Away from the hustle and bustle of Cowes Week, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight are the perfect destinations for a family break – or something a little wilder
SO AFTER a summer of festivals, beach holidays, muddy British weekends and garden play dens, chances are your tent has seen better days. The last thing you want to do is pack up the car with guy ropes, pegs and wellies and set off into the countryside.
But what if you could enjoy the last of the summer sun and wake up to the leaves changing colour without getting your hands dirty? With autumn stretching ahead and no sign of a bank holiday until Christmas, it sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
Glamping – or glamorous camping to do away with its hackneyed portmanteau – has been growing in popularity over the past few years. Once the reserve of safari honeymooners or VIP festival guests (you can bet Mark Carney didn’t pitch his own tent before hitting the Ottolenghi banquet at Wilderness), in the past few years luxury camping has hit the mainstream, with companies such as The Pop-Up Hotel bringing bells tents complete with bed linens and toiletries to Glastonbury, and farmers filling their fields with luxury yurts faster than you can say wood-burning stove.
One such farmer is Jack Tyrwhitt Drake, who quit the City at the ripe old age of 20-something to return to his family’s estate and make the most of the glamping trend by installing four luxury safari tents on some of Bereleigh’s 3,000 acres.
Undeterred by the prospect of 18 country-loving-but-wellie-shy hens descending on his idyllic piece of the Hampshire countryside, Jack arranged for our pre-wedding party to share three of his six-person tents, clustered together on the edge of a huge grassy field next to a small wood.
Loaded up with Prosecco, marshmallows and an assortment of cakes to rival the Great British Bake Off, we arrived at Cedar Valley just before sunset and were greeted by Jack, who showed us round the site and gave us the run of the place.
In line with our high expectations the tents were stunning – erected on raised wooden platforms with running water and a gas hob, and kitted out with rustic furniture and cottage-style decor, complete with bunting and Cath Kidston-esque crockery.
There were even brightly coloured Peruvian wool ponchos for everyone – a welcome alternative to the traditional hotel bathrobe once the sun went down.
With three bedrooms in each (bunks, a twin and a double) there was plenty of room for everyone to spread themselves out and settle in, but also more than enough space for us all to congregate in the central tent’s living area after it got dark.
First though, it was drinks on the terrace – each tent comes with a huge deck at the front and plenty of comfy chairs – perfect for indulging in a glass of bubbly or a hot toddie, and sharing embarrassing stories as the stars came out.
The three grouped tents would be ideal for a big family get-together, birthday party or for several families holidaying together, but for those in search of a little more privacy there’s also a single tent set just up the hill overlooking the farmland.
When we were there, a family of four had taken the fourth tent, but we would have hardly known the other group was there – save for their boys occasionally tearing down the hill to make the most of the treehouse, hammocks and fire pits dotted around the site.
Though the tents have no electricity supply – the hot shower cabins (complete with flushing toilets) are heated via the stove – a decent set of battery-operated speakers did little to disturb the countryside as we danced around the campfire into the night.
Just an hour and a half drive from Portsmouth, East Meon is right in the middle of the South Downs, giving visitors access to miles of beautiful walks or cycle rides, with the towns of Winchester and Chichester not far away.
Cedar Valley can arrange local activities including clay pigeon shooting, fishing and bike hire, but after a restful night in the tents we decided to head into Portsmouth – a half hour drive away – for something a bit higher octane.
From Gunwharf Quays, an old Naval dockyard now redeveloped into a huge outdoor shopping and leisure centre, we headed down to the marina and boarded a high-powered Rib boat for a whirlwind ride over to the Isle of Wight and Cowes, home to the world’s oldest regatta (Cowes Week in August) and some of Britain’s best fish and chips. Clinging onto your seat as you bump and bounce at high speed across the water isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but under the watchful eye of Skipper Kevin of Onboard Charters (www.onboardcharters.com), whooping and screaming our way over the Solent certainly helped build up an appetite.
As well as a good selection of fish shops, pubs and cafés, Cowes is also home to the typical seaside boutiques and souvenir shops, as well as a smattering of decent accommodation options, from the boutique Villa Rothsay Hotel to the out-of-town Albert Cottage, once part of Queen Victoria’s estate.
A brisk ride back deposits you on the doorstep of one of the UK’s biggest outlet shopping malls, home to brands such as Barbour, All Saints, Ted Baker and Paul Smith, as well as all the usual chain pizza and noodle restaurants and Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower – a 110m-tall landmark with an observation deck from which, on a clear day, you can see the whole of the South Downs and right across to the New Forest.
For those with a few more days to explore – and kids to entertain – the town is also home to the Mary Rose Museum, home to some of the British Navy’s most famous warships or, a little further afield, literary types can search for their own Mr Darcy at Chawton, where author Jane Austen spent her last years.
But for our weary group, a little windswept and damp and having had more than enough excitement for one day, it was back to Cedar Valley for hot showers all round, and another night in front of the campfire.
NEED TO KNOW
Short breaks in low season cost from £405 per tent – sleeps six and includes logs and kindling for the wood burners, plus charcoal for the BBQs and fire pits. Linen packs an option £8 extra.
Powerboat rides and Rib charters from Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth. Prices from £25 per person. Contact: Kevin Redbond on 02392 006427