Gypsy caravans have always conjured up a romantic dream for me. Perhaps it was those I passed on childhood walks in Gloucestershire or the artistic tropes that portrayed them as a nostalgic emblem of a vanishing way of life. One of the first skirts I begged my mother to buy me was a multi-layered one that made me think I could dance like Esméralda. At Cambridge University, I chose to write my final year dissertation on renowned Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s fascination with his native Andalusia. I researched at length his respect and relationship with the ‘gitanos’ who lived in the caves near Granada, and their renowned vocal style ‘Cante Jondo’ (translated as ‘deep song’), the title of his first major work (1921).
A night in a gypsy caravan was the culmination of this long-established love, so my husband was hardly surprised when I announced I was determined to find one for my birthday this year (admittedly with just a couple of weeks to go!). The Canopy and Stars website is an ingenious hub for users to search all manner of ways to go ‘off grid’ in the UK and Europe. From shepherd huts to yurts, it centres on low-impact tourism. I filtered my criteria by ‘Gypsy Caravan’ and was thrilled to find the Vintage Vardos, located serendipitously near the stretch of Devon coast where my family used to holiday each summer as a child.
We arrived just as the sun was setting to be greeted by our co-host Jemma and her daughter Daisy. Jemma has that warmth and easy humour that make you know you will be at home. And Daisy (just like her brother Dan, who we met subsequently) makes me question why you would want to bring up your family anywhere other than on a farm! She took us straight to the orchard and showed us how we could collect eggs for our breakfast from the family’s rescued hens. I chatted to Jemma about the resurgence in interest for holidays closer to home and a more sustainable approach to tourism: “I have definitely noticed people are seeking to get away from it all and back-to-basics. Our low-impact ethos is appealing. The most rewarding part is seeing people totally switch off. We are so glad we don’t have any electrical charging points in ‘camp’. It means devices run out of battery and children forget all about their tablets!”
The camp is a 5-minute walk from the farm. Daisy and Jemma took our bags down on a buggy while we followed in the car. Time to meet the neighbours! The top field is home to rare Zwartbles sheep while the field to the left of the camp houses a herd of award-winning Simmental cattle (established in 1978). As we walked towards the caravans with the last rays stretching across them, my heart did a little leap. The camp is its own little world. Tucked into the bottom of the valley, on the edge of a wood and next to a stream, sit four restored gypsy caravans. It’s worth saying now: the camp can sleep up to 14 and we have big plans to return in future with friends!
Jemma showed us how the camp works – from the huge wicker basket that houses waterproof containers of everything a kitchen could need to the logistics of the compost loo and how to get the temperature right on the shower (which is as hot as any in a hotel!). She told me: “Everything in camp is homemade and mostly recycled; the compost loo is an amazing thing (love it and hate it!). We use hardly any water and the gas shower is extremely efficient in terms of power and water consumption (it’s a horse shower!). Even the lights to light pathways at night are solar-powered”. With those impressive sustainable credentials, we were left to our own devices. Just us two, the sheep and the cattle in the nextdoor fields (who my husband was convinced liked the sound of the Rolling Stones).
First things first, where to sleep? We chose Big Ted, the blue caravan that is over 140 years’ old with its large double bed. The cliché in me loved the traditional earthy tones of Red Rum too, not to mention the kitsch funky fabrics of Little Gem (the family’s first caravan acquisition). Sleep itself was one of the most blissful I have had this year. The curved ceiling of the caravan has a cocoon-like quality. We kept the curtains of the little window at the side of the bed open to be woken by Devonshire sun streaming in.
The shower area is just up the hill from the caravans. Gas-powered, it gets remarkably hot. That’s also where you can find the ingenious compost loos, one for men, one for women, and each with heaving bookshelves of local guides and H.E.Bates novels, as well as some of the outstanding press that the site has received over the years. Time for breakfast! Upon arrival, Jemma supplies a basket of essentials including her homemade bread and jam, plus tea, coffee and milk (the latter can be kept in the cool box on site). But a trip to the farm’s ‘shop’ is a must. It is foodie heaven in a barn: shelves heaving with the farm’s jams, the day’s freshly picked fruit and vegetables, and for meat lovers, lamb, beef, pork and duck reared on the farm. We picked up figs as fresh as those from a Mediterranean orchard, then went to collect freshly laid eggs (heeding Daisy’s advice on how to shut the gate). Jemma and her husband Gavin are passionate about food production, “We want people to know (and our own children) that food doesn’t come from supermarkets with lots of packaging. It makes me sad that we can buy a chicken for £3.”
