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Carrying on camping

This column first appeared in The Western Mail in August 2021

It is a source of mild regret that I only discovered the joy of camping relatively recently. I put that down to the fact that our family never went on camping trips which meant I had no blueprint for holidays under canvas.

I can see why my mam and dad thought better of taking six of us off in a tent, though. God knows my mam worked hard enough at home to keep us four siblings fed, clean and entertained. I can’t imagine her horror if you had told her that repeating all of that domestic drudgery, only in a field with no access to a fridge, would constitute any sort of “holiday” for her. 

Because, jeez, the sheer amount of WORK involved in making a camping trip successful is ridiculous. I swear that camping is 10% making lists, 70% packing, unpacking and washing, and the remaining 20% depends on the weather. 

So instead, for entirely understandable reasons, my parents opted to take us to my grandparents’ caravan in Pendine every year, where we could sleep in proper beds, watch TV if it rained and tuck into copious amounts of oven-crisped chips. Having discovered a love of camping as a single parent of one in my thirties, I can see why my parents opted out of the whole back-to-nature caper. It’s hard enough with one mini person, never mind half a football team. I firmly believe that even one camping break might have been the catalyst for multiple meltdowns and possible divorce, so I salute my folks’ life choices with all the benefit of hindsight and personal experience wrestling with disobedient tents in gale-force winds. 

Yet, still, my boy and I camp. Because I love so much about being in the outdoors. And I think there’s an element of the grass always being greener, too. I used to listen enviously to my school friends’ tales of camping in such exotic locations as the south of France and, err, Swansea. Hearing their stories of campfires and jacket potatoes, I vowed that one day I would discover my inner girl scout. I would become the type of person that could rustle up both a roaring fire and a delicious meal cooked in its embers. 

A few left turns in the form of uncomfortable and rainy trips to festivals put me off tent life for a while, but I have stubbornly persevered. Because there is nothing like waking up to a beautiful sunrise and enjoying a cup of tea in the open air while you allow a new day to unfold around you gently. Unfortunately, many things can mar a good camping trip too. Rain, for one. Long queues for the showers, for another. Standing in a line is a terrible way to spend your time in the great outdoors if you ask me. I camp to escape the rat race, not to endure one of its most annoying aspects. 

I have often wondered how you could re-engineer camping (specifically, campsites) to eradicate the niggly, inconvenient elements while making the most of all that is brilliant and life-enhancing about sleeping under the stars. So, imagine my excitement at finding that somewhere in deepest Pembrokeshire, an enterprising couple have been pondering the same question and come up with a brilliant response. Nick and Jo Saal and their daughters Bea and Iola have been painstakingly renovating a Grade II listed 18th-century watermill just outside Castlemartin since 2016. Describing it as a “lifetime’s work”, their vision is to leave their 16 acres of land as wild as possible, protecting it for future generations. They have planted new native deciduous woodland and sown thousands of native wildflower seeds in their effort to re-wild the very special place where they live. This year they opened what I can only describe as the best campsite I have ever visited, inviting people to share this magical place with them. 

The entire site has only ten huge pitches, each with private gas-heated showers and compost toilets in Scandinavian-style wooden cabins. So there’s plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the privacy you rarely get on the pack-‘em-in sites we’re used to. And they’ve thought of everything. The pitches have a picnic bench and covered timber shelters you can use as a kitchen or for your campfire when it’s raining. This means rain never needs to stop play. The washing up area looks out onto a beautiful ancient woodland, making post-meal cleanup something akin to therapy, while a small honesty shop offers local produce and ice lollies. 

Then there’s the enchanting woods, an iron age fort to explore, and a rope swing for kids – both actual and overgrown ones. You won’t find any manicured lawns or tarmac – instead, expect bees, bugs, thistles and thorns and a true sense of getting back to nature. Another bonus (for those trying to escape the tyranny of email) is that there’s no wifi. You will, however, find no better connection to the land. 

We’ve just returned from a soul-battery-recharging week at King’s Mill, where we cooked outdoors, walked for miles, watched a stunning meteor shower and enjoyed hot showers on demand. It’s the first camping trip where I felt genuinely sad to leave and drive eastwards, as did the lad who proclaimed it the best holiday we’ve had “for years”.  

I have been torn between telling the world about this extraordinary place and keeping it top secret, given the site’s limited availability. But the guilt got to me. I was lucky enough to stumble across King’s Mill thanks to the Greener Camping Club, and I feel I should pay back that good fortune somehow. Plus, I’ve already booked for next year, so you can thank me later. 

Nick and Jo are doing something very special with their wonderful little slice of rural Pembrokeshire. If you are fortunate enough to get to share it – even if only for a week – then consider yourself very blessed indeed. It’s made me very glad I decided to carry on camping, for sure.

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