The chickens followed us from the farm gate all the way to the field that housed the tents. They cackled away, unconcerned when our attention shifted from them to the sheep in the nearby farmyard enclosure. In the neighbouring paddock, more sheep, plus cattle and llama, roamed freely. The smell of manure hung in the air, a welcome reminder that we had left London behind and arrived in the English countryside.
Livestock have roamed here at Manor Farm in Hampshire for centuries. The land is currently under the custodianship of Will Brock, whose family have farmed it for more than 120 years, making him a fourth-generation farmer. But what sets Will and his wife Anna apart from previous farmers here is that they no longer rely on farming alone to keep their property profitable. Not by accident but by necessity, they have turned to tourism to help keep the spirit and traditions of the countryside alive.
By the turn of the century, farm incomes in the UK had been eroded to such an extent that between 2002 and 2003, more businesses in the east of England were lost in the agriculture and fishing sectors than any other area. Although some 80 per cent of England’s land is still designated as farmland, the economic value of its work is less than 1 per cent of GDP. Like farming in Australia and New Zealand, living on the land in the UK is increasingly fraught with hardship.
Faced with this reality – and the possibility of losing their family farm – Will and Anna, like almost 20 per cent of farmers across the country, were forced to diversify. Anna threw in her fulltime job in insurance and turned her passion for cooking into a profession. She took a cooking course and turned the farmhouse kitchen into Anna’s Kitchen, a home-cooked ready meal business that utilises produce from the farm.
Then the couple turned to tourism, with the farm last year becoming the first in the UK to open under the banner of Featherdown Farms. The brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Luite Moraal – the man behind the Center Parcs family holiday phenomenon – Featherdown offers an experience that combines upmarket camping with a farm stay that both benefits and protects the host farm.
Manor Farm’s seven tents are located on the site of the property’s old orchard and take the concept of camping to a whole new level. Each tent sleeps up to six people, and comes complete with all the comforts of home: a flushing toilet, fluffy pillows and duvets, and a rustic dining table, over which hangs candle holders and lanterns. There’s also a central unit that houses a sink, wood-fired cooker, cooking utensils, cutlery, crockery and even an antique coffee grinder.
Produce from the farm – everything from fresh meat to eggs and ready meals from Anna’s Kitchen – is sold in the farm shop, alongside jams and honey products from neighbouring farms and businesses.
While visitors aren’t restricted to the farm – bikes are available for hire, there are footpaths and bridleways branching off from the farm gates for walkers and the house where Jane Austen lived until her death is just up the road – the best attractions can be found within the farm’s perimeters. Unlike many B&Bs and self-catering cottages that advertise themselves as farmstays but are mere rural retreats, Manor Farm is a working property, where guests can watch Will tend to livestock and where eggs laid in the farmyard are fair game for campers up early enough to collect them.
And when night falls and the wine bottles are cracked open on the porch, there is only silence, save for the odd animal noise echoing through the valley. Farms, it seems, are still farms – they are just rotating their paddocks a little differently these days.