A great big back yard, Polesden Lacey, Surrey
When I was a child, my sister and I used to sleep in a tent in the back garden as a treat. These days it would be called a “micro-adventure”, but back in the early 1980s it was just “camping in the garden”. In the morning we went back into the house and had our cornflakes at the dining room table (I don’t think our sense of adventure extended to eating breakfast outside). Living in London with a small paved back yard means garden camping isn’t an option for my seven-year-old son, so I did the next best thing and booked the closest campsite to our south London home: Embers Camping at the National Trust’s Polesden Lacey estate in Surrey. It wasn’t just the proximity of this site that attracted me. At Polesdon Lacey, campers have not just a meadow, but an Edwardian house and 1,400 acres to explore. Embers has two other campsites in the New Forest and there are plans for more on National Trust estates.
We booked a ready-pitched tent, but still seemed to have enough stuff with us to fill a marquee. Still, yanking an overfilled trailer from the car park across a couple of fields to the campsite added to the sense of adventure. An hour later, we had the fire going in the brazier provided for each pitch as my son hopped around brandishing marshmallows – by far his favourite part of camping. Once we’d got the gooey treats out of the way, it was time to explore. Polesden Lacey is an Edwardian pile, whose socialite owner once played host to kings and maharajas. Its lavish, gilded rooms give an idea of why high society liked to party there; today, the gardens are full of picnicking families and kids rolling down grassy slopes. In the walled garden, a long pergola is covered in roses, and the wildflower area near Garden Cottage (the National Trust holiday let) is studded with red poppies.
As the visitors left, we wandered back through the grounds, stopping to jump off hay bales, climb trees and marvel at the empty grounds. With tents pitched around the edge of the field, the middle of the campsite forms a natural play area where kids gather as parents grapple with cooking over fire. Since our stay, the onsite office/shop has started to sell pizzas from a wood-fired oven so there’s a backup if the sausages get burnt. After about 10.30pm, all was quiet bar a hooting owl. I fell asleep, almost as excited at the prospect of waking up to explore Polesden Lacey’s gardens before the visitors arrived as I used to be about waking up in my back garden aged 10.
• Adult £22.50, child £7.50, under-4 free, including full access to the house and gardens. Details of events at Polesden Lacey this summer at nationaltrust.org.uk/polesden-lacey
Back to nature, Norfolk Broads
Little more than an empty meadow, with a few fresh-water taps, Canal Camping is a simple site at the northern tip of the Broads, where immediate access to the waterways and flat, car-free cycle routes offer obvious family appeal. An OS map pinned outside the wooden ablutions cabin helps you get your bearings. Bring your own vessel and float south on the enchantingly overgrown old canal to join the River Ant, or drive to How Hill national nature reserve, where activities range from guided boat trips to an augmented reality-enhanced wildlife trail. Campfires are permitted and the near-300-year-old Cross Keys pub welcomes dogs and children.
• Adult £10, child £5, under-3 free
Off-grid luxury, Lancashire
Between woods and a patchwork of ponds, trees and small vegetable fields, Watkinsons Farm, 15 miles north of Liverpool, may be off-grid but still offers surprising comforts. The two, fully furnished bell tents have double beds and beanbags, log burners, bedside cabinets and all the cooking utensils you need. Each has a private toilet cabin, a firepit and outdoor furniture crafted from upcycled pallets, while gas-heated showers are splendidly set among the trees. The nearby Leeds-Liverpool canal offers good family cycling, and it’s an eight-mile drive to Farmer Ted’s Adventure Farm.
• From £85 a night for 2 adults, plus £5 per child over two
Kids’ paradise, Angus
Despite the name, it’s regular tent campers who rule the roost at Greenhillock Glamping, a semi-wilderness of lush, long grass. As well as 25 pitches, there’s a handful of pre-pitched bell tents, all linked by mown pathways. Children also create makeshift accommodation in the woods – den-building here is a must. Bug identification sheets, magnifying glasses and nets are provided for pond dipping, and there’s an arts and crafts shack too. It’s a 20-minute drive to the beaches of the east coast (and the fish and chips of Arbroath) or head 40 minutes inland for mountain fun in the Cairngorms.
