Elmley Nature Reserve Review
Who needs to leave the country for a safari holiday when you have Elmley Nature Reserve waiting in Kent for you – the only National Nature Reserve in England where you can spend the night.
Elmley Nature Reserve is now one of our favourite destinations in Kent to completely switch off from life since it’s the only National Nature Reserve in England where you can spend the night (or indeed get married) and they have a wealth of luxurious sleeping options to do just that – be it with that special someone in one of their uber-Instagrammable Shepherd’s Huts or lording it up with your friends and family at the Kingshill Farmhouse which has recently been renovated to style perfection.
The Isle of Sheppey has traditionally had a bad rep within Kent but let’s just put that rumour to bed right now and let you know that there is a lot to like especially as Elmley Nature Reserve, on the Kent-facing tip of the island, is an internationally recognized site for the conservation of rare birds, plants, animals and insects so if it’s peace and tranquility you are after with a wildlife audience, then this is the place for you.
Elmley is a family-owned 3,300-acre estate and in 2013, Georgina and Gareth Fulton took over the accommodation part of Georgina’s family business with a vision to transform this wildlife visitor attraction into the boutique experience it is today. It started with individual Shepherd’s Huts which are dotted around the property, before moving onto hosting rustic-themed weddings from its spectacular traditional Kentish barn, and culminating in the launch of Kingshill Farmhouse last Summer which has got most of the lifestyle press panting with excitement about its stunning interiors, with each room showcasing a distinctive style stamp that is very much in keeping with its surroundings.
It’s no wonder that many writers set up shop here in one of the Shepherd’s Huts and let the creative juices flow. Word has it that writer and stylist, Pandora Sykes retreated to Elmley to complete her second book whilst heavily pregnant plus iconic yoga brand, Lulu Lemon recently hosted a retreat there for its team so let me tell you people, this is the place to be.
One of the winning points here is that you don’t have to travel far to feel that you are in the middle of nowhere and experience its pure tranquillity. If you haven’t ventured to the Isle of Sheppey before, it’s situated on an island in the North of Kent and is just an hour’s drive from London with the nearest train station being Sittingbourne. The reserve is signposted just before the main Sheppey bridge and there is a two-mile access road to its car park which helps to adjust your mindset to a new pace of life as the sweeping savannah (and I don’t say that lightly as the wife of man from a Zimbabwean family) stretches out in front of you.
We arrived on a chilly January morning and it’s hard not to picture Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations emerging from the misty marshes, and we were later told that the opening scenes of the BBC adaptation of the book was filmed at Elmley so a big literary pat on the back for me. I knew that English degree would finally pay off…
Elmley is still very much a working farm and you are reminded of that when Gareth darts off to rescue a pregnant sheep during our morning 4 x 4 tour of the estate. 800 suckler cows and sheep still graze the marsh, and the team manage the land for nature conversation since Elmley is significantly important for breeding wading and over-wintering birds and we saw first-hand the estate’s intricate irrigation system to ensure that this continues to be the case.
The juxtaposition of the luxury accommodation within this rugged and rural space is a winning combination and due to its extensive land, you do not feel like you are treading on people’s toes and can still enjoy your private moment watching the sky fill with tens of thousands of wildfowl at night or listening to the dawn chorus of marsh frogs, owls, and ducks chirruping all around you.
Children are very much welcome so don’t feel that you will be spoiling anyone’s fun if they are in tow as there is plenty of space for everyone and they have all of the children paraphernalia to enhance your stay (Gareth and Georgina have two small children so they get the drill) so if it’s fresh air and a real-life Geography lesson that you want for them, then come hither. In fact, I am planning our next family adventure in one of their Shepherd’s Huts which have a hammock and put-out bed so can easily accommodate a family of four.
Our Muddy mission was to scope out the recently renovated Kingshill FarmHouse, first built in the 17th Century, and until 2018 was a derelict building within the grounds and now, to coin Mr & Mrs Smith’s phrase, is rustic-luxe in its style. Francesca Rowan Plowden, the interior designer behind other beautiful period properties within Kent such as Goodnestone Park and Battel Hall (part of Leeds Castle estate) was brought in at the early stages of renovation to help reconfigure the house and conjure up an interior space that will not only provide the wow factor but also be a liveable and comfortable space.
This is the kind of house that you could come with friends and family (6 bedrooms – sleeps 14) and you won’t get a sarky remark during your stay about why you bagged the best room as each bedroom has its own unique charm and appeal. That boutique hotel experience has been brought to life with roll top cast iron baths, Bramley bath products, the fluffiest of towels and bathrobes, and sweeping views over the Reserve in front of you from most windows.
This is interior porn in its finest form where you will find yourself squawking about the beauty of the boot room (my husband thought I was crazy too) and admiring each and every bit of living space and quirky accessory that has been individually sourced to bring this house back to life. The house has the luxury of a lot of living space so should you be there with a big party, you could squirrel yourself away with a good book somewhere cosy if you wanted time-out or equally get a family game going in one of its sitting rooms.
And when it comes to feeding the masses, the kitchen is the place to be with its range cooker and conservatory aspect so an ideal inside/outside dining environment, particularly with those wildlife elements all around you and you can choose to do it yourself (apparently the Sainsbury’s van makes for a comical sight coming up the reserve trail now and again to deliver food to the Shepherds Huts and house) or you could hand over the reins to the Elmley team who hand-deliver picnic hampers with the daily choice of menu (breakfast through to supper) or you could just go all out and ask for their recommended list of caterers.
