Camping with Kids in Winter | A South Downs Bothy Adventure
Two mothers, five kids, and a lot of mist. What could possibly go wrong?
Words by Sam Haddad | Photos by Sam Haddad & Jonquil Pinto
We’re walking through a world that is almost entirely white, save the bark-brown skeleton of an oak tree looming large to our right. At this point I’m not sure the pack of kids I’m with, which includes two of my own, have even noticed. They’re too busy telling ghost tales that are “definitely true, 100 per cent, for real, this actually happened…" Though maybe the fact we’re marching through the thickest, most soupy of fogs is precisely why they’re telling such spooky stories in the first place.
We drop into a patch of trees where the mist clears but the shadows darken. The path narrows to single-file and the story pace quickens. Before long the group is borderline hysterical, in a kind of kids from Stranger Things way, albeit without the BMXs or ever-present Demagorgan threat.
"It’s easy to take your children camping in summer and emerge all-smiles. But this winter, we wanted to experience the outdoors in an opposite season. To dive into the weather headlong…"
Still, I’m not complaining, and nor is the other mother I’m with. Eerie stories are a rite of passage and we’re just happy with how far they’ve walked in the dank without fussing. Especially as the five of them have ages ranging from four to eight and no one slept excellently in our stone manger-style bothy last night.
It’s easy to take your children camping in summer and emerge all-smiles. But this winter, we wanted to experience the outdoors in an opposite season. To dive into the weather headlong, and notice it in a way you rarely do when you spend the darkest months hiding indoors or bolting from one building to the next.
I say we meaning my friend and I, I’m sure our kids would have rather gone to Legoland or Eurodisney given the choice, like many of their school friends were doing this holiday. If you can handle the crowds and the costs that kind of fun of course has its place but there’s something about being in nature and taking on a bit of a challenge that I hope might leave a more lasting impression on them, even if they’re too busy having fun with their friends to realise it.
Gumber Bothy is a National Trust Bunkhouse just off the South Downs way in West Sussex. It’s in the shadow of a hill sheep farm but you can’t drive there directly, you can only reach it via a two-mile hike through a deep forest. When we’d arrived the day before, in spite of the drizzle, the children had found the idea of needing to walk through the woods to reach their bed for the night a surprisingly enticing prospect.
"In spite of the drizzle, the children had found the idea of needing to walk through the woods to reach their bed for the night a surprisingly enticing prospect."
And there was something quite sweet about watching them head off ahead waterproofed-up to the max, with their backpacks stuffed with soft toys and sleeping bags for the night. It was the tail end of autumn so some of the trees were still aflame with brightly-coloured leaves and we even found the odd super-sweet blackberry to power on the smallest ones.
Fortunately, we reached Gumber Bothy before morale and energy levels dipped too low. You can camp in the grounds but we’re not hardcore enough for that at this time of year so we opted for the hostel and were pleased to find we had one of the 12-bunk rooms to ourselves. It wasn’t heated though and with temperatures set to hover around four degrees the night ahead looked potentially interesting.
"We didn't end up lost, lost, as such but…"
We’d also promised them a campfire but it had been damp and rainy for days so the prospect of finding dry wood was slim. But it felt good to let them roam free in the woods below the bothy, with the older ones in charge, in a way you could never do in the built environment back home. When they eventually returned arms full of soaking-wet sticks we persuaded them to wait until the next morning for a fire in the hope the wood might have dried out by then.
The bothy had a good basic kitchen so we loaded up on pasta for dinner. By now it was dark but too cloudy for stargazing, which was a shame as the South Downs is now an International Dark Sky Reserve, thanks its great night-time viewing opportunities. My friend then pulled out some sparklers which more than made up for it as far as the kids were concerned.
To get ready for bed we put on all of our clothes like a comedy character from a storybook. We then played a few rounds of Uno and listened to some folk story podcasts I’d forgotten I had on my phone, while trying to stop the now-hyper youngest two from jumping from bed to bed. Eventually they calmed down and went to sleep, and a good few hours later my eldest son and I fell asleep too. Though both my kids woke up me a few hours later and to be taken to the toilet, which was outside and in the rain. Leaving my warm sleeping bag for that was a trip low-point for sure.
In spite of the fitful night and mist that was now enveloping this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with an even greater vigour than the day before, everyone woke up with high spirits and after a hot cocoa porridge breakfast and aborted fire-starting attempt, we headed directly into the void for a walk.
We didn’t end up “lost, lost" as such but it’s also fair to say we had no phone reception or exact idea of where we were for most of the hike, though we were also quite confident of the vague parallelogram shape we were tracing out, based on a laminated map we’d found in the bothy. There were no sights to speak of only fog, sheep and the bare bones of trees, but that didn’t matter, as there was something pure about experiencing the South Downs way and winter weather in whatever form it took.
After a couple of hours of gentle walking, and many snacks, the ghost stories switched to silly songs mostly involving the kind of bum/wee-type humour kids of this age can’t get enough of. We swung past the bothy to pick up our backpacks just as the day’s next hardy guests were arriving, and hiked the final stretch out, wet, muddy and the kind of tired with rosy-cheeks that you only get from time spent in the cold outdoors.
At this time of year all instinct tells us to hole up inside and hunker down for winter. Netflix and screens, cocoons and hygge vibes, but if you do get out into the wilderness for a while you’ll always feel better for it. I know I did, as did my friend, and I’m pretty sure all our kids did too. They certainly talked about the bothy adventure for a long time afterwards, which means they probably didn’t hate it, so that’s a win in my books.