If you’ve read any of my previous travel posts, you’ll have gathered that Pete and I aren’t exactly backpacking types. I went camping once after my GCSEs, where I ate only Dairy Lea triangles and vodka for a week and snogged unsuitable boys in damp tents. That was quite enough camping for a lifetime, thanks. So when picking a destination for Pete’s 35th birthday, what possessed me to book a yurt in the wilderness, with no electricity and a compost toilet?
Well, a yurt isn’t exactly a tent, and this yurt was so much more than your standard ‘glamping’ tee pee… I found Big Sky Retreat via Canopy and Stars, a fantastic website for those in search of quirky countryside getaways. Among the tree-houses and converted donkey carts, hobbitesque Big Sky stood jumped out, a tiny wooden cabin perched on the hills between Dartmoor and Exmoor. Accessible only by a local train, cab, and then a hike down an overgrown grassy path, it reveals itself to you as you round the corner, a tiny haven nestled next to its own pond, with insane 180 degree views across the south Devon farmland. There’s even a swing made out of an old trampoline where you can lie in tandem and star gaze, or sway back and forth watching the resident buzzard hover over the hills in front.
In prep for my Animal Welfare course I’ve been reading a lot about modern-day intensive factory farming and the subsequent disappearance of traditional mixed farms and animal husbandry. This trip really brought home the tragedy of losing this way of life; our enduring soundtrack was the bleating of sheep and lowing of grazing cattle. I think we heard maybe two cars over the two days? On the way to the pub we walked passed hedgerows buzzing with insects, wild rabbits hopping out across our path. The pond outside our yurt was presided over by two ducks and after sunset a bat would circle the cabin as we fell asleep to the hooting of a neighbouring barn owl. Having grown up in the Devonshire countryside, all this hit me with an intense sense of nostalgia and the harsh realisation that this kind of thriving, peaceful agricultural landscape is increasingly rare. Here farms are giving back to the environment and caring humanely for their livestock rather than ripping the land apart and cramming their animals into tiny pens. If you’re interested in reading more about this, I highly recommend Philip Lymbery’s books (I’m currently racing through his latest one ‘Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were‘; not exactly an ‘enjoyable’ read but engaging and truly eye-opening).
Environmental rant over, let’s get to the cabin itself! Inspired by the American yurt builder Bill Coperthwaite and his iconic 70s book, A Simpler Life, the owners Alison and Scott built Big Sky Retreat to his wooden yurt plans. It’s entirely constructed from recycled and natural materials and is completely off grid: our lighting and tiny radio was all powered by solar energy (yes, we charged our phones at the pub like the sellouts we are). The wooden furniture was kitsch but cosy, especially the Swedish-style bed in the wall, all handmade by Scott and unashamedly hygge. We spent most of our time curled up on the window seat among the colourful cushions and thick rugs, cradling tea/wine, okay mostly wine. Happily there’s gas – so we could have hot showers and heat water/toast bread in the mornings. The photo below shows you how successful toasting bread under a gas grill was for me…
Apparently Hookhill Plantation has ornamental grass gardens, ancient woodland and so on, and we did a big 8 mile walk through the fields and roads to the Lamb Inn for lunch (cabbing it back after: you can take the couple out of London…) In all honesty though, you didn’t need to do anything. We’d happily have stayed there another week doing nothing more strenuous than working our way through the pile of old magazines in the cupboard and playing Scrabble. Especially as my mum had met us at the station and sent us off with enough homemade salad and hummus to last us a month!
I honestly can’t recommend Big Sky Retreat enough; it’s the kind of place you go to and immediately relax, even with a compost toilet to negotiate. A place to put you back in touch with the simplest pleasures in life, which is really what every holiday should be all about.