For the August Bank Holiday break we’re going back to the classics. By that we mean camping. Good old stock solid saggy canvas camping in the English countryside. But this being the Arb, we do have our own take on it. Lydia Manch heads to North Wiltshire and switches a tent for a… shepherd’s hut?
‘Here is the heart of our island…’, E. M. Forster claimed in The Longest Journey. ‘The fibres of England unite in Wiltshire, and did we condescend to worship her, here we should erect our national shrine.’
Big talk, Forster. Big, swaggering talk from somebody writing in 1907ish, about a forested, river-scattered idyll that probably doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe never did.
But then there’s Rushall.
Arriving from London, just the drive from the train station down an A-road’s still the most intense hit of greenery we’ve had in weeks. Trees and cow parsley fronding into the road on both sides, fields reaching out to the horizon in all directions – good views unfurling in a more or less unbroken way from the train station through to the corner of Rushall Organics’ land that’s temporarily ours.
Here’s the thing with camping: it’s mostly great. The freedom and the space and the waking up to no city noises – great. The cooking outdoors is great and the eating outdoors is great, and even the strong chance you’ll end up sheltering from thunderous weather by a pub fireplace? It’s great. Tents, though. Tents are not great. I love camping and I want my boyfriend to think I’m intrepid and say things like ‘Lydia, you are a sexier Sir Walter Scott’. But I also – even more than I want that – want to be warm when I go to sleep.
And so we’re in Pewsey, at Rushall Farm. Everything I want from camping, without the actual camping. Firepit, hammock, beauty in all directions. Our bed for the night’s in a reconditioned shepherd’s hut, more than 100 years old and with the original metal frame still intact. Angler’s Retreat is one of two similar huts on the land, far enough apart to feel totally secluded – both kitted out with modern comforts like sink, double bed, duvets, electricity, fridge and oven.
Two metres from the door to our hut there’s the River Avon running across the field, trees overhanging the far bank. A big, sun-dappled hammock set up on the near side. Between us and the Avon: upturned logs for sitting on around a campfire while you toast marshmallows, or fry up your self-caught catch of the day. A 360 degree turn shows you nothing but river, trees, fields, greenery, the Angler’s Retreat, and back to the trees overhanging the water. Consider it both a disclaimer and a brag that I have a couple-of-degrees-removed connection to this farm, and this part of the world.
If I’m honest, this feels less like glamping than it feels like… cottaging, whatever the innuendo-free way to say cottaging is. These are tiny, fully-functioning homes, like pioneer wagons in some verdant, river-run corner of Washington state. And, crucially, warm enough to make going to bed at night feel like a pleasure rather than SAS survival training.
Plenty of people must turn up here and spend most of their stay within a mile radius of their chosen hut. But if you want to be active Rushall makes it easy for you. Angling’s the obvious one, with the river right there, and rambling. Cyclists could get a lift from from the station and spend a weekend roaming the Pewsey Vale on two wheels. And if you’ve brought four wheels North Wiltshire and all those Forsterian fibres of England are at your feet – from Stonehenge and Silbury Hill for UNESCO-botherers through to the treetop walkways and bluebell woods at Westonbirt Arboretum.
Food options run the spectrum from sausage rolls and oven-warm cakes at Devizes Saturday market, to the Michelin-starred The Red Lion, both in easy driving distance. And with the arrival of Casterley Barn – a multi-functional site hosting everything from weddings to wellness retreats and food classes – on nearby Rushall lands later in 2017, it’s going to be even easier to find an excuse to visit, though on the flip side, possibly harder to find the shepherds’ huts free.
So the site is ridiculously lovely. The actual huts, also lovely. The site would be reason enough to brave the tents-and-cold-nights bona fide camping thing. The huts would be comfort enough to lure you to a less uninterruptedly beautiful part of the world. Mash the two of them together the way they are here and it’s just… improbably nice. I walk around for a day or two saying starry-eyed things about the fields, the bird calls, the river, the patches of wildflowers.
Jethro walks around helpfully pointing out dangers, because he thinks people who grow up in London don’t know what weirs and cattlegrids are. And I forgive this treating me like a stranger in a foreign land, because even though I have seen many a cattlegrid in my time, and even though Rushall’s easily accessible from a number of cities – Pewsey station’s a one hour direct train from London Paddington, and similar from Bath or Bristol – it’s true that this feels a world away from any of those.
So, yeah. Forster might have had a thing or two right.
Glamping at Rushall Organics is from £65 – £105 a night, and is open from 1 May – 31 October.
Rushall Organics, Devizes Road, Rushall, Pewsey, Wiltshire, SN9 6JZ. 01980 630361. Website.