Back at camp, the grove next to the caravans forms both a kitchen and a dining room. Gavin, who we met on the second day, told us he discovered it in a storm when all of the cattle were sheltering there! The cows chose it because the canopy of trees falls so that rain barely enters (and if it gets really stormy, there’s a tarpaulin over the hand-crafted dining table). With the fire burning, we were able to cook a breakfast of kings: bacon, boiled eggs, even toast using the Aga toaster! Our hosts think of everything too: there’s a gas fire and kettle for your morning tea so you don’t have to wait for the fire to get going. Guests can eat at one of two dining tables or there are baler twine day beds that Jemma made herself, inspired by the weaving techniques she discovered in India. I opened my birthday cards by the fire and felt very lucky.
Over the course of the weekend, there was so much to see we barely had time to read books in the camp hammock. This part of North Devon is replete with activities. We started with Quince Honey Farm where we could learn all about bee keeping and the plight of this much-endangered species. Then there is RHS Rosemoor which possesses the same sensory overload as Chelsea Flower Show but witnessed in the wild. Exquisite show gardens sit next to long-established woodland, orchards and arboretum. And of course, the famous award-winning beaches of Woolacombe with its 3 miles of golden sand (and its 4th place as best beach in Europe according to TripAdvisor). These were the bucket and spade holidays of my childhood. It was special to return and actually walk those miles of sand now that my legs are long enough!
For my birthday dinner, we toyed with some of the fabulous local restaurants like the Michael Caines at Kentisbury Grange but really, it had to be the campfire. A woodland, a warm night and food from the fire – my birthday idyll! Jemma showed us her vegetable patch and greenhouse, from which we picked onion, peppers, courgettes and herbs for a Mexican bean chilli and then cherry tomatoes and cucumber for a salsa. We slow-cooked the chilli over the fire for an hour and my husband fried himself some of the farm’s chuck steak to have alongside it. It was the most memorable birthday dinner I have ever had. Eating by candlelight and the solar-powered night lights, the chilli tasted smoky from the fire and all the better homemade (as everything always does). We left bananas in foil with dark chocolate in the embers for pudding. Then marshmallow roasting and a little woodland dancing to finish (quiet for the cows!). There’s a visitors’ book on the shelf in Big Ted and every other page contains the adjective “magical”. After two nights in this enchanted place, I can see why.
Caravan Camping Tips
As any of my friends or family might tell you, I have a little bit of a reputation for whims worthy of a princess. But glamping was glorious, rest assured! Here are some ideas for how to make your trip fit for royalty:
- Even if it’s summer, bring jumpers and long socks. The caravans themselves are cosy but it can be chilly in the mornings before you get the fire going, especially with dew on the grass. The Vintage Vardos has a rail of anoraks and thick jackets should you forget.
- This camp comes with towels, beautifully-made beds and woollen blankets, so just remember your soap and toothbrush!
- Jemma is happy to cook for you and sends a menu with everything from lasagne to ratatouille before you arrive. However, if you have time, fireside food is a must! Have a think about what you might like to cook in advance so you can bring down any spices or sides you might like (though if you forget, there are shops closeby and Jemma was kind enough to lend to us). Slow-cooking works particularly well.
- The family here have thought ahead and make a sustainable approach easy for guests with eco washing-up liquid, composting food waste facilities and water from a spring at the top of the hill. But never forget the usual rules: leave the countryside as you found it, bring your reusable water bottle for days out and minimise food waste (we had Tupperware ready to take our chilli back to London).
- Don’t pretend you are going to be galavanting about in a gypsy gown on site! These photos were in the afternoon once it was warm… Most of the time, I lived in tracksuit, trainers and a headscarf to keep the wind off my hair. Admittedly, the headscarf was in a colourful print, so that’s my one concession to Esméralda!
The Vintage Vardos in Umberleigh, Devon can accomodate 14 happy campers for £230 a night. Find out more online or call the team on 07977 535233.
Read Rosanna’s sustainability tips for visiting Marrakech in our With Love From series.