A glamping family holiday on a farm in Normandy is the perfect way to relax
Most children love a soft-play centre – those padded indoor playgrounds, where youngsters feel free to launch themselves into the abyss, safe in the knowledge that a big mat will break their fall. Whatever did parents do before they were invented? The answer to this question came to me as my four-year-old daughter jumped from the top of a stack of hay bales into a huge pile of straw in the barn of a farm in Orne, Normandy, just north of the Perche natural regional park. This was soft-play, farm-style, and had been thus for several centuries.
Edie’s giggles became louder and more infectious with each jump and subsequent climb up the bales, while her two-year-old brother Caspar was content with picking up armfuls of straw and throwing it in the air. “We could be here some time,” I said to my husband, who grinned with pleasure at watching the children’s happiness. We had arrived early to check into our tent at Un Lit Au Pré (which translates as ‘a bed in the meadow’), France’s arm of the Feather Down Farm group of ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) sites, so time wasn’t an issue.
The spring sun warmed our faces as we stood in the farm’s courtyard, surveying the farm around us. A line of dark brown tents was perched on the brow of a hill on the far side of the farm, accessed via a track that dipped down into the valley and up the other side. We already knew that there was no electricity, and just a single tap and a wood-burning stove inside the tent, so quite how ‘glam’ this camping trip would be was yet to be discovered.
After a while, and several haystack leaps later, the owner, Michèle Lebrun, appeared from around the corner on a golf buggy and welcomed us warmly to her farm. Showing us the facilities, which included a rustic farm shop and a shower block set in a barn, she explained that the next task was to transport our luggage to the tent. With soft play taking shape as a haystack, it came as no surprise that the bellboy was a donkey (though his name being ‘Martin’ did bring a smile to our faces). With the help of Michèle’s volunteer worker, British student Coltraine, who was there to brush up his French, we duly loaded various bags on the wooden frame on the donkey’s back. Putting any extras in the provided wheelbarrow, we made our way across to the tents, leaving mod cons (ie the car) behind the farmhouse.
Meandering past goats and horses to the other end of the farm, we arrived at our tent and took a peek inside. A charmingly decorated space with a hard wooden floor, kitchen area and comfy chairs lay before us. It had something of a 1950s air about it: the wood-burning stove stood at the heart of the tent, its chimney leading up through the canvas roof. An intriguing cupboard with ladder up to its door turned out to be a bunk bed, the perfect hideaway for Edie, while a double bed in one room and a further two bunk beds in another provided ample space for the rest of us. With shelves in both rooms for our belongings, and more in the kitchen area for food, we settled in quickly. Michèle gave us a lesson in lighting and keeping the wood-burner alight, and where to find kindling to get it started (collecting twigs from behind the tent was a fun activity, especially for a two-year-old).
The main attraction, however, was the row of rabbit hutches just 20 metres from our ‘doorstep’. Michèle introduced us to them and showed us how to open the cages and get them out to stroke. Edie christened a large grey rabbit Robin and every time we wondered where the children had run off to, we found them feeding grass to Robin and the dwarf rabbits through the bars of the cages. Later on, Michèle came by to show the children how to feed the chickens in their nearby house and where to check for eggs. Edie was delighted to find three and carefully counted them into the box for her.
If it wasn’t the animals that held Edie and Caspar in thrall, then it was the tyre swing hanging from a tree close to the tent. As my husband and I pushed them to and fro, we found the spot equally alluring: the view across the farm was just idyllic – with trees blossoming and a tiny village church perched on the opposite side of the small valley. With no electricity, very little phone signal and certainly no Wi-Fi, the farm was the perfect place to switch off from the world and really get back to basics – quality time with the family.
We ventured off the farm twice, to go to the supermarket and to explore the area, including the Haras du Pin – the national stud – known as the ‘Versailles of horses’ and built in 1715 at the request of Louis XIV. Our visit covered the museum (in which we skipped the ‘artificial insemination’ displays, for obvious reasons) and the stables, where we admired stunning race horses, the local Percheron draught horse and even some miniature show ponies which perform each Thursday at the ‘Jeudis du Pin’ demonstration, for which we were a few days too early. Elsewhere, we enjoyed driving through the apple orchards – filled with dazzling white blossom – and popping into a few farms to buy their cider and apple juice. Alongside the orchards, the architecture was fascinating: traditional timber-framed (colombage) long houses, punctuated by small but elegant brick buildings. I loved the red-brick mairie at Camembert – a surprisingly tiny village, with very little to see, given its world-famous cheese.
Back on the farm, Michèle had more activities to help us enjoy farm life. One afternoon, we joined in with grooming the ponies. Even Caspar got stuck in with the combs before the children each had a turn to ride them down the hill and back. Over the few days, Michèle became something of a Pied Piper – leading the group of children (the other families were all French, down from Paris) into different enclosures to learn about goats, deer, chickens, geese and a very flamboyant turkey. We had fun speaking ‘animal French’, and discovering that French dogs say ‘ouaf ouaf’, cockerels say ‘cocorico’, and ducks say ‘coin coin’.
With all the fresh air and activities, bedtime was a doddle; a few extra jumpers were needed over their pyjamas (it was still very chilly overnight in late April), but once the children were tucked up in their bunks they were quickly asleep. So with the wood-burner lit and glasses of pommeau (the local apple-based aperitif) poured, my husband and I sat back in the deckchairs around the fire and agreed that, while it wasn’t so ‘glam’, a 1950s-style holiday was the perfect antidote to modern life, hay bales and all.
By ferry/road: Carolyn travelled by Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen, and drove the 1hr 20min to Fay, where the farm is based. She sailed overnight in a cabin which helped to break the journey. Fares start from £79 one way for a car plus two passengers. Brittany Ferries operates the longer routes from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth (tel: 0330 159 7000, www.brittanyferries.co.uk).
WHERE TO STAY
La Ferme du Moncel
Tel: (Fr) 1 76 43 00 61
The farm is part of the Un Lit Au Pré group of farms, which are known as Feather Down Farm in the UK. Weekend, midweek and week-long stays are available and cost from €285 in April. The tents are available from the end of March until the end of October, but it is very cold in the tents overnight early in the year, so we recommend staying from late May to September.
WHERE TO VISIT
Le Haras National du Pin
61310 Le Pin-au-Haras
Tel: (Fr) 2 33 36 68 68
The national stud, with museum and stables tours.
Le Pays d’Auge
The Orne is the most southern part of the Pays d’Auge, an area of pastoral beauty with cider and calvados farms and cheese makers all offering their wares. tel: (Fr) 2 33 28 88 71,
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