Photograph by David King

Nethergong! It’s worth booking yourself in to this family-run east Kent campsite just for the joy of saying its name. Preferably loudly in the playground to embarrass your children and get advance revenge for the hours of sleep they’ll steal from you when you get there.

Nethergong (I did it again) is tucked away in the Kentish countryside not far from Canterbury. It’s close to the beautiful beaches of east Kent and right next to a nature reserve – the perfect location for a summer holiday, with the cathedral city on the doorstep and stacks of outdoors activities for when the weather is nice. It’s also the ultimate cop-out for me being exactly 17 minutes drive from my house.

Camping tip 1: Stay close to home

If you are only 17 minutes from home you can go back there any time you like. We didn’t in the end but just knowing we could return for forgotten essentials, or if it rained too much or if we argued too much or needed a hot bath was a joy. It didn’t mean I packed light though. Oh, no. For this two night stay in a fully equipped, provided-by-the-campsite bell tent I brought enough gear for a six week trek across Europe.

My packing technique was inspired by panic. I remember camping from my childhood and one or two unpleasant early adult experiences and those memories were not cherished. But my children were really keen to do it, it’s a cheap way to holiday and we love being outdoors so I’d been toying with the idea of tent pegs and portaloos for a while. The school summer holidays seemed like the best time to throw caution to the wind (literally) and try it out. And once I’d booked I was pretty certain it would be awful so we’d better bring all our worldly possessions just in case.

Car heaving with stuff and over excited kids we got to the campsite and discovered some joyous truths. There was a shop if we ran out of food, or wood, or nappies. There were hot showers. The owners were lovely, albeit inwardly smiling to themselves at the sight of us. And it was beautiful. There were woodlands, there was a stream, intrepid campers had brought their own tents and pitched up under the trees. Unlike the blasted heaths of my imagination the Nethergong site felt like borrowing a real bit of nature for the weekend.

Our bell tent was a beauty. The cooking set-up comprehensive, and if you need to show off on Instagram do take a picture of the gorgeous, fairy lit interior before your kids cover in with crisps. Need the loo? It’s close and clean.

That first evening the sun shone and we walked around the site hearing the croaking of frogs, met a family of ducks and waved to a barn owl who swooped overhead. We took a short walk and ended up at the Grove Ferry Inn overlooking the river, under weeping willows, with the distraction of jumping on straw bales and feeding pigs for the kids and cider for us. The cider forced us to stay for dinner and we had to walk home along the un-pavemented roads with the children on our backs. But the local drivers seemed primed for inebriated parents lurching across the carriageway and we all survived and went to bed.

The less said about sleeping and camping the better really. From our time at Nethergong I’d say it’s not the holiday for those of you who mind being woken up in the night by your children or dislike being jumped on by ludicrously heavy infants at 6am. But there’s something jolly about all bedding down together and going with whatever the night throws at you. A Playmobile airplane in my case.

Camping tip 2: Don’t go when it rains

On Saturday it rained so we won’t talk about Saturday too much. I was all up for making the best of it but my husband was not amused. We went out to buy wellies and ended up in a, um, pub, again. But then…

A bell tent at Nethergong camp site

Camping tip 3: Go with other children

When we arrived back from our welly/drinking expedition a family with similarly aged kids had moved in next door. They were camping pros and had their whole area organised within minutes. There were wind breaks, and the hob was properly set up (oh that’s why ours wouldn’t work) and they were building a campfire of 1666 levels.

My six year old was smitten and spent the afternoon, evening and following morning playing with walkie talkies (an excellent camping investment), gathering branches and toasting marshmallows. No matter that we had our own fire and our own marshmallows she sat with her new, more competent crew, while we revelled in one less mouth to feed. Result.

Camping tip 4: Never overestimate your children’s capacity to whinge

Just as we’d settled in to the outdoor life and bliss started to take over we rashly attempted a three mile walk. Though we saw two swans with their cygnets, a moorhen chick, a weasel with a mouse freshly caught in its mouth, the drama of the eldest nearly treading on an adder set the temperature for the rest of the hike. Cue wild melodrama, the kind of walking that seems to take you backwards not forwards and our eventual abandonment of good parenting and descent in to outright threats and bribery. But then the sun came out and the duck family waddled past. I took my two year old up on to the ridge beyond ‘our’ field to look out across the farm land beyond and remind myself why we’d come. And, as if he’d heard my desperate internal plea, the barn owl came back and hunted, in broad daylight, in front of us for 15 minutes. The two year old was mesmerised and so was I. I had a little cry. 

Then it was time to go. We were all, tired and filthy and a bit hungry. Turns out we need to work on our stove cooking repertoire. But take yourself off camping next summer people: I’m over my camping misery. We loved Nethergong (weird name and all) so much that we’ve since visited again – dropping our daughter straight at the school gate on her first day of term fresh from the campsite, the smell of toasted marshmallows in her hair, winning the award for grubbiest schoolgirl by far. We’ll be back next year amongst the gangs of merry children distantly observed by their slightly drunk parents. And the owl. It was all worth it for that fantastic owl. 

Our Recommended Camp Sites

Nethergong Camping  Camping pitches start from £25 per night with glamping from £75 per night.

Gwithaian Farm is opposite a pub and super child-friendly.

Beddgelert campsite is in my favourite holiday destination, North Wales, and has an on-site playground as well as close to the amazing views of Snowdonia.

Camping in the Forest offers more back-to-nature style camping in the UK.

Nearly Wild Camping is for those who want to try wild camping (argh!) but want to be legal.

For glamping options around the world visit Canopy Under the Stars.

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