From the outside, our yurt looks as traditionally nomadic as they come. But peeling open the doorway, it’s like we’ve been magicked into a land of gingerbread houses and sneaked porridge. Floral bunting, twinkling fairylights, a big iron bed with delicate toile linen and a woodburning stove to keep our toes cosy? Yurt newbies we may be, but I reckon they don’t come like this on the Mongolian steppes.
Admittedly, it’s no arduous trek to get here. Dumping our car at the farmhouse, my son Joe and I pull on wellies and set off through long grass still damp with the morning’s dew. Over the little wooden bridge we go, across the trickling stream and up into the six-acre meadow, up past the grazing Suffolk sheep to the brow of the hill.
'By the time my squelching son returns, water seeping out the top of his wellies, dusk has set in and our campfire’s glowing. And as we toast the last of our marshmallows, the clouds clear and we’re treated to a most magical natural finale: the Perseids annual meteor shower.'
We’re not alone: Moss and Buster, two sheepdogs (recognising Joe as a potential stick-thrower), hurry at our heels. A working farm comprising five fields and an ancient three-acre wood, Devon's Cuckoo Down has been home to the Sheaves family since 1959. It’s no wonder they’ve stayed put. Aside from the dogs’ panting, the loudest sounds are the piercing mews of a family of buzzards, calling to each other from up high on the thermals.
The meadow is home to just three yurts and two safari-style tents, set far enough apart to ensure privacy. It really is bucolic bliss… albeit with some essential modern conveniences. The yurts have drinking-water standpipes and little ‘kitchen sheds’ with crockery, saucepans and so on, plus a gas burner for if the campfire proves less than compliant. Most importantly, we’ve also our own compost loo behind our yurt (just chuck a handful of sawdust down each time – and no, it doesn’t smell!), so there’s no hopping across a moonlit field in your PJs.
We fall into the rhythm of yurt living with ease. Days start early for me - the dawn chorus and yurt’s skylight ensure that. Beside me in bed, oblivious, is a sleeping Joe, snug as bug – of which there are many (indeed, one morning we discover a baby newt under the bed!). As quietly as I can, I stoke up the wood-burner and put the kettle on top to boil, before diving back under the duvet to wait for its whistle and Joe to wake.
Armed with Frommer’s Devon & Cornwall With Your Family, we experience each day as an adventure into the unknown. First stop is the higgledy-piggledy seaside village of Beer, for clifftop walks along the Jurassic Coast and crab sarnies in the Anchor Inn. Plans to go mackerel-fishing are blown out the water by a hell of a swell, so we climb back up the hill to the kooky Pecorama, where we laugh our socks off at a surprisingly funny magic show, play I-spy with the detailed dioramas in the model railway exhibition (‘Can you spot the scout camp and rabbits on the hillside?’), and play crazy golf in – this being a British summer holiday – the pouring rain.
Best of all is the Beer Heights Light Railway, a particularly splendiferous 7 1/4 inch gauge railway. Steam billows about our heads as we rattle along the hillside on our tiny train, through tunnel and over bridge, while being treated to magnificent views across Lyme Bay.
“This is the oddest mix of fun stuff to do that I’ve ever done,” says Joe, “but it’s brilliant.”
He’s right – it’s a wonderfully vintage, curiously British way to while away a wet afternoon.
But while Pecorama’s a little bit bonkers, Go Ape!'s high-ropes course in Haldon Forest is nothing short of insane. Driven on by my daredevil son (“Come on, Mum, what’s the worst that can happen?” – “Er, we fall to our deaths?”), I find myself 14m up in the canopy of a forest, swinging and zipping from tree to tree. It’s knackering stuff and, at times, seriously heart-pumping, palm-sweating scary, but the views are something else, and the almighty adrenaline buzz and sense of achievement that meet us at the end of the final 235m zipwire is literally mind-blowing.
“Why are you driving on the wrong side of the road, mum?” Joe asks as we pull away from the forest car-park.
“I’ve absolutely no idea. Thanks for mentioning it."
Most nights we eat back at camp (mainly pasta and singed marshmallows, if truth be told), but on our penultimate evening we treat ourselves to supper at The Jack in The Green, an award-winning pub in nearby Rockbeare. We know to expect local, seasonal produce and ‘pub grub classics given a delicious kick up the backside’; what we get is one of the best meals we’ve ever had, including meltingly tender salmon and a tasting plate of sublime puddings with a zinging blackberry sorbet. And it’s hugely family friendly; to his delight, Joe is treated like a respected regular and we end up having a truly memorable mum-and-son night out.
On our last day, we keep it local. Designed by Capability Brown back in the 18th century, the 220-acre Escot estate is a natural paradise for active kids. The best way to uncover its delights is Letterboxing, essentially a nature-based treasure hunt. For an extra £1 on top of the admission cost, we get a list of clues and stamp sheet. Our mission is to find hidden boxes around the estate, all containing an individual rubber stamp and inkpad, and fill in all the sections on our stamp sheet.
It takes us yonks: not because it’s horribly difficult, but because there’s so much to see and do along the way, not least getting monumentally lost in the maze and buzzed by a hawk in the falconry display. Wilderness paths weave us in and out of the woods, past whistling otters and wild boar, and through sun-dappled glades where dragonflies dart. Rope-swings, treehouses, magnificent climbing trees, an almighty drop slide… There’s treasure around every corner, and it’s teatime before we get our very last stamp (and no, we’re not telling you where it’s hidden).
Back at camp, there’s still time for Joe and the kids from the other yurts to disappear deep into the wood to dam streams and hunt for firewood. By the time my squelching son returns, water seeping out the top of his wellies, dusk has set in and our campfire’s glowing. And as we toast the last of our marshmallows, the clouds clear and we’re treated to a most magical natural finale: the Perseids, the annual meteor shower caused by debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet burning up. Shooting stars fire across the sky and explode above our heads with such regularity that we give up counting and simply lie back in the grass and look to the heavens.
Check out our other hand-picked recommendations for family glamping holidays around the UK.