'll stay cool for a while without the benefit of electricity. In the kitchen area, there's also a wood stove, an island counter with a sink and some old-fashioned pots and kettles. Will shows me how to light the wood stove. Tonight, it will just have to keep me warm—I won't need it for making dinner. "I'm cooking everyone some pizzas tonight in our bread oven," Will announces.
Once I unpack and walk over to the bread oven at the center of the compound, I find several other guests sharing wine and watching Will stoke up the fire. There's a London-based Australian couple with their year-old son, Rory, who has adopted one of the wheelbarrows as his favorite new toy, and an older English couple who are regulars and have been at Manor Farm for a week already. "We've just been sleeping really well, reading, cooking on the stove and taking walks in the countryside," the wife tells me.
Gwendolyn and her parents join us as Will sets out dough and toppings so we can design our own pizzas. Gwendolyn helps her mother cover the whole-wheat piecrust with fresh mozzarella and Manor Farm-made sausage, local mushrooms, peppers and onions.
On nights when Will isn't cooking, guests who aren't handy with a wood stove can visit the shop on the property and buy the precooked dishes Will's wife, Anna, makes with farm ingredients, like shepherd's pie or pork-and-cider casserole. Anna's meals have become so popular that she recently started a business called Anna's Kitchen, selling them throughout the county at farm and specialty food shops.
"Diversify, diversify, diversify," chants Will's father, Thomas. "That's the buzzword in farming these days." It's early the next morning (the farm's rooster woke me up around 6:30 a.m.), and we're sitting in the kitchen of the Brock family home, which dates back to 1640. One of the first things the Brocks did to diversify, Thomas tells me, was to buy the town butcher shop. "That way we can sell our meat directly to our customers," he explains. When Moraal arrived to set up the tents last summer, both Thomas and Elizabeth were a bit dubious. "But we immediately received about 150 e-mails asking for information," Elizabeth tells me.
Edward and Gwendolyn are waiting for me outside their tent when I come over with ingredients for breakfast; all we need are eggs. We cross the meadow to the henhouse and pull open a side door, which reveals several egg-filled nests and a still-roosting hen. Gwendolyn nervously eyes the sleepy hen, then, with Edward's encouragement, picks out five eggs, giggling as she pulls them from the nests. "Squeezing eggs!" Gwendolyn exclaims back in their kitchen as I crack the eggs in a bowl. We make tea on their wood stove, then I cook up some French toast, which we slather with farm butter and a locally made raspberry jelly.
Will offers to take us on a tour of the farm (which he does for guests when he has time) and tells us we can rent bikes. "Many of our guests drive their cars to the West Wittering or Hayling Island beaches if it's warm," he says, "or go hiking along Hangers Way," a 21-mile, wooded footpath that leads to Queen Elizabeth Country Park. But Gwendolyn wants to stay and play with the water pumps, a series of old-fashioned descending troughs that Moraal installs on all the farms, along with the tents and the bread oven.
"We're living in a time where there are now two generations of families that don't know where milk comes from," says Tim, Will's brother, later that afternoon. Tim Brock lives at Manor Farm too, and works for Hampshire Fare, an organization that provides support to the region's farms and to projects like getting local ingredients into school cafeterias. "Joining Feather Down Farms enables us to inform people about where food comes from. They learn that farmers aren't just producing good food but are also managing and preserving our most beautiful land."
After a gastropub lunch at the nearby Selborne Arms, where Mariah orders a juicy Manor Farm steak, we all pile into the car to head back to London. Mariah and Edward talk about the calm, contented feeling they hope to take back to the city with them. Mariah has one reservation about the tents: "The wood stove didn't seem suited for having very small children around," she notes. Edward chimes in, "I think it's perfect for kids four years and older. They would be really excited about sleeping in those beds."
I look back at Gwendolyn in her car seat, fast asleep. She's holding her stuffed sheep, Bah-Bah, which will have to suffice until the next time her parents are eager for a quick escape from London.
Gisela Williams is F&W's European correspondent.