A couple of weeks ago we decided to go camping. We’re not brilliant campers – we don’t own fold-out tables or shelves; when it rains we seek refuge in the pub; and in the mornings we’re more keen to find a decent coffee shop than we are to boil a collapsible kettle (who even knew there was such a thing?)! But we do like to camp. As a family, there’s nothing more magical than snuggling up together under canvas, telling stories by torchlight, and waking up to the smell of (someone else’s) bacon sizzling over a log fire.
Embers kindly invited us for the weekend to Polesden Lacey, a National Trust property in Surrey, and the weather forecast was gorgeous, so we picked the kids up from school and headed straight off for a few days of chilling out and switching off. We had a lovely weekend, and as I’ve mulled over the things that made it so special, it’s occurred to me that when you book a campsite, you really need to know what you’re getting, and how that fits with your own family’s needs. So, here are my tips on choosing a campsite, and why Embers was perfect for us.
Picking the right campsite for you
We’ve discovered that as campers we are a family who needs stress stripping out of the equation. We are not good with poles Especially in the wind. As I discovered last year, when I tried to pitch a tent at the top of a hill, by a cliff, in a storm. Suffice to say, it ended with good Samaritans and me handing over a bottle of thank you red! There are lots of ways round the pole problem – apparently you can actually buy inflatable tents these days – which makes me think of those bouncy whales that used to take flight from British seaside piers in my childhood. But the first massive tick for me at Embers was the option to book a pre-pitched bell tent complete with bunting, fairy lights and rugs. We simply unloaded the car, threw our gear in the tent, and opened a beer. The least stressful start to a camping trip I’ve ever experienced.
You have to think about what you’ll eat. For my part, the last thing I want to do when I’ve finished heaving half the contents of the loft into the car boot is pack ingredients for family meals. So I need at minimum a shop, a pub, and a coffee bar within walking distance of my tent. Embers totally scored with me on night one by not only showing evidence of a wood-fired pizza oven, but also allowing me to pre-order our dinner before we even left home. That beer we had ten minutes after arrival? Swiftly followed up with a pepperoni masterpiece, which meant I didn’t have to think about food again until the following morning.
Talking of mornings, I am really not worth speaking to until I’ve had a decent coffee. Even the kids know to let me get some espresso in before they ask me for a slice of toast. So the minute I think about sleeping in a tent, I start to have palpitations about my caffeine fix the next day. Embers are like-minded, and the campsite managers had a pot of decent filter coffee on the go from the moment the first campers were stirring. They also have the best array of ice-creams I’ve ever seen, and I may have let the kids choose one for breakfast so I could dwell a little longer over my brew. Ahem.
Seriously. Who wouldn’t want an elderflower and rose sorbet, or a locally made blackberry and cinnamon sauce ice cream? We tried them all, including a latte ice cream. To go with my coffee, obviously.
I’m always super envious of the people who have all the gear. As I head off to the pub, I have a little pang about the family who can still enjoy the elements thanks to their outdoor shelter and windbreaks. Just a little one, mind. But where I’m always left wholly put out with myself is at night time, when I covet everyone else’s fairy lights and carefully placed solar lamps. It’s all just so cosy and magical and I want to kick myself for not owning it. Luckily, Embers totally filled the gaps for me, with bunting and fairy lights in our tent, and the most fabulous fire pit to create an instant atmosphere.
I saw campers with giant freestanding grills over their fire pits, perfect for sizzling the lamb and apricot sausages sold in the camp shop. I am absolutely getting me one of those for my next camping trip. To go with my solar lights, bunting, and portable picnic bench!
It’s probably just as well my parents never let me go to a music gig in my teens, because then I’d have wanted to ‘do’ Glastonbury, and I’d have loathed it. I am so not that camper who’s happy to queue in a quagmire to wash my plastic wine glass, or stand under a chilly dribble and pretend I’ve had a shower. Which is why I was disproportionately excited to see proper washing up stations, on an actual deck, under a decent shelter – with washing up liquid and brushes all supplied! I know! But honestly, it really makes me happy that I can forget to pack all that stuff, and still keep on top of the cleaning up without getting mud in my flip-flops. Scoff all you want; these things matter. Check out our video of our time at Embers campsite to see some of the reasons why we loved it:
Things for the kids to do
If you’ve watched the video, you’ll have seen that at Embers all the tents are pitched around the outside of a single giant field. which means that all the kids hung out in the middle of the field and played cricket, and rounders, and various other childhood pursuits, while all the adults sat by their fires drinking wine. Ok, so that’s a generalisation, but honestly, I’ve never felt so relaxed about letting the kids go off and explore. I knew exactly where they were, even when I couldn’t see them, and I knew that every other tent was also looking out for the gang in the middle. It felt so safe. The campsite had its own stash of games and bats to borrow, and everyone just pitched in together.
In addition, Embers have Squirrels Corner, a charming little woodland adventure play area, and they will lend out binoculars to take on the various themed walks on the estate so you can spot birds and butterflies as you explore. But where the Polesden Lacey site scores particularly strongly is its attachment to the National Trust property.
Our walk through the beautiful grounds on our first morning took us a couple of hours – not because it’s a long way, but because the kids were fully absorbed in their surroundings. From the quirky little open-air theatre that saw an impromptu stage show, to the history questions dotted around the estate, it’s a really engaging place for a family to hang out.
There’s an infamous hill to roll down, fabulous spots to picnic amongst the buttercups, and even a full-sized croquet lawn so you can play at being a bit Downton Abbey for a while.
The sun was shining on our visit, so we just hung out together, talking, making daisy chains, and generally chilling out like we haven’t done in ages.
The house itself is one of the most interesting I’ve visited as a family. I love an old house tour, but they’re usually pretty dry for the children’s tastes, and they soon get bored. Not so at Polesden Lacey. Full of paintings, I stopped and said to my 9 year old, “That must be the lady of the house.” “It is!” affirmed an elderly guide with a twinkle in her eye. “You’ll see lots more of her as you go round the house, but you’ll probably notice that she gets a bit larger as she gets older. She did rather like her food…” He was hooked, and we explored every room, looking for paintings, and for the stuffed toys dotted around the house to represent the owner’s love of a lap dog. Even the ‘do not touch’ signs on all the old furniture went more along the lines of ‘please try not to touch – we know it’s hard.’ I loved it!
The gardens were spectacular, with myriad Instagram opportunities. It’s the kind of place that inspires a non-gardener to go home and look up plant species on the internet. Who knows what these pompom flowers are? I want some in my borders.
As if Polesden Lacey isn’t interesting enough for families, there are also lots of things there designed to entertain. Mrs Greville was a royal party host, and there’s a special morning tour that’s a bit like an in person version of Hello! magazine, full of the celebrity gossip of 100 years ago, when the Queen Mother spent her honeymoon there. I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall back then, from some of the tall stories we heard.
You can also lounge on the lawn and listen to jazz on a Sunday afternoon through the summer, take the kids on an activity nature trail, and even go on a bat walk at night, before heading back to your campfire and fairy lights.
We came home feeling thoroughly spoiled and reconnected. Even the kids liked each other while we were there! I told you, there’s something magic about an Embers campsite.
We worked with Embers in Polesden Lacey to create this review and video. Visit their website for more information on this, and their other campsites, and to book. Use EMBERSCAMPING25 for a 25% discount on any mid-week days booked (Mon-Thurs) for 2017.