In this article, I head to Norfolk to experience spending a night under canvas in the depths of winter! An edited version of this article first appeared in the February Issue of Countryside magazine.
“It’s the evening rush hour and we’re nudging along in traffic on the M11, listening to the weather forecast. The presenter is dramatically announcing sub zero temperatures and snow overnight for some parts do the UK, and I’m beginning to think this camping trip wasn’t one of my best ideas.
My boyfriend and I are committed summer campers. We love the freedom of just packing up the tent and heading out into the countryside, as well as the simplicity of living outdoors and getting back to basics. However, when it starts getting dark at four o’clock and temperatures dip below freezing, the idea of living outdoors can seem a bit, well, mad.
However, the UK Camping and Caravanning Club has reported a 25% increase in winter bookings this season, which their Senior Communications Manager Jon Dale puts down partly to the wash out summer of 2012. “Due to the disappointing weather this summer, we’re seeing an influx of campers wanting to make the most of the beautiful British countryside” he says. “Despite the chilly weather, it seems people still want enjoy a camping break over the festive season.”
We’re booked in for the night at Deepdale Backpackers on the North Norfolk coast, and have opted for the slightly less hardcore camping option of a yurt with a log burner. These beautifully designed, canvas structures have kept generations of nomadic herdsmen warm and dry through harsh winters on the Mongolian steppe, and should do the job perfectly for us.
As we are shown around our surprisingly spacious home for the night, I’m pleased to see that yurt living still offers many of the same simple pleasures as camping in your own tent. For starters we’re on a quiet, peaceful pitch which feels a million miles away from city life, overlooking the local farmland and woods. There’s also a deck and seating area outside with its own BBQ in case you feel like toasting a few marshmallows, and inside the yurt is well equipped with a double bed, fold out futon sofas, solar powered lamps and a delightful little wood burning stove with a complimentary bag of logs to get things going.
The forecast predicts temperatures of -1C overnight, so we waste no time in lighting the fire. As rain begins to gently drum on the canvas roof, our yurt feels safe, warm and somewhere you could happily sit out a winter storm or two.
The campsite, tipis, yurts and hostel are run by Louise and Andrea, and located on a working family farm run by father and son team Alister and James. They are absolutely passionate about the land they cultivate which sits in an AONB (Area of Outstanding natural Beauty). The campsite is proud of its eco credentials, and encourages visitors to recycle as much as possible as well as using solar panels to heat water for the showers. There’s also bike hire available on site, so you can easily leave the car behind and explore the area either on two wheels or on foot.
It’s already getting dark so any outdoorsy activities will have to wait until the morning. Our hosts have tipped us off that the pub down the road serves some of the best food in the area, so after a leisurely 10 minute walk into Burnham Staithe we find The White Horse, an award winning pub with stunning views of a National Trust owned salt marsh. One of its specialties is the local seafood, so local in fact that you can watch the fishermen bring it in from their boats at the bottom of the pub garden. So we opt for half a dozen Brancaster oysters followed by delicious steamed mussels and homemade crusty bread, washed down with a pint of local ale.
Duly fortified, it’s time to head back to our hobbit home to bunker down for the night. Having been in the city for a while, it’s easy to forget how dark it gets in the countryside and we consequently have to stumble around in the dark until we find the footpath back to the yurt. Mental note; next time bring a torch.
In peak season, the bustling campsite has a 10pm curfew to ensure that everyone gets a good night sleep, but in off season there is a more subdued atmosphere and tonight we have the place to ourselves. As I layer on the thermals and settle down under the duvet with a good book, all I can hear is the breeze rustling the hedgerows and an occasional owl hooting in the woods.
In the morning, a gentle light creeps in through the circular skylight above our bed (in keeping with the smoke holes found in traditional yurts) and a quick peek out of the little windows reveals a glorious blue sky and a touch of frost still lingering on the grass. A few stokes of the fire bring it back to life and it’s soon warm enough to emerge from hibernation and head to the on-site Deepdale Café for a slap up breakfast of local smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with lashings of hot coffee.
We spot a few walkers, already kitted up for a day of exploring the Norfolk Coast path which runs right past the campsite, but our waitress recommends heading to nearby Holkham Bay instead (which you may recognize from the final scene of Shakespeare in Love). “It’s so popular in summertime, you’d have trouble finding a parking spot. But at this of year you’ll only be sharing it with a few dog walkers and horse riders. Make the most of it”.
I guess this encapsulates the whole winter camping experience. You might have to contend with unpredictable weather and need to pack a few extra layers, but there are many rewards for venturing outdoors at this time of year. It’s the season of slowness, renewal, and taking things at a gentler pace. During the day you will have the countryside to yourself, and at night there is time to hunker down next to the fire and enjoying doing, well not very much at all. Welcome to life in the slow lane.”
An indispensable part of the winter camper’s uniform. Wear it on a walk, wear it to the pub, wear it to bed.
Shorter days mean a torch is invaluable, whether it’s for reading your favourite book or finding your way to the bathroom at night.
For bracing walks and evenings by the campfire. A hot thermos of tea or hot chocolate will ensure you’re ready for anything the British weather cares to throw at you.
Our British winters tend to be on the wet side, so keep your feet warm and dry to ensure you’re always a happy camper.
A sense of adventure
There’s nothing quite like braving the elements for bringing out your inner adventurer. As Billy Connolly says, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing”.