Having largely grown up in the countryside, I’ve always been drawn to bright lights and big cities, in the usual way of things. However, as Mum to three growing boys who are starting to push the boundaries where independence and the freedom to play and roam with limited supervision is concerned, I’m also starting to appreciate the appeal of large green spaces where kids can run wild – at least to some degree.
We’d had a typical washout Manchester summer that left us hankering for some proper outdoors time that stretched to more than a sprint to the park but one that didn’t involve flying or necessarily involve a beach. So we headed to the Moncel deer farm, located so deep in the lush and gorgeous Orne region of Normandy that urban life seemed a very distant memory by the time we got there, and the casting off from daily stresses and concerns had already begun.
Chill out we did, although a farmstay is about as far from a fly-and-flop holiday as you can possibly imagine. Indeed, my husband spent much of the three days we were there gathering sticks and logs to light and tend the stove that we needed for both cooking (in conjunction with an outdoor barbecue) and heating (even in late August, it was very chilly in the evenings and early mornings).
We also seemed to spend a lot of time puffing up the hill to our tent with wheelbarrows filled first with our luggage, then, over the course of the stay, with firewood, provisions from the well-stocked farm honesty shop (including fresh bread, brioche and croissants delivered each morning, local cider, and the farm’s own produce) and our children, who were insatiable when it came to hitching lifts. This to-ing and fro-ing, combined with the rides we took on the hire-bikes through the rolling local countryside, had our calf muscles screaming for mercy.
Yet despite needing to make up the beds with the linen provided, cook, tend the stove and sweep the tent on a regular basis – in short, do many of the domestic chores we do at home – time seemed to stretch out luxuriously at the Ferme du Moncel. The kids roamed relatively freely – there was a duck-pond towards one side of the large hillside meadow across which the six tents were arrayed, but otherwise they could wander safely, playing on the tree-swings and in the sand pits and generally mooching about.
We walked the farm donkey Martin, fed and petted the goats, gathered still-warm eggs from the henhouse and quail run, biked, and picked produce from the farm vegetable gardens and the herb patch. One blissfully clear night, we all stayed up late to study the stars and the near-full moon with the help of the telescope we’d brought along – something we never get to do in light-drenched nocturnal Manchester.
We were lucky – the weather, too, was mainly blissful. But this is not a weather-dependent holiday, although the tents are taken down when winter sets in (November, reopening in April). I’d argue that being at a Feather Down site out of season, when sites are quieter (we shared the Ferme du Moncel with one Parisian family with two young boys) and the farms themselves less pungent and less rich in insect-life, may be better than a high-summer visit. Half-term strikes me as ideal, as long as you bring wellies and a raincoat. Engaging with the elements is all part of the fun.
Other activities available on-site, which we didn’t get round to, are fishing and pony-rides, and you can hire a cauldron to cook some of the farmer’s wife’s homemade venison stew on your campfire – a lovely idea, but one we couldn’t quite countenance given that our tent looked down over paddocks filled with some of the cute creatures that go into it. Indeed, perhaps one of the best things about Feather Down farms is that they give city kids the chance to interact with animals and lose any fear or mistrust they may have of them.
This is camping lite, of course. Beds are very comfortable and there’s a vintage-style but flushing loo. There’s no electricity or hot water but there are candles and oil lamps, plus very good hot showers and a modern washing machine in the farm outbuildings. We fell completely in love with our tent – the shabby chic, slightly retro décor and overall layout was beautifully conceived and utterly charming, and the kids absolutely adored piling into their ‘lit clos’, a three-quarter-sized bed within a waist-high cupboard, with doors on each sides opening into the main living area and into the parent’s bedroom (there’s also a kids’ bedroom with wooden bunks).
Feather Down as a whole and the Ferme du Moncel are definitely camping for softies, but then who said camping had to be all about groundsheets and peeing in buckets in the middle of the night?
Find out more about Feather Down Farms in the UK and overseas. [Editor's note: La Ferme du Moncel is now closed, but La Ferme de la Moricière is a great alternative).