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Liz Stansfield gets some R&R at Elmley Nature Reserve, Kent....
'I really should have brought my night vision goggles' is the not normally the first thing you say when checking in for a UK staycation. But then the Elmley Nature Reserve is no ordinary place.
Perched on marshland on the Isle of Sheppey, Elmley is the only family-owned and managed nature reserve in the country. Set in 3,300 acres, there's a range of accommodation on offer, from rustic shepherd's huts and bell tents to the beautifully renovated 18th-century farmhouse, and a huge variety of wildlife to observe, wherever you lay your head. If you’re visiting in warmer months, you can also go for a spot of wild swimming at the reserve’s private beach.
Me and my fellow walking enthusiast friend Lorna check into the Damson, a shepherd's hut sleeping two with a floor-to-ceiling glass front and an outdoor tub (don’t worry, a proper bathroom is also in residence!). We are blessed with blue skies on arrival so quickly pull on our walking boots and head out across the marshes. There’s a marked route to several hides where bird watching awaits, and, despite it being open to non-staying guests, we don’t see another human in several hours. Pulling off our wet boots back at base we both climb aboard the super comfy bed and happily watch the sun go down in companionable silence.
You can self-cater, but we prefer to order homecooked meals from the farmhouse, each delivery arriving in a hamper to be unpacked and eaten in our PJs – or there's an honesty bar in the barn for drinks and snacks which keeps everything nice and relaxed. The first night feels like Christmas when a knock on the door signals the arrival of our feast – beef stew, filo pie and homemade crumble arrive piping hot and ready to serve. Breakfast the next morning is a similar affair; doorstop bacon sandwiches and Bircher muesli alongside a pot of steaming coffee. Lunch is chunky veg soup in a Thermos, with bread to dunk and a hunk of cheese on the side.
I’d seen a few Instagram posts of Elmley, with impressive shots of sunrise across the reserve, the pink and orange of the sky making me immediately think ‘filter!’. But as Lorna pokes me awake at 6.15am on our first morning and points silently to the sky outside, I realise it’s all real. The sky is lit up beautifully and the joy of staying in our hut is the glass end facing the marsh. We watch the sky for 10 minutes before climbing into our wellies and heading out with a cup of tea to really take it all in. When the last bit of feeling in my toes finally goes from the cold, we head back inside and I go back to bed with my book.
There are several nice towns to visit from Elmley if you have a car – we head into Faversham for tea, cake and independent shops – but most of the time we’re happy to lounge in our hut and feeling more rested by the second. As my lounging partner proudly declares at 10pm, ‘I’ve been in a onesie since 5!’.
Despite the lack of night vision, this really is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with flocks of waders and wildfowl alongside leggy herons and happy-as-Larry ducks. But my favourite character on the marshes? A striking hare hopping around outside the hut, totally oblivious to our excitement at its arrival. Bliss.
How to book
Stays in The Damson are priced from £115 per night (sleeping 2 adults, and up to 2 small children). Stays in the smaller shepherd's huts start from £85 per night (sleeps 2). Visit elmleynaturereserve.co.uk.