Since it was just the two of us, we opted for the ‘meals on wheels’ option and feasted on the daily choice of fish pie with lemon tart as well as homemade soup and dahl for lunch and the best breakfast baps ever served in an old-school metal sandwich tin – bacon and egg for the husband and halloumi and avocado for me . As you may imagine, all ingredients are locally and responsibly sourced with listed suppliers including another Muddy favourite, Macknade, in Faversham back on the mainland.
Once there, you can choose to get active with wildlife trails aplenty leading to four bird watching hides across the property so you can immerse yourself in the surrounding scenery or you could quite easily take a bath with a view and admire the surroundings from inside. I pride myself on being a bit of a bathtub tourist these days.
Gareth’s 4 x 4 tour comes highly recommended for a deeper insight into life on the working farm of and the wildlife all around you especially if like me, you don’t know your blue tit from your toucan. Ok the alliteration just got the better of me. 28,300 birds of 55-60 species were calculated at the last count to give you an indication of the sheer scale of how many birds linger here, and no wonder why.
Make sure you also take in the old buildings around the farm and across the marsh including the Victorian haylofts, cottages, and a traditional Kentish Barn, which are all the remains of a Victorian brick-making village which really gives a picture of a bygone era. Gareth pointed out that the huts were used to signify to the boats on the other side of the estuary to come over with their wares with the door flaps painted in distinctive white – if lowered, come. If not, don’t bother.
You can also expect to see hares, owls, marsh harriers, water voles, avocets and dragonflies during your trip. A sundowner on its terrace overlooking the marshland below is a must-do with again my husband and I making not so ridiculous comparisons to the African savannah. Just with a slightly warmer jumper on top and lesser chance of an encounter with a crocodile perhaps.
I was also lured (not very reluctantly) to a separate house on the land for a full-body massage by the magnificent Roz, who specialises in holistic therapy including energy healing. I’ve never embraced that side of things before but certainly left feeling a lot lighter in spirit and walking a lot taller than before so consider me a convert. Massages can also be done at the house or by your Shepherd’s hut – should you prefer.
Lastly a tip from us (well Georgina) – when you stay here (and note we don’t say if) don’t shut your curtains at night, as where else in England can you stay and wake up with that wildlife colour around you?
If you do find yourself getting a very rare case of cabin fever here, be a tourist on the Isle of Sheppey for the day as it is a historic island with some fascinating places to visit including the splendid Georgian Naval Terrace in Sheerness, Queenborough’s fishing harbour, and water-sports at Barton’s Point Coastal Park.
You can also choose to beach it up and head to either Minster Leas (we’re told it’s best to walk along the shore and find a quiet spot underneath the cliffs), Shellness which is a beautiful and remote beach made of tiny seashells or go fossil hunting at Warden Point. Older children can also be directed to the barn where there are giant games of Connect 4 and Afternoon Tea is laid out each day with an Honesty box if you wanted to indulge plus you can buy drinks and snacks from its bar that is left open for guests each night and especially good for those in the Shepherd’s Huts who want to stretch their legs and have a change of scene.
We should also give you a flavour of what to expect should you host a wedding or milestone birthday here as Elmley should be on your list especially if you are looking to a host party full of rustic charm with most of your guests able to stay on site if you were going to take exclusive use of the place. The barn can fit 200 guests (150 seated) and 114 of them can sleep on site in not only the Shepherd’s Huts, Kingshill Farmhouse and Elmley Cottage (a spacious light-filled cottage for 10) with 20 bell tents also available (each sleeping up to 4 people) where guests can comfortably stand up to change. That’s important when you are trying to yank on your tights. The Bell Tent Village also has dedicated loos, showers with an amazing view and a camping kitchen for a recovery breakfast so everyone is a happy camper here.
Gareth and Georgina are not ones to sit on their laurels and plenty more is in the pipeline to continue to enhance your stay at Elmley with talks about creating a cutting-edge spa within one of the derelict outbuildings on the property as well as welcoming more retreats for companies since it really is the perfect place to escape it all and take a stock of your business from a totally different perspective.
There are a whole range of options to suit most budgets with the traditional Shepherd’s Huts (sleeps 2) costing from £105 per night, rising to £135 per night (sleeps 2 plus 2 children) for the more recent Shepherd’s Huts and then £660 for two nights at Elmley Cottage (sleeps 10) going up to from £2040 at Kingshill Farmhouse (sleeps 14) for two nights.
Picnic baskets with meals can be delivered to your accommodation and are priced from £17 p/p for brunch and lunch and £22 p/p for supper.
A one-hour massage with Roz is priced at £65 for the hour.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Family and friend get-togethers plus an ideal location for a corporate retreat due to the fact you can enjoy some down time in private thanks to the abundance of en-suite accommodation. This is also THE place to host your next big party or wedding but equally you could go solo and enjoy some time-out in one of the Shepherd’s Huts (as featured in World of Interiors don’tcha know) or go AWOL with a special someone.
Not for: Those looking to scratch a retail itch. But quite frankly when you are this rich in peace and solitude, why would you ever want to?
Elmley National Nature Reserve, Elmley, Isle of Sheppey, Kent, ME12 3RW, 01795 664896, firstname.lastname@example.org, elmleynaturereserve.co.uk
Photography by Rebecca Douglas.