Runners, writers and family adventurers Jen & Sim Benson are currently spending a year under canvas with their two young children, exploring Britain’s wild and beautiful places. They recently took a couple of nights out of their bell tent to stay in Peppercombe Bothy near Hartland Point on the North Devon coast. Here’s how they got on…
We made the decision to embark on our Wild Year when our second child was born in the spring of 2014. I was spending my days at home, juggling freelance work with caring for two small children while Sim was away at work all day, missing us as much as we missed him. So last autumn we sold most of our possessions, moved out of our rented house and set off into the unknown with a bell tent, a wood burner and everything else we could think of that a family of four might need to camp for a year packed into the back of our pickup truck. Since then we’ve spent most of our time in a tent, although now it’s warmer we’ve downsized to a smaller version and stored the wood burner with family until we need it again. We’ve had so many amazing adventures together; it’s such a luxury and a delight to really have the time to explore this fantastic country from living within it, immersed in the natural world.
From time to time over the past 8 months we’ve swapped our bell tent for other places to sleep: wild camping in our tiny backpacking tent; a barn borrowed from a local farmer; a caravan for a night when our tent blew down in a storm and – for two nights at the beginning of July – the National Trust bothy at Peppercombe, a tiny but perfectly-formed former pigsty hidden on a wooded hillside high above the sea on North Devon’s dramatic coastline.
A long, stony track bordered by dense hedges adorned with wild flowers leads from the private gate downhill to a secluded woodland valley. Here there are a few holiday cottages and a gateway where we parked the truck and continued on foot, exploring our way down another grassy track until we reached the bothy: a tiny white stone building with a stable door and a tin roof. It’s set in a pretty clearing with a gravel walkway around it and a picnic table, perfectly-placed for a relaxed evening meal. From pretty much everywhere there are glorious views out across the sea to Lundy Island.
Inside, the bothy is basic but clean and well cared-for. Pretty curtains hang in the windows and there’s a sink and a work surface – a luxury for us after so many months’ camping. For us, though, one of the best bits was the outdoor loo, perfectly positioned to catch the sun setting over the sea. Bothy life is much like camping without the need for a tent. There is no electricity or gas here – bring warm clothes and a lantern for the evenings. If the weather’s not great it’s a wonderful place to read, paint or write. If you’re bringing a family pack something for them to do too.
Our daughter loved sitting out in the garden with her paints – seemingly she too was inspired by the surroundings. We had wondered how well the bothy would work with two small children, and we certainly had to be on alert as the floor is stone, there are steps down into the grass area and lots of plants about that wouldn’t be good for a toddler to eat, but actually it worked really well. There’s a great network of footpaths around that would be fine for a good off-road buggy too.
The first evening, keen to get to know the area, we popped our 1-year-old into his carrier and headed out for a walk, following a path that meandered its way down through the woods to a deserted pebble beach that stretched its way beneath Devon-red cliffs into the distance. After an hour or so of jumping waves, skimming stones and building towers we made our way back up to our little bothy. It really does feel like a perfect family hideaway – secluded and quiet but still with neighbours not too far away.
There are two movable sleeping platforms that we pushed together to create one huge bed that was big enough for us all, without the risk of a small person rolling out in the night. We put our self-inflating mats on these and made our bed as normal. After watching a blazing, red-gold sunset light up the sky and the sea we snuggled down and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of owls hooting, a gentle breeze rustling the trees and waves breaking on a pebble shore.
Our days at the bothy were spent exploring the South West Coast Path that runs almost through the garden on its 630-mile journey from Poole in Dorset to Minehead in Somerset, soaking up the delicious tranquillity of the place, from the beach where we saw not a single other person to the peaceful sunlight-dappled woodland. There’s plenty for families to do further afield too: 5 miles along the coast to the east is Westward Ho! – a vast stretch of sandy beach that’s begging for sandcastles. To the west is cobbly Clovelly and breath-taking Hartland Point.
We’ll definitely be returning to Peppercombe Bothy, and also investigating the others the National Trust has dotted about the country.