I felt like a child at Christmas when the lovely Cheltenham Maman got in touch to ask if I could cover a camping weekend with Camping in the Forest. The weekend aimed at getting adults to reconnect with their families and rediscover their own inner child!
So, while Kate was busy preparing for one of her top notch Mum Boss event, I set off down the motorway with the children and husband in tow. Our destination in the New Forest was plugged into the Sat Nav and on the agenda for the weekend: camping, BBQ, cycling, being a Park Ranger for the day and a nature quiz hosted by the wildlife guru Chris Packham.
On arrival we were bestowed with a welcome picnic box kitted out with everything a camper might need – variety boxes of cereal, croissants, jam, juices, a bottle of water, sweeties for the kids and an item that should be at the very top of the list for any Maman camping with two young children, alcohol!
So, as the kids set about tucking into the sweeties to top up their e-number fuelled energy tanks, I set about tucking into the wine while the husband put up the tent. For the record, inflatable tents really are the way to go! It means the husband can get it up all by himself without little Maman involvement. (For more ridiculous childish innuendo like this read my earlier post on camping tips for Mamans).
We then had a bit of time to take in our surroundings. Homesley Farm is right in the heart of New Forest National Park surrounded, as far as they eye can see, by a mixture of open green spaces, woodland…and wild ponies.
Immediately my little girl spotted a group of ponies by one of the campsite fences so she wandered over to say hello (thankfully not trying to feed them any of her sweets – they were Haribo so there was no chance ANYONE was going to get a sniff of those – not even a pack of wild horses could tear them away from her!)
Within minutes my boy struck up friendships with other children who were there for the weekend, a mixture of blogger families and competition winners all here to be Park Rangers for the day. Within seconds he had turned feral; climbing trees, building dens and yelling, screaming and laughing at the top of his voice while playing tag, football and frisbee.
As I find every time we go camping, the children are quick to make friends with other kids of all ages and backgrounds. It’s lovely to watch and it’s one the things I like most about the camping experience – it really widens children’s horizons and is a huge boost for their confidence. Playing some of the games with them that I remember (and some I had forgotten) from my own childhood was really special.
Eventually, when the children were all ready for bed they fell asleep with the biggest smiles on their faces, the muddiest feet and ruddiest cheeks. I followed soon after with my own red cheeks and a lovely fuzzy feeling (a combination of the good wine and contentment at knowing we had been making some special memories together).
Saturday dawned with a light drizzle (no camping weekend is complete without a bit of the wet stuff), the smell of bacon cooking and strong coffee brewing. Before my two had even got dressed they were off in search of their friends from the night before for more tree climbing fun before breakfast. You could hear their calls all over the campsite and I was left wondering what all the wildlife, and Chris Packham, would make of the various distress calls and signals ‘Mum, he took my stick’, ‘Dad, she keeps hitting me with my stick’. Thump, thump, thump, thwack.
Just before noon whispers were circulating at camp that Chris Packham had been spotted via some out postings of various children. I managed to talk my children down from the trees to get dressed into their Park Ranger T-shirts and wipe off some of the mud and grass stains so they appeared slightly less wild. As soon as Chris Packham appeared in the centre of the camp he was immediately flocked by a ring of children and a second ring of parents with cameras (yes – as you can see I was one!) There was some serious penguin-style huddling going on.
Like prey the children swooped on Chris with a quick staccato of questions, ‘Chris Packham, what is your favourite animal’, ‘Chris Packham, what is this feather?’, ‘Chris Packham, what is this butterfly I took a photo of on my iPad?’, ‘Chris Packham, can penguins fly?’. It was all rather impromptu but the incredible mind of Chris Packham answered all the questions in an engaging and entertaining way – picking up a beetle from the ground showing it to the children and telling them whether it was a veggie or a meat eater by looking at its mandibles.
My boy proudly told Chris Packham that he had been bitten by a red ant (thanks to Deadly 60 his current obsession he is digging for ants nests in school playtime) and was tickled pink when Chris told him that the bite from a red ant actually comes from its bottom. I could see he couldn’t wait to get back and tell all his school chums that one!As we set out with the Park Rangers for a tour of the National Park (with some family activities thrown in), Chris Packham was swarmed by the children so the steady hum of questioning continued. We stopped along the way to identify ponies, build our own National Parks out of items we could find in the woods (cue more tree climbing) and completed a memory game focusing on things that affect the New Forest and how we can help preserve it. If you head out to any of the Camping in the Forest sites over the summer the free Park Ranger activities are well worth a look in!
It was amazing to be up close to Chris Packham and his astonishing encyclopaedic brain of wildlife knowledge. From identifying anaerobic fungi growing on hollow tree branches to the alarm call of a Chaffinch as a Magpie delves into the tree canopy in search of defenceless young Chaffinch chicks (huge pull on the mums’ heart strings that one) and the call of a Chiff Chaff; Chris was able to point it out to us all and he had both the children and the adults eating out of his hand.
My two were particularly enthralled by the insights given into the world of poo. As mums we spend much time obsessing over poo (too much, too little, wrong colour/consistency?) and right now my little ones are at the toilet humour stage so everything is poo (you poo head, you poo poo, poo my pants etc etc). And poo, it seems, is a big thing in the world of wildlife too.
Poo is home to certain types of beetle, poo can help you track whether a certain animal has been in a certain area, poo can tell you what an animal has eaten, the distribution of poo can tell you how an animal has walked and pooed at the same time and poo (particularly dog poo) is the most effective at luring the most rare and magnificent of the UK’s butterflies – the Purple Emperor – from its home in the tree tops down to the ground so we can see them. Cue much glee from the children!
On our return to base camp we got into family teams to take part in ‘Challenge Packham’, a series of wildlife challenges and questions. Tree bark rubbing, butterfly colouring in, fairy house building and capturing as many species of beetle as possible. We had such fun together and although we didn’t win (My little girl tearing down her fairy house just before Chris Packham came over to judge it didn’t really help matters) we had great fun as a family. The highlight was someone’s child capturing a wood wasp in a petri dish. That is one seriously mean looking bug, but I was pleased to hear from Chris that they don’t sting so I won’t freak out as much next time one gets trapped in my conservatory!
Chris Packham’s parting words before we tucked into the BBQ was to encourage the children to leave any left overs for the wildlife in the hedgerows and get up early the next day to see what animals they could spot. There was many a burger, sausage and bun squirrelled away that night by the children for that very purpose and the next day the first thing the children did was to troop en-masse to inspect each other’s various wildlife traps. All were empty with no sign of any wildlife (or fresh poo) so there was much debate as to which animals experienced some 5* dining that night.
Before home time we were given use of some bikes so we could go on a family cycle ride. I’ve not been on a proper bike ride for some years and it was something my inner child was not so sure of about. However, after overcoming the fear of getting back in the saddle and with a few squeals and screams then whoops (mostly all from me) we took off on a lovely, easy ride around the site and the neighbouring (sweetly flat) National Park.
We rounded it all off with some ice creams in the sun from the well-stocked camp shop, bringing a close to a great weekend in the great outdoors.
I know we’ll all look back on this weekend with big smiles at the happy memories made. I hope my post encourages you to unleash your inner child and create special memories spending time with your family through camping. You can find out more about Camping in the Forest here.
A Guest Blog from Hayley Vining-Clemmens
Hayley Vining-Clemmens is a mum to a four year old girl, five year old boy and sixteen year old step son and lives with her husband and English Springer Spaniel just outside Cheltenham. With a love for VWs and the great outdoors she offers her unique insight into the world of camping with children in tow. You can follow Hayley on Instagram or Facebook.