We decided to squeeze every last drop out of this weekend, it being one of the very few we've had lately on the calender that was gloriously free of kid's parties, sporting events and work commitments.
A couple of weeks ago I spotted this free diary opportunity and booked a weekends' camping at a local site. It wasn't one we'd been to before, in fact we're still pretty novice campers but I'm determined to get the most out of the investment we've put into our tent and all the paraphernalia. People laughed at us going on holiday 30 minutes up the road.
I didn't care. It meant Ruby could do a quick change of clothes at the end of her day, I could collect her from school, scoop her up into the packed car and we could head straight off, arriving at tea time with still the late afternoon and the whole evening to enjoy.
Church Farm at Ardeley is only about 10 minutes drive from Stevenage, not that you'd ever know it. The countryside is so stunningly beautiful, with acres of cornfields, pretty villages and old churches, we really felt we were in the middle of nowhere.
Camping is offered at Church Farm in one of several fields. You're free to find your own spot and it was fairly quiet so we opted to pitch at the edge of the field, close to the woods and with a stunning uninterrupted view over the pig sties and onto the pretty church beyond. The centre of the field is left to grow long and has an abundance of meadow flowers, butterflies floating about and the odd sheep wandering over for a graze.
Church Farm bill themselves as a 'free range experience' and we took full advantage of that exploring the forest, the hedgerows, the various farm walks, as well as saying hello to all the livestock who live there. We booked an egg collecting session on the Saturday, and it was a chance for Ruby to really get hands on with some farm activities.
On the Friday evening, after we'd pitched our tent and made the beds, we tucked into pasta cooked on the camping stove. This is pretty back-to-nature camping, and although there are toilets and basic showers they are a long way from where we were pitched. There's no washing-up station so this was done the old-fashioned way by boiling water and washing in a bowl at our tent. The water for the site incidentally comes from their own natural spring. It's also a 'leave-no-trace' site, you have to take all your rubbish home with you and this really made us much more aware of our impact on the planet in our day-to-day life.
As the sun started to set, Ruby and her dad played football in the long grass, while I enjoyed a Fentiman's gin and tonic (oh yes, who knew they made that?!).
Tired from the fresh air and a long day at school, Ruby settled in front of the campfire and we toasted marshmallows and read The Magic Faraway Tree to her as bats skitted above us in the dusky sky.
We slept like logs that night, drifting off with the distant sound of another camper playing his guitar and singing Bob Dylan tunes.
We woke the next morning to pouring rain and the sounds of Easyjets passing over (I'd forgotten that this area was on the flight path to Luton), so popped into Stevenage to try out their swimming pool and escape the rain. Stevenage would not be high up on my list of places to visit, although the Old Town is quite charming with lots of independent shops and cafes.
In the afternoon it was time for egg collecting and a whole gaggle of children met up to pull the cart loaded with egg cartons and we set off to the Walnut Orchard to greet the chickens. After feeding them, learning how to pick them up and hold them, the children excitedly set about collecting the eggs. The white chook wasn't very happy about being turned off her nest box so we could rootle about to see if she had any eggs under her. She gave a few pecks, and when we put her gently on the ground, she fanned herself out and it became apparent why she was cross. We'd obviously disturbed her business and she promptly laid an egg right there on the floor for us. Ruby was delighted to pick up this brand new, still warm freshly laid egg. They found a staggering 205 eggs in total plus one duck egg! Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to keep any of these as they have to be washed and graded (on a very cute vintage grading machine which sorts them into sizes), but we swapped our slightly mucky eggs for half a dozen from the farm shop which were turned into gloriously creamy, sunflower yellow scrambled eggs for breakfast on Sunday.
The farm shop offers an enviable array of fresh, locally produced stock as well as all manner of products you might find in a health food store - eco friendly toiletries and cleaning materials, just about every type of herbal tea you can imagine, a tasty array of freshly baked breads and cakes and an in-house butcher's counter. It also has a small but well stocked off-license section offering vodka made on site from their spring water. There are handmade crafts on sale from their social enterprise 'Rural Care' and you can even buy a shorn fleece from their lambs.
Another highlight of the farm is the tea room, dainty and charming, painted in pretty pistachio green and bedecked with bunting and paperchains. Old-fashioned homemade cakes are served on vintage fine bone china, and delicate plates, cups and saucers are stacked up all around. The tables are laid with floral oilcloths and decorated with rustic posies of ox-eye daisies and ears of corn in old green glass bottles. There's also seating outside in the courtyard where you'll find a children's playhouse, ride on toys and Tonka trucks, or in the cosy snug and garden room summer house. It's a dreamy place to take afternoon tea, or indeed if you don't fancy cooking, pop in for a bacon sandwich or poached eggs for breakfast.
On Sunday we had a leisurely stroll around the circular farm walk, taking in the wood and stumbled on the Bush Man lodge, deep in the forest. A small but cosy and secluded wooden shack, there are several of these lodges to hire, furnished with a double bed and a woodburning stove. From here you could sit out on the veranda, watch the sun setting and wait for the fallow deer and owls to make their appearance.
We continued around the hedgerows, past heritage orchards growing apples; quince; peaches and medlars and on to the pig sties to say hello to the lop eared pigs and the adorable piglets. The woodland play area provided a cooling stop, and we sat on tree stump benches while Ruby negotiated the climbing frame.
It was a lazy Sunday with no hurry to pack up our tent and check out, so we wandered into the village of Ardeley to take a closer look at its Grade 1, 13th century church and its thatched village hall; village green and its water lily covered pond and watched the moorhen chicks balance precariously on the lily pads.
Church Farm has so much going on with half-term events and activities; a weekly veg box scheme; its own butchery; a huge range of small businesses leasing on site including a florist, a woodburner salesroom and a garage - this is rural agricultural diversification at it's best! There was even a wedding going on while we were there with the bride and wedding party being conveyed to the gathering atop hay bales in a bunting draped tractor-drawn carriage.
It was a magical weekend, far better than I could have hoped for and has made me all the more determined to squeeze the most out of our free time.
Camping at Church Farm is £7.50 per adult per night and £4.95 per child. Optional extras: £10 for permission to build a camp fire and the egg collecting session including half a dozen eggs is £7.50, bookable in advance. Animal feed is £3 per bag if you want to feed the chickens, pigs or cattle available from the shop.
Church Farm is located at Ardeley, between Baldock and Stevenage in Hertfordshire.
Pop over and say hello to them on Facebook.
Disclosure: We booked and paid for our camping trip ourselves. All thoughts, opinions and photographs are my own. Thank you to Church Farm for a wonderful stay.