Some families are happy with the ‘take a site map, this is your pitch, that’s the toilet block’ style of camping. To be honest, my family and I have done it countless times. But when the opportunity to try something different comes along – staying on a working farm, getting the kids involved with the animals and ‘glamping’ in tents with en suite facilities – the Yarrows will be elbows out and barging to the front of the queue.
The Dandelion Hideaway is the collective name for six ‘canvas cottages’ located round the edge of a field on a 150-acre Leicestershire dairy farm. Driving round in the mud and ruts isn’t for every car, but the Subaru Forester is the ideal partner. With permanent four-wheel drive, rugged suspension, raised ride height and a cabin that’s focused on function rather than unnecessary features, this five-seater sports utility vehicle (SUV) is perfect for life in the countryside.
The farm is on the fringes of the new National Forest, a huge area spreading into Derbyshire and Staffordshire that has eight million more trees than it did 20 years ago. Bar one tent, which is designed as a romantic getaway for couples, the others all sleep six people – though would be more comfortable with four or five – and are targeted at families. They are tastefully decorated in vintage-chic style, comfortable, well-equipped and so perfect you’d think the whole thing came as a kit. In fact, the wooden bases and interior walls were built by a local carpenter and the canvas outer skins made to order.
All the decor and furnishings, from the butler sink and ageing leather sofa to the wooden dresser and trinkets on its shelves, were sourced by farmer’s wife Sharon. Rocking chairs on the porch, a traditional roll-top bath with shower head above and a Discovery Trunk packed with family activities – the only thing missing is electricity, and deliberately so.
We headed for Market Bosworth, a charming town a 10-minute drive away. Lunch at the Black Horse Restaurant (theblackhorserestaurant.co.uk) was eaten outside under the covered patio: flatbreads filled with steak, caramelised onion and blue cheese for £9 each, supplemented by bowls of chips.
For all lovers of Horrible Histories, the next stop was Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, very topical after the recent discovery of Richard III’s body under a Leicester car park. Featuring numerous rooms of interactive displays, it tells the story of the battle and how it changed the course of British history. At £21 for a family ticket, it’s reasonable value. The only slight disappointment for me was that it was all inside. To my mind, battlefield stories should be more expansive.
The 200 acres of the National Forest boast plenty of activities for families, including off-road cycling (forestry.gov.uk); boat trips (merciamarina.co.uk); train rides (battlefieldline.co.uk); and numerous castles and stately homes. The National Space Centre isn’t that far away. We went to Conkers, the award-winning visitor centre that’s on the site of an old coal mine. A family ticket (£29.95) grants access to 120 acres of pathways, lakes, indoor and outdoor interactive exhibits, adventure playgrounds and cafes. My kids loved the Barefoot Trail, which requires little explanation upfront, but a hose-down afterwards.
For us, the star turn was camping on the farm. The Dandelion Hideaway will convert even the most ardent doubter. You’re in a cottage, it just happens to have a canvas roof and walls. Staying there is about the simple pleasures in life: spending time with animals, playing card games, making up riddles and taking silly photos.
No electricity means no TV, radio or internet and even hardcore Marvel comic fan Connor said it was lovely to get away from the world for a while. Staying there is more than a holiday – it’s an invitation into John’s and Sharon’s lives for a short while – and we came away richer because of it.
Price: An autumn long weekend (Friday-Monday) at The Dandelion Hideaway costs from £550 for up to six people. A week costs from £700 for up to six people.
The highlight for my nine-year-old daughter Brontë was what she dubbed the ‘cosy cabin’, essentially a bed in a cupboard and perfect for children with imagination. The highlight for the menfolk – 11-year-old Connor is in the Scouts and I was 30 years ago – was lighting the wood-burning stove, which doubles as heat source and cooker. My wife supplied us with a perfectly lovely carbonara, though it was a slow process. If you’re in a rush, the back-up camping ring is a better bet.
The first morning we signed up for a tour with farmer John. He’s the fifth generation to work the land, which is home to 1,400 goats and crops to feed them. Talking about the processes and pressures, it’s clear he and Sharon have a genuine love for what they do. For example, they delayed the harvest of certain fields so a family of barn owls nesting on their land – the first for 50 years – still had somewhere to hunt.
We saw how the goats were milked, every 12 hours year-round, and the children joined in attaching the pumps to the udders. Tasting the freshly chilled milk just minutes later was fabulous and a new experience for everyone. After a session grooming the farm’s Shetland ponies we headed to the shed where the young goat kids are kept, all just a few weeks old. Ten minutes in there and even this old cynic was plotting how to get one in the back of Subaru without John noticing.
Subarus don’t sell in huge numbers in the UK, but the brand inspires respect and loyalty from owners who want a reliable workhorse family SUV. They see the value in durability and fit-for-purpose credentials, rather than fancy design details such as contrasting-coloured seat stitching. The Forester, now in its fourth generation since 1997, has improved with every new version. It’s a ‘head not heart’ choice, popular with towers of caravans, horseboxes and boats.
Torrential rain turned much of the farm's tracks into rivers and the Forester really came into its own. Many of today’s lifestyle off-roaders lack the traction required – they’re very much form over function – but the Forester has all the grip you will need for muddy escapes. Thankfully, the dark interior is easy to wipe clean.
Family-friendly features: plastic boot protector, roof bars, ISOFIX child seat fittings, generous rear-door storage.
Fuel economy: 49.6mpg
CO2 emissions: 150g/km
Price: £24,995 - £30,995