After a year cooped up inside, with only laps around the local park to provide much-craved head space, a stay at the untamed and expansive Elmley Nature Reserve is a tonic.
Sprawling across 3,300 acres, the reserve is the culmination of an exciting and thoughtful project by pioneers Philip and Corinne Merricks who believe conservation and sustainable farming can go happily hand-in-hand. The reserve is now run by the couples’ daughter, Georgina Fulton and her husband, Gareth.
Roam the reserve, ticking off wildlife as you go, before retreating back to either the seclusion of an eco shepherd’s hut or one of the luxurious rooms in the beautifully renovated 18th century Kingshill Farmhouse. Unwind with a sunset dunk in an alfresco bath tub or shake off the London fug with fire pit cocktails.
Where is it?
On the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, just over an hour away from London. Once you’ve soared over the Sheppey Crossing and turned off the main road, the wilderness hits (there are looming industrial buildings in one direction, which only add to the drama). Cows (there are 900 on-site) and a territorial bull blocked the track for us, delaying our arrival by 15 minutes. Not that we minded one bit. It was an impromptu mini-safari: pheasants popped up from the long grass as the playful calves sniffed at our car.
The action takes place in the main barn where you’ll find the cavernous ceiling framed with fairy lights against the backdrop of a gigantic, not quite floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the lush wetlands. Flowers in old milk bottles sit atop rustic trestle tables, vintage rugs and second hand sofas are dotted around, giving it the feel of a Mumford & Sons video (in a good way).
Accommodation comes in the form of six shepherd’s huts dotted around the site all with floor-to-ceiling windows to take advantage of the pinch-me views of the wilderness, wood burners and decks with outside bathtubs. New, and slightly bigger with room for four (two adults and two children) are The Roost and Martha’s Hut. In the summer, a small number of luxury bell tents are also available for those who want to be truly immersed in nature.
Over in the meticulously restored 18th century Kingshill Farmhouse is where you’ll get your Instagram shots. There are six bedrooms, three delightful lounge areas, a dining room and a kitchen which dreams are made of. Francesca Rowan Plowden, known for her tasteful take on modern English grandeur, is the designer responsible for the eclectic interiors. You’ll find plush blue velvet sofas strewn with Romney Marsh wool throws next to a sunken butter leather armchair and jumbled artworks filling the walls in the library; a large brick open hearth fireplace and an antique tasselled red courting bench in the snug. Outside there are firepits for cosy summer evenings and the odd solitary seat for kicking back and taking it all in.
Elmley cottage can be rented out privately and sleeps up to 10 people.
There’s scarce WIFI and Elmley really is all about the nature. Throw on your Hunters and follow the miles of trails across the reserve. It’s one of the most important sites in the UK for breeding wading birds like lapwing and redshank. You’ll also spot owls, hares, cows and Romney sheep. It’s a staggeringly vast landscape and perfect for getting happily lost in (though stick to the suggested paths to leave the wildlife undisturbed). Private nature tours can also be arranged with in-house expert Abbie. There’s no spa, but a masseuse can be arranged for an in-room/in-hut treatment.
Outside of the reserve, some of Kent’s coolest towns are a short-ish drive away. Head for oysters and seaside strolls in Whitstable (35 minutes); antique shopping in Faversham (25 minutes); or visit the Turner Contemporary in Margate (45 minutes). But really, if you can, switch off your phone and explore the reserve.
Food & drink
Prepare to face the day with a pre-ordered tea and coffee to your room (or hut) for 8am in a cute hamper. Then, if you’re staying in the farmhouse, it’s downstairs to that kitchen for a hearty breakfast of Kent apple juice, homemade granola and yoghurt followed by an Elmley bacon roll or organic shakshuka.
For lunch, snacks and light bites - baguettes and crisps - are available in The Farmyard. For dinner, head back to the barn as the sun sets on the blissful day. All ingredients are locally sourced and seasonal. We ate warm focaccia and smoked butter, melt-in-your mouth beef short rib on a bed of sweet red cabbage followed by wickedly sour rhubarb crumble.
Enjoying the privacy of your hut too much? The staff can send a supper hamper over to you.
The secluded huts with their bi-fold doors and endless views are truly special. For burnt out Londoners looking for a digital detox, it doesn’t get better. Over in the Kingshill Farmhouse, the Instagram crowd will love the suite with its four-poster bed and William Holland copper roll-top bath. For me, though, the Yellow room wins with its deep bath at the back of the house with the best uninterrupted views. No two rooms are the same but all come with Roberts radios and Bramley products.
Couples, babymooners, and nature-cravers. Elmley makes for an invigorating escape for any jaded Londoner and is a much-needed reminder that there’s more to life than the rat race.
Huts sleeping two to four start at £95-£130 a night (two-night minimum weekends). Stays in the Farmhouse start from £140 for a one night stay including breakfast. elmleynaturereserve.co.uk