I blame Bunty. And Swallows and Amazons. And The Famous Five. Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, all three of us grannies now uncorking a well-earned bottle of wine in a south Wiltshire campsite had thrived as children on a diet of jolly adventure stories. They invariably involved a mystery to solve and plenty of outdoor activity, including camping.
In the case of Arthur Ransome’s books, it was camping plus sailing; for Enid Blyton it was camping plus Timmy the dog; while in the girls’ comic Bunty, the Four Marys had to content themselves – while consuming vast amounts of lemonade and jam sandwiches – with camping in the dorm of their school, St Elmo’s, or hiding in the grounds or falling off bikes in pursuit of thieves. They were no shrinking violets, the Four Marys, and they were going to be friends for life.
So are we. I met my own Marys (real names Tiggy, Lui and Mandy) as we were moving from childhood into adulthood. We are godparents to each other’s children, have supported one another through good times and the darkest of times, bickered, laughed and cried, and nothing will ever dent our bond. Our Four Marys WhatsApp group is in regular use, even if two of our number still don’t understand predictive text, leaving the other two fuming.
When our children were young, we took them camping every summer, just us four and them, no husbands. There was no such thing as glamping in those days: we had to put up the tents ourselves, with varying degrees of success, and there was always some sort of calamity. One year we all spent the night in our cars because it rained so torrentially; another, a herd of New Forest ponies galloped through our encampment in the early hours, terrifying us.
This year, the Four Marys had the bright idea of reliving those far-off days, but this time with the children of our children, and this time, for our sake, glamping not camping, in Wiltshire. Sadly, Mandy’s grandchildren were too young to join in, but the rest of us packed a total of five kids between the ages of two and six into cars outside their parents’ houses and set off.
The parents – our children and their spouses – who had started a new WhatsApp thread called Mad Grannies Go Camping, waved us off with a mixture of relief at the prospect of a bit of peace and trepidation. “Completely barmy idea”, read the first message on the thread. “Will be amazed if anyone survives the night. Please keep us posted.”
O ye of little faith. I might as well tell you now: the trip was a glorious success. Not only were there no mishaps, but the children, deeply excited at the thought of sleeping in tents, were all enchanting. No grown-ups had cause to shout and no children cried. Result.
Activity is key. We met at Cholderton Rare Breeds Farm, where the kids enjoyed feeding goats and guinea pigs, watching pig racing, lunching in the café and being royally entertained by Mr Bubbles and his brilliant bubble show (entry from £9, 01980 629438; choldertonrarebreedsfarm.com).
Except for a pair of siblings belonging to Lui and a pair of cousins belonging to Tiggy, the children didn’t know one another well and for a moment I worried that my two-year-old, Olive, would not find her way into the gang. I needn’t have: the six-year-old kindly made sure that she was included in everything; it was heart-warming to see them all playing together.
A half-hour drive away, Pythouse Kitchen Garden is special to me: four years ago to the day, Olive’s parents got married there. With a low-key conservatory café/restaurant, an abundant walled kitchen garden where (the children believed) Mr McGregor must surely turn a corner at any moment in pursuit of Peter Rabbit, and six secluded glamping tents in the plum and apple orchard, it makes a magical, private (exclusive-use) and very safe place to camp. For us, it also had the advantage of being equidistant from our three homes. A two-night stay is often the minimum requirement in glamping sites, including PKG, but since this was an experiment, we decided to pay for two but stay only one – we didn’t want to push our luck.
After a brilliant treasure hunt planned by Tiggy, followed by a picnic tea on the grass and Monster Cake at the long table in the rustic open-sided kitchen, it was time for showers and bed, but not before hot chocolate, marshmallows and bedtime stories around the campfire.
At first, we couldn’t believe our luck: the kids appeared to settle immediately. Celebrating with glasses of Springster, a non-alcoholic botanical cocktail made by PKG, we began to look forward to the adults-only evening ahead and started cooking our pork and lamb chops on the wood-fired barbecue (for £25 per head PKG will provide a fabulous feast of marinated meats, vegetables, salads and sauces, plus pudding). All was well until small creatures began to emanate from their tents, clutching torches.
“It’s an emergency,” they solemnly announced (their parents had told them on no account to leave their tents otherwise).
“What sort of emergency?”
“A spider,” said one.
“I want a plum,” said another.
“I don’t know, but there definitely is one,” declared a third.
I can’t pretend the grannies slept well (apples thudding like gunshots; tiny people snuffling in beds beside us; a rain storm) but the children did. Next morning, after a slap-up breakfast provided by PKG, we packed our things, waved goodbye to the tents and set off.
Heading to nearby Chilmark, we gathered at Messums Creative’s workshops for a private family pottery lesson (£145, 01747 445042; messumswiltshire.com). This was a brilliant success, not least because of the just-right approach of Bridget, the potter taking the class. Ninety minutes later, the children had each made a bug house, decorated with an assortment of snails and worms.
Then it was off, through beautiful countryside, to Messum Gallery itself, in Tisbury. Lunching in the elegant courtyard of the gallery’s superb Mess restaurant (home-made tomato pasta and ice cream for the children; ricotta-stuffed courgette flowers followed by gooseberry sorbet for the grannies) we felt as if we were on the continent. The children loved the giant Laurence Edwards figures on display in the great tithe barn too. Then came the journey home, and a gratifying round of appreciation on Mad Grannies Go Camping from the parents of our five charges, who perhaps realised that we aren’t quite so mad after all, just hopelessly doting.
Another adventure for the Four Marys was over. That night, I slept for 12 hours.
Five top tips for successful granny glamping
1. Choose a glamping site that feels secluded, private and self-contained. The whole business of looking after the children is exhausting enough for grannies, so it’s worth cutting down on extra work and looking for sites where breakfast for all and dinner for adults can be provided.
2. Don’t bring too much stuff; unpacking and packing up is also tiring. Ask the parents of the children to carefully pack the kids’ bags so that everything they need is easily accessible, iPads are charged, bedtime books are included and that vital nighttime bunny is not forgotten.
3. If the children you are taking are not familiar with one another, consider a playdate before you set off. That way, you can see any potential clashes and if any of the kids are in danger of being left out; the children are highly excited once at the campsite and can form a gang.
4. If you can, make the trip extra special and memorable by adding activities before and after the actual experience. An activity after leaving the site is an especially good idea – it keeps the adventure going.
5. Make a pact not to tell Mum and Dad about the sweets, treats, ice creams and bribes that may have made an appearance during the trip to keep the little darlings happy and keen on Granny.
How to do it
Pythouse Kitchen Garden, West Hatch, Tisbury SP3 6PA (01747 870444; pythousekitchengarden.co.uk) offers its glamping village on an exclusive-use basis for six people from £950 for two nights including breakfast. Up to 24 people in total can stay, with extra beds (up to four per tent) charged at £67.50