Why sleep under canvas when you can sleep under a 56ft rotor blade?
Sometimes, you go away for a few days and your friends and family barely raise an eyebrow.
Other times, not only do they raise an eyebrow, but their very eyes pop out on stalks. And this trip to the delightful Blackberry Wood campsite in Sussex was one of those times – and all the better for it. It’s a bit like being the person at the restaurant whose choice of dish inspires food envy – it somehow makes you enjoy what you did all the more. Everybody we told about this trip has been amazed that it’s a real thing; many have googled it on the spot and checked availability. And all without even waiting for this review to be published.
The reason for this excitement? The fact that we went camping in a helicopter.
That’s right. A helicopter. To be specific, a 1966 RAF Westland Wessex search and rescue helicopter, which served aboard HMS Hermes in the Mediterranean, then Cornwall and Dorset until 1980, after which it was used as a training aid.
The helicopter – XS 886 – was bought by Blackberry Wood in 2011 and is now living out its well-earned semi-retirement in the foothills of the South Downs.
We were alerted to its presence by campsites.co.uk, who have a wealth of glamping options. Big kid that I am, I scrolled right past the delightful yurts and log cabins and alighted at the helicopter – it was either that or the double decker bus, parked just a few yards away.
Both fabulous, and we know what we’ll be trying out next time.
Walking up to the Wessex, the first thing that strikes you is its sheer size: at 20m long and almost 5m high, the machine is absolutely enormous – it’s actually more than twice the length and half a metre taller than the adjacent double decker bus.
Pulling the sliding door to one side, you enter a main cabin done out in a sort of RAF khaki. It’s pretty simple accommodation: benches down either side of the chopper, with a curtained-off bedroom area down in the tail.
Brightly-coloured neon lights add both illumination and colour, but there are also normal lights as well – and heating, should you find yourself there on a damp or chilly weekend.
Then, of course, there’s the main attraction: the cockpit. Accessed by a small ladder to one side of the cabin, you haul yourself up into a space that still boasts the original controls and instruments, almost all of which are in a state of disrepair.
Somehow, rather than make it seem shabby or spoilt, it only adds to the romance, particularly given the fact that one side of the helicopter is rapidly being swallowed up by the rampant plant growth. It’s like coming across a crashed helicopter in a jungle; it’s an exercise in imagination rather than appreciation of a museum piece, and our kids loved it. (Okay, so did we.)
The cockpit is a good metaphor for the experience as a whole, actually: this is camping which will inspire envy, but not due to its luxuriousness. The beds (both in the tail, and the fold-out in the main living space) are adequate rather than sumptuous, and you can forget the idea of having your own en-suite facilities. This is proper camping on that score, with a communal toilet and shower block; it’s fun, and cool, but rough around the edges.
That said, the site is absolutely not back-to-basics, either: the helicopter (and all the other quirky lodgings) has its own covered kitchen area with fridge, toaster and a double hob, and there’s a carved wooden table and benches as well as a firepit which we gleefully loaded high with logs from the on-site shop.
In all it’s a great balance of home comforts with touches of rough-and-ready camping as you remember it from your youth. The helicopter is far from the only eye-catching accommodation option at Blackberry Wood: come back out of the helicopter and you’ll see the double decker bus, a 1950s caravan that is pure Americana, a gypsy caravan and a log cabin with curved edges (that one does have en-suite, incidentally) among other options, all of which are arranged around a children’s play area and small football pitch.
We sat out happily with a glass of wine in the evening while the children climbed onto logs, miniature castles and playhouse roofs; and we were far from the only ones doing so.
Away from the site, Blackberry Wood is located a few miles up the road from the Jane Austen-esque village of Ditchling, with Plumpton a similar distance in more the other direction and the delightful market town of Lewes just over 10 minutes’ drive.
There are plenty of walks straight out of the campsite and into the downs, but a short drive will take you to places such as Sheffield Park – one of Capability Brown’s great masterpieces – or Ditchling Beacon, which offers lovely gentle walks along one of the most picturesque parts of the South Downs Way.
Blackberry Wood’s helicopter – or the ‘Holicopter’, as they like to call it – can be booked at £95 per night in high season, and from £55 a night in low season. See the website for details and booking – and see more glamping options at campsites.co.uk.
Where period charm meets contemporary living.
Buyers keen to venture beyond the traditional ought to take a look at one of Britain’s most eye-catching Huf Haus