A breath of fresh air

Think you're not the camping type? Candia McKormack urges you to cast aside all preconceptions and enter into the spirit of tipi-living...

"You may want to secure your door flaps if you don't want to be sharing your bed with a chicken in the morning."

Now, as bedtime routines go, this takes a little getting used to. But, when it comes to tipi-living, it's best to enter with an open mind, and leave your normal routines outside - along with your wellies and, of course, those chickens.

Tony and Fran run Larkhill Tipis from their smallholding in West Wales, which has been their home for 15 years. They're an instantly likeable couple, with the kind of down-to-earth charm you'd expect from those who have decided to escape the rat race (in their case, the bright lights of Bristol) for a life surrounded by all manner of wildlife and holidaying strangers.

We arrive with friends who have stayed there several times before, to be greeted by a smiling Tony, who is more than happy to show us tipi virgins the ropes. The three children we've brought with us are enchanted by the ridiculously friendly turkeys that practically bound up to you with puppy-like enthusiasm and seem to rather like a bit of a cuddle. Call me sentimental, but at this point I make a mental note to rethink Christmas dinner. Well, how can you contemplate eating something once you've seen how its eyes roll back in pleasure and utter a soft 'lobbalobbalobba' when being gently squeezed by a three-year-old child?

The whole site is wonderfully equipped. They really have thought of everything; from the 'wet' and 'dry' compost loos (explanations unnecessary - and, yes, there's a flushing loo for those unwilling to sacrifice 21st-century toilet comforts) to the showers using water straight from the underground spring. There's also a wonderfully cosy communal log cabin - built by Tony where you can get together with friends around the big kitchen table, while enjoying some of the fascinating reads from the well-stocked bookcase. The low-voltage double socket is a godsend for the two ten-year-old boys with us who have brought their allowed piece of technology with them, and which needs recharging a couple of times a day (though we were informed the supply struggles a little with power-hungry items such as hair-straighteners. It would seem that curly hair is part of the tipi experience).

As we're shown to our home for the next couple of nights, I catch a glimpse - through the early evening mist - of what proves to be an absolutely stunning view from our hilltop vantage. All the tipis - there are three, plus two yurts - are within their own secluded site, surrounded by wild flowers and hedges, and it is quite easy to forget that there are other visitors there; such is the tranquillity of the spot.

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Stepping into the tipi for the first time, I was struck by how cosy it was. The central chimenea provides warmth, and the opportunity to dry clothes, boil a kettle, cook on, or simply while away the hours gazing into the flames. There is matting on the floor - it is customary to remove your shoes when entering - and there are extraordinarily comfortable futon-style beds, large cushions, rugs, paraffin lanterns and candles to provide extra comfort. Inside a large trunk are extra blankets, should they be needed, and another smaller trunk contains all the cooking implements you could possibly need for your stay. You very soon adapt to low-level living inside, and I began to feel positively hedonistic stretched out on a sheepskin rug next to the roaring fire with a glass of fine cider in hand. If this is roughing it, then give me a bit of rough any day.

The whole site is both spiritual haven and adventure playground rolled into one gloriously designed package. You can meander through the woodland pathways (which are lit by solar-powered fairy lights at night), and find such delights as quartz standing stones, a labyrinth and Buddha shrines. It didn't take long for our three-year-old girl to turn feral and disappear into the woods with a wave of her hand and a "See you later." The funny thing was we felt confident she was in a safe environment, and it was heart-warming to see her that liberated and confident.

The location really is perfect, with many glorious sites on your doorstep; Cardigan Bay is just half-an-hour's drive away where you can try a spot of canoeing, while kids can enjoy the fantastic delights of Oakwood Leisure theme park just down the road in Pembrokeshire. We took a jaunt out to the dramatic river gorge at Cenarth where the River Teifi has carved its way through the rock to create spectacular waterfalls, where salmon can be seen leaping in the autumn, and traditional coracles are still the desired form of transport for local fishermen. Heading back to the tipi site, we stopped off at Newcastle Emlyn to pick up food to cook on the open fire for supper. Here, you'll find the remains of a 13th-century castle which is significant as the only native Welsh castle to be built in stone in this part of Wales. From the craggy ruins you get a terrific view across the River Teifi to the surrounding countryside and, in the afternoon sunshine, it was a beautifully tranquil spot.

On returning to Larkhill with the spoils of our shopping excursion, we prepared to stoke up the fire to cook our sausages and chicken drumsticks in, quite frankly, the only way in which sausages and chicken drumsticks should be cooked. And, after cracking open another bottle of cider, we proceeded to spend the rest of the evening just doing what comes naturally... Bliss.

Larkhill Tipis, Cwmduad, Carmarthenshire SA33 6AT. Tel: 01559 371581. www.larkhilltipis.co.uk

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