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Chill out in a yurt at Forest Garden Shovelstrode
Desperate to get away but don’t have the time? Love to experience the great outdoors but need your home comforts? Me too – but what to do?
I’ve always liked the idea of camping, but was never terribly keen on the actual experience. Too many Scottish summers spent trapped in a tent with rain sodden walls surrounded by a sea of mud and afraid to open the flap in case the dreaded ‘midges’ flew in to feast on my blood, left me less than keen.
So the advent of ‘glamping’ – glamorous camping – with five star, tented accommodation that would put many lesser-starred hotels to shame, seemed an attractive solution.
Glamping grew up from the VIP tented villages at big rock festivals like Glastonbury. Pampered celebs, anxious for the festival experience but none too keen on getting down and dirty in a two-man bivouac, would create their own luxurious camping experience with hot and cold running champagne on tap. The idea took off, and several glamp sites have subsequently sprung up across Britain and Europe.
The real attraction of sleeping under the stars of course, is the rare opportunity to get closer to nature – which was one of the reasons I was keen to visit Forest Garden Shovelstrode, just over the Sussex border, near East Grinstead.
Established by Lisa Aitken and Charles Hooper over a year ago, Forest Garden is both a retreat, and a working model of sustainable living. The couple, who both formerly worked in the media, share a passion for horticulture, self-sufficiency and the need to preserve our heritage in traditional rural crafts for future generations. You can either visit for a day course or stay over in one of two Mongolian Yurts set among the ancient trees, although you don’t need to take a course to stay in a yurt.
“It’s very peaceful at Forest Garden – you can really chill out,” said Charles. “It’s great to see how happy people are when they come and totally de-stress.”
Originating in central Asia, yurts were favoured by sheep-herding nomads because they offered something more sturdy than a tent, but were equally easy to pack up on the back of a yak. The larger of the two Forest Garden yurts, Savannah, is spacious and locally made using coppiced (naturally sourced) wood, and sleeps up to five on two double futons and a single futon.
Our yurt, Kushti was an original Mongolian yurt which Charles and Lisa bought off eBay. It’s been completely upgraded to cope with our wet British weather and comfortably sleeps two adults, or two adults and two children. Rustically furnished with a little wood burning stove and an extremely comfortable double futon with proper sheets and a duvet – so no sleeping bags or wriggling uncomfortably on a hard earth floor – it offered a unique glamping experience, even if the scrupulously clean showers and toilet were a short walk away.
I was there with my daughter, and we enjoyed chatting over a nice bottle of wine as we fed kindling into the little stove. It was a romantic setting, so we could understand why several honeymooners have booked to stay. However they are also popular with groups of ladies who love attending the holistic courses. In the morning, we awoke to the dawn chorus before cooking a tasty breakfast on the gas stove and dining al fresco under the trees. Then it was a leisurely stroll around the gardens with its pond, dedicated woodworking area and crafts shop.
Charles and Lisa, who was particularly interested in forest gardening, decided to create the Forest Garden after Charles was asked to film a green woodworking episode for the BBC’s Mastercrafts show with Monty Don.
“I spent six weeks on the film project and loved it,” said Charles.
“It was a life-changing experience and made me realise this is what I wanted to do.”
Charles and Lisa are passionate about permaculture, a horticultural design system which promotes the natural balance of the forest. Through careful planting and landscaping they aim to live from the land by preserving the seven different forest layers: the root layer, ground cover, herb layer, fruiting shrubs, dwarf trees, tree canopy layer and the high canopy or vertical layer.
“Every plant has a reason why it grows where it does,” explained Charles.
“You can get so much from wild plants – many of them are edible and some contain oils and resins – while all perform a role in contributing to the eco-system.”
Charles and Lisa also want to teach people about the woodland and the various woodland arts and traditional crafts. Visitors to Forest Green can now choose to take around 35 courses, run by leading experts in everything from woodland crafts, to beekeeping, art and holistic therapies.
For more information about yurt stays or the Forest Garden Shovelstrode courses visit www.forestgarden.info