Spring has finally sprung, sunshine is making a comeback and the fresh green fields of south Wales are filling fast with Tigger-ish lambs.
Down on the 450-acre Penhein farm, at the tail end of the Wye valley near Chepstow in Monmouthshire, I’ve brought my family (my partner and our children aged six and nine) to learn a little about farming. We’re not staying in a grubby cottage or cobwebby barn, as per the farm stays of yesteryear, but in the estate’s high-end Persian-style tents.
Sheep plus posh accommodation? I’m calling it: this concept will surely be known as “glambing”.
Helen Hearn, a farmer whose family has worked this land for centuries and who returned after working in HR in London, diversified — as many do — into holiday accommodation as an additional income stream. But while others might offer basic bed and board, or camping in a spare field, Penhein is doing things in a smarter, more contemporary way. This year it’s offering gourmet fire-pit dinners and foraged feasts cooked by chefs (privately, if you like), as well as activities ranging from forest-bathing, bushcraft and gin-making to axe throwing. Letting children simply stare at your sheep and sit on an old tractor doesn’t cut it any more, it seems.
Penhein isn’t a lone ranger; farms across the country are opening up in innovative ways. A reworking of Old MacDonald might note that today, alongside the animals, “on this farm he had a wood-fired hot tub, craft brewery, organic fare and tepees” — though those doing it with excellence at the top end remain a relatively rare breed.
The camp is chic and modern, yet Hearn says she also wanted to offer an authentic “lambing live” experience for her guests.
There are 450 acres to explore at Penhein farm
It’s apparent that she means it when, a few minutes into our session in the lambing shed, we’re asked if we want to help with the castration of a newborn. “Just stroke here to feel if his ‘stones’ have dropped,” she urges “then we pop one of these little rubber bands on.”
The kids are a little befuddled and we have some explaining to do. The same goes for when we’re next escorting a nervous ewe and her new babes out to the fields and someone notices the umbilical cord still hanging out. “Back into the pen!” yells the formidable Hearn, examining the mum and declaring: “Urgh, it stinks. God, that is rank!” I’m dispatched inside to find a plastic glove to deal with matters: “One of the long ones! That come up to the armpit!”
The typical photogenic “cuddle and click” farmyard petting experience this is not, though we do get to nuzzle the soft fuzz of frisky newborns draped over our knees at the end.
First we have work to do: spray-painting matching numbers onto ewes and their lambs (she has 66 “in lamb” this year), bottle-feeding, checking and counting those in the fields. Sadly none gives birth on our watch — perhaps they’re too posh to push.
Everything is optional, but for us city folk, who live online far too much of the time, it’s a hands-on joy. My six-year-old son, as a fan of tractors, wellies and mud — and as yet ignorant of the travails of Defra interference and supermarket price snipping — has often declared ambitions to be a farmer. The grisly realities might have put him off (“I do NOT want to put my hand up a sheep’s vagina!”) but we have a fun, fascinating time and the morning flies by.
Guests can get hands on with the farm’s animals
Then the posh farm stay idea really comes into its own as, covered in muck and lamby smells, we skip back through fields lined with oak, sycamore, chestnut and ash to our alachigh — the Farsi name for the eight yurt-like wooden-framed tents spaced through a woodland blooming with bluebells and pink campions, with views to the Severn Bridge.
We can scrub up in our private hot shower room — each tent has its own large, labelled cubicle in a communal cabin — then retreat to put the kettle on the wood-burning stove in our gorgeous hideaway. Wooden floors, a tiled sink, double bed, en-suite loo “pod” and a proper front door provide smart-cottage comfort, but there’s an exotic feeling owing to the high-domed roof, where Middle Eastern-style lanterns dangle (Hearn’s ex-husband and site co-founder is of Iranian heritage).
The kids run free in the fields and play games from the box in a communal tent then, at dusk, toast marshmallows over our fire pit while we cook potatoes with wild garlic plucked from the grounds. In summer, guided foraging sessions unearth up to 50 edibles, supplying the multi-course gourmet wild feasts.
Brilliantly for the impatient ones among us, there’s a fully equipped electric “cheat’s kitchen” shed, with an honesty larder of local produce and homemade meals, including lamb burgers from the farm (sorry, I’m afraid we do partake). Tons of clever little touches add real luxury here.
By day, we follow Hearn’s nature trail to a rope swing over a stream and potter round the boutiques and cafés of Monmouth and lovely Ross-on-Wye. Tintern Abbey is close. We walk in the Black Mountains near Llanthony, with its ethereal Augustinian priory, and on another day hire canoes from Ye Olde Ferrie Inn at Symonds Yat, a fab foodie pub overlooking the Wye (from £25 an hour; yofipaddlesports.com). Kingfishers flash by as we paddle upriver, returning for a pint of Butty Bach in the sun.
Ye Olde Ferrie Inn at Symonds Yat
Aside from the lambing (which ends late April/May), guests might help feed Hearn’s pigs and chickens, and watch hay-making in summer. “People are interested in just how much goes on on the farm,” she says, their interest spurred by the post-Brexit awareness of where food has come from, the organic movement and concerns about nutrition.
“Even a generation ago people who lived in cities would have had family who were on a farm but, as small family holdings have closed down, most have no idea about it — it’s a brand-new experience.”
The kids love it. They decide they want to live here and become farmers after all, despite the umbilical cords. They’re rosy-cheeked and relaxed. It seems we’ve gone free range.
Gemma Bowes was a guest of Penhein, which has two nights’ self-catering for four from £295 (penhein.co.uk)
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published 2023-04-29 04:47:30