First started in the Netherlands 12 years ago but now established in several other countries, including the UK, Feather Down’s recipe for glamping holidays on family-owned farms has drawn a loyal following among certain middle class British families (if you’re a Boden shopper you’re almost certain to have heard of the Feather Down brand, if not have visited one of its locations). Which is no great surprise.
Essentially luxury camping, with all the benefits of sleeping (and one-pot eating) close to nature but none of the hardships of – and much less packing than – a regular camping trip, it has helped put a stop to many a family argument over whether or not a camping holiday would be blissful or hellish.
Putting the experience to the test ourselves, we made our way to East Shilvinghampton Farm, five miles from Weymouth along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. We might not have been conflicted about whether or not we wanted to go camping but we did find ourselves swept up in one family dispute early on: how to describe our accommodation.
With its proper beds (one double, one bunk and one nest-like cabin bed), flushing toilet, running supply of cold water and wood-burning stove this wasn’t what you’d traditionally call a tent. But then, with its canvas sides and roof and lack of hot water or central heating it definitely wasn’t a standard holiday cottage either. In the end we stole an American phrase and settled on tabin (tented cabin).
One of eight such tabins spread out within a field at East Shilvinghampton Farm, the styling of each was impressive. Few of us want to go on a rural break and stay somewhere that looks as though it’s been teleported straight from suburbia and the Feather Down tabins certainly don’t do that. In keeping with its farm setting the décor in ours was rustic in a kind of pioneer-chic kind of way.
With chunky wooden furniture, mismatched dining chairs and shelves made from crates, the overall effect was consciously quirky and homespun (especially where the dining table was concerned – apparently Feather Down always saws one leg off each table and replaces it with a slightly different one for a truly cobbled-together look). The fact that ours was the only car in the car park that wasn’t a shiny black 4×4 suggests how contrived this is but, then, don’t all the best holidays allow us to wallow in a bit of romantic licence?
With two under-fives in tow, we appreciated the extra comforts, though I wish I hadn’t swallowed the ‘not really camping’ line quite as wholeheartedly as I did and had packed a few extra layers (when our fire flickered out late on a clear-skied night the temperature plummeted). And I was glad we’d packed our own camping stove for early morning coffees (it would have been a long wait, without it, while we got the fire going to heat a stove-top kettle on the wood-burner).
In general, though, we felt that our tabin got the balance right between roughing it and self-indulgence. Having plenty of headroom and indoor space would have been a godsend if it had rained. And, while we weren’t in a deluxe tabin (those come with verandahs and private showers), having a private toilet was truly a luxury in the night, although we were quite happy to walk over the field to the shower block in the morning.
There were other, unexpected, benefits of taking an almost off-grid holiday. Without electricity in the tabins (there was a socket for emergency charging in the farm’s honesty shop) everyone was forced to switch off. The children didn’t ask to watch a DVD or play a game on the iPad all weekend, happy instead to kick a ball around, ride bikes and play hide and seek.
One area where we did indulge (no surprise here), however, was with the food. This is a real focus of the Feather Down experience and, while all the locations offer pizza ovens (guests can pre-order their favourite toppings and cook them during weekly pizza nights) and DIY stews to cook over the fire, East Shilvinghampton offers much more for foodie visitors. Its owners, Martin and Joby Bartlett, raise their own beef and pork and, with a background in catering, Joby is happy to make delicious home-cooked meals for guests.
On our first evening we pre-ordered a cottage pie and Martin delivered it to our tent at an agreed time, fresh from the family’s Aga. Rich and peppery with a meaty sweetness and a buttery potato topping, it was up there with our best-ever cottage pies (though that might also have had something to do with not having to make it ourselves, and with eating it outside as the sun set over the rolling green Dorset countryside and the soft hooting of owls began).
The farm is in a lovely patch of Dorset, close to the thatched cottages and tea gardens of Abbotsbury, and to iconic Chesil Beach, but if you’d rather stay put there’s plenty to do on site. At 5pm every Saturday, for instance, Martin leads interested guests on a tour of the farm. We joined him in warm sunshine as he gave an enthusiastic and informative rundown on operations at East Shilvinghampton.
While the children were encouraged to climb tractors and bottle-feed hungry goats and lambs (apart from the tour, most of the farm is out-of-bounds to guests to make sure there are no mishaps), the adults enjoyed a bit of soft-sell on the family’s home-reared meat (apparently beef burgers made with the farm’s beef are the biggest selling item on the menu at the local pub, the Kings Arms in neighbouring Portesham).
Not that we needed much encouragement. The site’s honesty shop contains a fridge stocked with steaks, meatballs, pork sausages and bacon produced on the farm and we stocked up several times during our stay. The Bartletts are commendably keen on supporting other local producers and the shop also stretched to local milk, butter and eggs, Dorset Blue Vinney and Dorset Red cheeses and Purbeck ice cream, as well as Dorset Coffee Co. coffee, Dorset Tea, Moore’s Dorset knob biscuits and craft beers from the Dorset Brewery Co.
On our final night we ordered one of Feather Down’s signature farmers’ stews. This time Martin arrived bearing a crate of raw ingredients, extra firewood and a recipe and set us to work on our own supper, a boozy beef, potato and veg casserole to be cooked outside over an open fire in what looked suspiciously like the magic porridge pot.
Cooking the stew is a three-hour event but on a sunny evening in mid-May that was hardly a chore. Surrounded by cow parsley and the smell of sun-baked hay we got to work chopping veg and opening a bottle of wine and spent the interim giving our supper the occasional stir as swallows swooped and dived overhead and we tried to distinguish between the happy squeals of baby goats in a neighbouring paddock and those of our children.
At one point we realised that the recipe didn’t quite match the ingredients and asked Martin for further instruction. “Joby just throws everything in together and it always works,” he shrugged. The same could be said of our weekend. Throw people together with the right mix of wildlife, fresh air and simple home cooking and they’re sure to leave happy.
Feather Down stays cost from £275 for six people for a four-night midweek break, featherdown.co.uk
Written by Rhiannon Batten, June 2016
Images provided by Richard Hammond/Greentraveller
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