In a Dorset woodland, Sebastian Oake finds a leafy retreat.
You can often get a good feel for a place by checking the comments in the visitors’ book and the pages of the one at Crafty Camping in Dorset positively glow. “Just wanted to say a massive thank you for creating such a magical woodland wonderland....What an amazing place to stay for our honeymoon. Our only complaint is that we have to go home...”
Staying here is undoubtedly a mellow but heady mix of outdoor living, wood craft, nature watching and when I first visited two years ago, I was moved, I am slightly embarrassed to say, to write poetry, but then this is a place that does that sort of thing to you.
Near the small town of Chard, our canvas bell tent – called Twybil – was clean and furnished with a king-size bed more comfortable than the one we have at home. There were reindeer skins on the floor and easy chairs on a raised porch area. We had a metal fire pit and a big bag of firewood. Close by was a communal field kitchen with every mod con as well as a traditional wood-fired pizza oven, plus a sitting room yurt and even another yurt with a sauna inside.
I could see pretty much all of this from my hammock. I could also hear the sound of water falling into the trout-stocked pond, overlaid by almost continuous gentle bird song.
Crafty Camping is the creation of Guy Mallinson, a craftsman with a deep love of all things wooden and wooded.
His site has bell tents, yurts, a tipi and a shepherd’s hut, all in separate woodland clearings but remarkably close to the central facilities. They offer the chance to leave the city firmly behind and retreat into the woods. It’s just what Guy himself did – he was once a furniture maker in London. You couldn’t call staying here roughing it but Crafty Camping does seem to chime with that faint call of the wild that lies latent in so many of us.
Plus you can try your hand at traditional woodcrafts such as creating tent pegs, carving spoons, making bowls or even constructing a full size coracle, all under the careful supervision of Guy or his fellow craftsman Adam Hawker.
The three-day coracle-making course is perhaps one of the more challenging workshops. At the end of it you’ve got a vessel ready if not for the high seas then certainly a small pond. At £732 per person, the course is hardly aimed at the careful Yorkshireman but there’s always a £30 two-hour “have-a-go” whittling course to consider.
If that’s worth getting out of your hammock for, so is trying out the open-air shower. It’s a small enclosure of woven willow with a tree growing right in the middle of it.
Back in our woodland clearing, it was time to light the fire. As a former Scout, there are few things I like better than lighting a proper wood fire and cooking dinner. In the old days, we made clay ovens and roasted beef and potatoes, but that took most of the day. Our fire pit at Crafty Camping with its metal grill was more geared up to quick barbecuing. We had pork ribs, sausages, baked potatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms, all washed down with a bottle of white wine chilled in the fridge in the field kitchen. A farm cat appeared from nowhere and decided to spend the evening with us. And as dusk turned to night, we listened to the sounds of the woods. Amongst the scuffling and snuffling of nameless creatures was the repeated “kiew” call of a Little Owl sitting in a tree right by our tent.
Next morning we ate our way through huge helpings of complimentary muesli and granola. We had a chat with Adam, who was preparing willow cuttings for coracle making. This involved soaking them in the pond to make them supple. We wished we could be around to watch the boats take shape but even a retreat into the woods can’t last forever.
But before we could think of going, there was the visitors’ book to fill in. We too thanked Guy, Adam and the team. And I couldn’t resist flicking back to my last visit to see if anyone had defaced my poem from a couple of years back, entitled In the woods all is still.
No-one had. Reading it through, I thought the essential things here – timelessness and slowness – hadn’t changed a bit. Hopefully they never will.
• For more details of Guy Mallinson’s Woodland Workshops and Crafty Camping at Higher Holditch near Chard in Dorset, visit www.mallinson.co.uk A minimum two-night, mid-week stay in August costs £180 for two people in a bell tent or £250 in a yurt, tipi or shepherd’s hut. Rates fall from September 4 and the site is open right into December.
Car parking is available. Otherwise take the East Coast train service to London King’s Cross and then South West Trains from London Waterloo to Axminster. You’ll need to pre-book a taxi for the final hop from the station to the site.