The first time Mark Griffiths went to a sheep fair, he wasn’t sure of the etiquette. “I didn’t know whether you needed to buy a sheep to get in, or what you were meant to do!” says the co-founder of Woodfire Camping in West Sussex.
Griff (as he’s known) and his wife Stella were set on a new life: they wanted to ditch the city (he worked in digital marketing) for tents and countryside, and were testing ways to approach farmers who might be up for leasing them some land. “Traditional routes hadn’t worked, so sheep fairs and cattle auctions were next,” says Griff.
The idea paid off. The owner of Westerlands stud farm near Graffham, 14 miles north of Chichester, was keen to collaborate, and leased them five acres of pretty, forest-fringed field, which they opened as an eco campsite in June.
If you could choose a summer in which to launch a UK camping business, 2018’s would be pretty perfect. It’s late afternoon as we approach, snaking along the dappled, tree-lined lanes of the South Downs national park, and the countryside is aglow; this is England at its bucolic best.
There are just 33 pitches at Woodfire, and lazy campers – or perhaps those arriving by bike or on foot – can stay in a handful of pre-erected tents, from a vintage option for two to more spacious set-ups with separate living and bedroom areas that are great for families. Equipped with deckchairs, tables, mattresses, sheets, blankets, hot water bottles and bedside lamps, they all offer glamping-level comfort without the ridiculous price tags (guests are asked to bring duvet and pillows but sleeping bags can be provided).
The site is off-grid, with no electric hook-ups; cars are left outside the main paddock and numbers are capped at 120, so it feels very natural and uncrowded. But as families set up for the weekend and groups of boys play football, there’s still something of a laid-back festival vibe.
Stella and Griff grew up camping and it has long been a passion for them and their two sons (they’re even spending their 15th wedding anniversary under canvas, and will live in a tent onsite all summer). But Woodfire was also inspired by Italy’s agriturismo – where farms and rural B&Bs offer meals made from homegrown produce. Griff offers breakfasts and dinners, from substantial stews to Mexican huevos rancheros – cooked over woodfire or charcoal. The meat will eventually all come from the farm’s sheep, pigs and cattle, with eggs from their chickens and the rest from local suppliers.
The sustainable ethos extends to every detail of the campsite. The kitchen, compost loos and showers (clean and spacious with vintage mirrors and pots of geraniums) were all built from chestnut wood coppiced nearby by local woodsman Dave Watson (a student of master craftsman and eco-builder Ben Law of Grand Designs fame). Hot water time is limited, and grey water and waste are recycled and reused. But everything is done in a fun, rather than preachy, way, with lighthearted signs asking for guests’ co-operation.
We dump our bags in the tent and feel ready for a pint. Nothing complements a campsite more than a good pub – and at Woodfire you’re spoiled for choice. The Cricketers, a 16th-century coaching inn with sprawling beer garden, is a 20-minute romp across a field but we head into Graffham and the recently reopened Foresters Arms, where the welcome is warm and preparations for a mini-festival are under way. Just around the corner is the White Horse, with more refined dining and a beautiful location overlooking the Downs.
We return to camp in time for dinner. Beef stew is bubbling in a cauldron over the fire, and Stella is putting together veggie plates piled high with baked beetroot, chargrilled veg and tortilla – both served with homemade flatbread. Long, bierkeller-style tables and benches make for convivial communal dining, though you can just slope off to your pitch, of course. We stay up late drinking wine and chatting under the stars – this is a dark sky reserve, and the stars are impressive, even with clouds.
It is a family campsite, so not a place for rowdy party people, and I sleep brilliantly, waking to birdsong. A trail of bleary-eyed campers slowly emerge, grateful for the real coffee Stella serves in china cups, and the breakfasts of egg and bacon sandwiches or avocado bagels.
When it comes to location, the couple have hit the jackpot. It would be easy to spend a week bimbling around this part of the country. A track leads directly on to the 90-mile South Downs Way, and there are countless other beautiful walks, plus the Goodwood Estate, several stately homes, and historic towns such as Petworth and Petersfield nearby. It’s not bad for beaches either, with West Wittering just over half an hour away.
We take a trip to Climping beach – a vast expanse of shingle and sand half an hour’s drive away – and then wander the streets of Arundel, a tourist honeypot with castle, cathedral and the lovely Black Rabbit pub right on the river.
When it’s finally time to pack up and leave the campsite, it’s quick and easy – we were lazy campers, so no messing around with poles and groundsheets or deflating mattresses – but I genuinely don’t want to go. Extra touches such as a visiting masseuse and cocktail van are planned over the summer, too. As if I needed another reason to go back.
• Pitches at Woodfire Camping cost £16pp adult, £5pp child 3-18. Ready-pitched tents from £25 adult, £10 child. Open from Easter to the end of September (daily during school holidays, weekends only otherwise). Evening meals from £5. Pulborough, a 15-minute taxi ride away, is the nearest train station
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