Idyllic English pastoral: an off-grid cottage holiday in East Sussex

On a hill, next to a meadow, is a crooked cottage with gingham curtains. There, adventurers weary from hiking through the apple orchard and the bracken and hay can rest in the glow of the woodburner, drifting off to sleep to the hoot of a neighbouring owl. Such a picturesque scene might sound like it is has been lifted from the pages of an Enid Blyton book, but it is a description of a stay at Swallowtail Hill, a sustainability minded camping site in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Beauty in East Sussex – an area so idyllic it could be rebranded “English Pastoral: the theme park”.

For the past 25 years, owners Sarah and Christopher Broadbent have been running the 16-hectare (40 acre) site as a conservation project to protect its wildflower meadow and ancient woodland, adding the element of six self-catering units – from cottages to huts and cabins – 10 years ago. I am staying in Meadow Keeper’s Cottage, a cabin on wheels in between two of their meadows, which comes with private access to a small pond (boat supplied), and a decking area for dining.

The site itself is off-grid: cabins are heated by woodburners, as is the (outside) shower. A low-emissions butane camp stove is provided in the cabins for rainy days, but most cooking is done outside over firepits. Toilets are the composting variety, and cabins have eco-friendly cleaning products and recycling bins. Food is available on request, and includes salad boxes, barbecue kits of local, sustainably sourced meat, and camp-stove dinners that need only to be warmed up. Any glamping element here is the isolation. Each of the units at Swallowtail is in its own secluded space: aside from site staff in masks and visors, I barely saw another soul. Plus, no electricity means there is no recharging of phones and laptops, and with no wi-fi (and sometimes no phone signal), a stay becomes a digital detox.

So, instead of scrolling through Twitter, I read a book or prepared food. Instead of watching Netflix, I drew sketches of the deer I saw in the meadow, and took the boat out on the pond, crashing into lily pads, but enjoying the glimpse of a heron. And instead of looking at Instagram – where pictures of semi-naked people on holiday abound – I considered getting naked for a skinny dip in the pond, before remembering the warning of Sarah, the owner: “No one will see you. But the water is full of reeds.”

Across Swallowtail, hedgerows have been added to create a network of green lanes, but guests are free to trundle through the tall grass or stroll under the oak and chestnut trees. I met my 10,000 steps easily enough walking between my cottage and the farm’s shop, to recharge my lamps, get fresh ice for the coolbox, or restock the logs – wheelbarrowing them back to base. The pleasure is in the novelty of living off-grid, and having the time and stillness to appreciate what that brings: dragonflies darting around at dusk; the night sky lit up by stars in the absence of light pollution; crickets chirping; and the flash of a rabbit’s tail as it darts through the hedgerow. And the happiness of watching my partner gleefully build fires and burn things on them (sometimes logs, sometimes dinner).

The High Weald area has plenty to explore in less-than-perfect weather. English sparkling wine is currently enjoying international acclaim as the industry matures to compete with France (Taittinger and Pommery have started growing in Kent and Sussex.) Oxney Organic wine, down the lane from Swallowtail, uses no pesticides and generates the heat it needs for production using woodchips. On a rainy day we took a socially distanced tour of the vines and bottling barns, hearing about the specific challenges of English wine production – including how a grape-guzzling badger dented the numbers of its award-winning 2018 chardonnay – and to sample some of its creations. Visitors can book a picnic lunch of cheeses, chutneys and crackers, which we did before walking in the drizzle back to Swallowtail and sleeping off the afternoon (and our hangovers).

There are also a number of gastropubs. So when rain made cooking outside impossible, we visited the The Ferry Inn at Stone-in-Oxney, a remote, 17th-century former smugglers’ haunt specialising in locally sourced seafood and pub grub: devilled kidneys rich with mushrooms and peppery heat served on artisanal bread; garlicky linguine tossed with seafood fresh from the markets of nearby Rye and Folkestone.

But if the weather holds, the local countryside is a delight to explore. We walked the Peasmarsh Circular, a mostly flat four-mile loop through lanes, farms and stiles, showcasing all the bounties this area has to offer. We ambled through a vineyard, and past an orchard, then through large, windswept fields of peas turned yellow in the sun, and under the leafy canopy of Malthouse Woods.

On the way back to London, we stopped at one of the many fruit farms selling punnets on the side of the road. I bought a batch of black cherries and marvelled at their perfect roundness. “These would be good enough for the Famous Five,” I thought. They were certainly good enough for me.