Friday, 2 June 2017

Family Camping in Devon

Things I like: walls, being warm, running water, privacy. So, based on this short but not inconsequential list, you'd imagine that I might have a bit of a problem with the concept of camping. If you add in the fact that I'm pretty useless at following diagrammatic instructions, have a very low patience threshold and don't much like insects, you can easily see that me and camping aren't really natural bedfellows.

But here's the thing - I absolutely love being outdoors. And you know what camping does? It makes you be outdoors pretty much all of the time. I don't come from a camping family but when we moved back to the West country after a decade in London, buying a tent was one of the first things we did. With access to an incredible wealth of coast and countryside on our doorstep - coupled with significantly reduced income after we became parents - I was ready to embrace a brave new world of tents, fleeces and blow-up beds. 

Some 12 years on since our first camping trip to Cornwall - an interesting experience with a sleep-averse two-year-old - I've come to really love it and truly relish that first trip of the season. Bringing down our gear from the loft provides a feeling not dissimilar to unearthing the box of Christmas decorations; while I know in reality each camping experience - just like each Christmas - will bring its own challenges, I love what that box of head torches, plastic plates and sleeping bags signifies: family time, relaxation and a temporary suspension of normal routines.

That's not to say I enjoy putting a tent up or relish cooking a family meal on a camping stove - both these activities can colour my language quite strongly. And I'm definitely a fair-weather camper - I've spent enough evenings wearing five layers of clothes and sitting in a sleeping bag to know that my Mediterranean temperament isn't suited to harsh outdoor weather conditions. But when the weather's on your side, you've got all the gear and you're sitting in a field as the sun sets, glass of rose in hand, there's really nothing like it. You just don't get the same experience in a 5-star hotel (well, you might, but I wouldn't know.)

For our first trip of this season, we headed to Devon and the lovely Strawfields camp site, just outside Ilfracombe. The antithesis of those very regimented, characterless sites filled with rows of tents and caravans, Strawfields is a much more rustic, natural affair. Limited to just a handful of pitches, there are two fields you can camp on, both overlooking the the unspoilt Devonshire countryside. 

Strawfields also offers a safari tent and shepherd's hut to stay in, as well as a couple of cottages at the other end of the site. During our stay we had a field all to ourselves - that's the kind of camping I love. With space to spill out and room to run around and kick a ball about, this was a wonderful bonus for our family of claustrophobic city dwellers. 

Another big advantage is that Strawfields provides fire pits - an absolute necessity if you want to enjoy being outdoors for as long as possible. Seriously, a fire pit changes everything. They truly enhance the camping experience, not just by keeping you warm but by providing a focal point to your evenings. There's something so lovely about seeing your normally phone obsessed teenager entranced by the vision of a flickering fire, plus, of course, you get to toast marshmallows on it. 

At the risk of sounding saccharine, we've had some of our most memorable family moments gathered round a camp fire - there's something so very simple about building and sitting round a fire that I defy any parent not to get a bit mushy after they've spent an hour or two sitting in its glow, children happily distracted from their gadgets.

Rustic but pretty toilet and shower facilities are provided - I was able to get a hot shower each morning, plus there are a proper flushing loos on the site. Forget concrete shower blocks, trailing the smell of strong bleach; the facilities here are made from natural materials and look out across the fields. 

Nearby you'll find plenty of things to do. While I found Ilfracombe itself a little unappealing, you don't have to travel far to find less commercialised options. Saunton Sands is a huge expanse of beach, backed by sand dunes and dotted with colourful beach huts. This part of Devon is very much surfing territory, with the famed Croyde beach also nearby should you want to get your fix of wetsuit-based watersports.

We spent a lovely day at the tranquil Lee Bay, much more my kind of beach. Located in a pretty cove about 15 minutes drive from Strawfields, this beach makes a wonderful place to explore at low tide (though you do need to be aware of tide times as some of the beach gets cut off at certain points in the day.) With just a cafe overlooking the cove, it's a quiet, undeveloped spot and I loved it. 

There are highly regarded coastal walks on offer around this area, too, though we were too lazy to countenance doing anything that energetic on this trip. Instead, we opted to travel inland to Exmoor where we spent a restful afternoon hanging out at the legendary beauty spot Tarr Steps. Characterised by an ancient clapper bridge that crosses a crystal clear Exmoor stream, it's an idyllic place for a paddle and a picnic. There's also a great tea room and pub overlooking the stream should you fancy partaking in the tradition of a Devon Cream Tea. 

En route to Tarr Steps we stopped at the Guardian recommended Royal Oak pub in Withypool, a truly authentic Exmoor pub serving outstanding pub classics - we loved it. Exmoor is a spectacular place for a drive or a walk - I'd liked to have explored this lovely corner of Devon a bit more, but we'll leave that for next time.

If you're a camping virgin or perhaps a reluctant camper who just hasn't quite got the concept - and I truly can understand why you might feel this way - I would thoroughly recommend investing in the right gear and a box of camping essentials you can stow away in your loft so they're good to go for your next trip. I can't recommend getting the best sleeping gear you can afford highly enough - cotton, duvet-style sleeping bags have transformed my enjoyment of camping. We have this one from Coleman - can't say I find it aesthetically pleasing, but it's totally snuggly while allowing your skin to breath. Good airbeds are another game-changer.

You'll need all the obvious extras - chairs, camping stove, etc - but I've found it really useful to have a dedicated box of camping essentials. At the end of each trip I top up as necessary so we always have the following items - all of which I guarantee you'll need - in our camping box at all times: 

  • Loads of torches and head torches for night time loo trips
  • Lanterns
  • tea towel
  • J cloths
  • Baby wipes
  • Melamine crockery and standard kitchen utensils and cutlery
  • Lighter
  • Corkscrew (really important)
  • Matches
  • Water carrier
  • Tea bags (also very important)
  • Food basics - salt, sugar, oil etc.
  • Tin opener
  • First Aid kit
  • Washing line and pegs
  • Dustpan and brush
  • Toilet roll
  • Bin bags
  • Washing up bowl and washing up liquid
  • Antiseptic wipes
Happy camping! 

For more information about Strawfields, visit the website here.


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