• Pitch and 2 people £18, plus £5 per adult, £3 child over 3
Swing from the trees, Dorset
There are just 10 tent pitches in Milbourne Wood, 180 acres of ancient forest that is surrounded by a carpet of bluebells in spring. Daytime entertainment for children includes learning lumberjack skills, swinging from rope-swings and building deer-watching dens. It’s also handy for day trips to the Dorset coast. Washing facilities, in cabins crafted from the site’s own oak and chestnut, are basic but functional and include a handy kitchen shelter, while a giant parachute offers a sheltered social space. Langham Wine Estate, next door, is popular with parents, and sometimes runs family events in school holidays.
• Adult £15, under-16 £7.50
Wilderness lite, Carmarthenshire
With proper beds, wood-burning stoves, wicker picnic hampers and a shelter where you can charge your mobile phone, there’s nothing too “wild” about Wild Mountains, a new glamping site opening next month. Its riverside setting, however, on the edge of the Black Mountains, gives a little more context to the name, while the tiny hamlet of Cwmdu, with its 200-year-old pub and post office, is about as rural as they come. It’s a 20-minute drive to the National Trust’s Dinefwr Castle, where school holiday activities range from farm tours (Tractor Tuesday) to treading the boards (Theatre Thursday). Nearby Brechfa Forest, meanwhile, offers mountain biking for all ages.
• Bell tents for five from £60 a night
Walkers and water babies, Lake District
With views down the valley to the only official ‘lake’ in the Lake District, Kestrel Lodge Camping is well-suited to walkers and water babies alike. The Cumbrian Way runs along the campsite, then up the flanks of Skiddaw, and swimming and canoeing (with a permit) are permitted on Bassenthwaite Lake itself. Canoes can also be hired from the main marina at Derwentwater, a few miles further south, or daredevils could try white water tubing with Keswick Extreme, which has an activity centre on the lake shore. The campsite, based around converted 18th-century farm buildings, has laundry facilities, free wifi and a shop. Campfires are permitted.
• Adult from £7, child from £3.50, under-3 free
Monstrous fun, Scottish Highlands
Sandwiched between the shores of Loch Ness and the most family-friendly stretch of the Great Glen Way, Inver Coille is the prime campsite for monster hunters. It’s a 20-minute drive to the adventure playground at Nessieland but Fort Augustus is nearer and has regular boat tours. The town, eminently cyclable from the campsite, straddles the Caledonian Canal, with a pleasant picnic location beside an impressive staircase of locks. It used to be tents only, but now families in particular love the campsite’s new geodesic domes, complete with wood-burners, windows and private washrooms.
• Adult £8, child £5, under-3 free. Geo-domes for four from £57 a night
Something for a rainy day, Pembrokeshire
Becks Bay Campsite proved so successful in its first year that for 2017 they’ve added a wet-weather refuge in the form of a wood-frame cafe, with wifi, a log-burner and a small farm shop. Sunnier hours are spent down in the tiny bay that gives the site its name, or kicking back in the meadow, home to 10 pitches and four pre-pitched bell tents. It’s just 100 metres to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, and a 20-minute ramble to Tenby’s mile-and-a-half-long south beach. Or drive 10 minutes to Tenby’s harbour for boat trips to Caldy Island and crabbing off the quay.
• Adult from £8, child from £4, under-2 free
Sweet seclusion, Cornwall
It’s rare to find such a private site this near the Cornish coast. Five miles from the beaches of Polperro and Talland Bay and the renowned Looe estuary, Enchanted Valley Yurts, is a 34-acre small-holding home to two yurts, each sleeping six on a kingsize bed and fold-away futons. Owl yurt is the more secluded, reached via a tiny bridge across a stream and sheltered by a line of shrubs; Pheasant yurt is closer to the log cabin kitchen and dining area. Neighbouring llamas entertain the kids, while Porfell Wildlife Park, an exotic animal sanctuary, is a 35-minute walk away.
• From £295 for a four-night midweek stay or three-night weekend