Friday, 20 July 2018

King (combe) for a day

Dorset is a beautiful place, particularly at this time of year. The UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic Coast is one of the best known areas of outstanding beauty here, but the rolling hills, vales, and rivers of the Dorset countryside are just as stunning, if less well known to those who follow the tourist trail.

It’s true to say that many of us (myself included) who live in ‘destination locations’ don’t get out and about to enjoy and experience the places right on our doorstep as much as seasonal visitors do. Often, it’s simply because we’ve become so familiar with them as part of a regular commute or other journey.

As someone with a lifelong interest in science and nature, and learning about and conserving our flora and fauna, I’ve been a supporter of Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) for a number of years. This means I get to hear of places and ‘things’ in the area that are, often, not only important from a scientific and conservatorial perspective, but are also simply beautiful places to visit or see.

The Kingcombe Centre Garden and Orchard, viewed from the Living Van.

The Living Van.
One such place has been on my radar for many years: The Kingcombe Centre, set in Kingcombe Meadows, a 450 acre DWT nature reserve, amidst winding country lanes, meandering rivers, and unspoilt countryside. As well as offering all the things a nature reserve could, the Centre also provides educational courses, workshops, and accommodation – and the latter really is something special.

DWT’s Kingcombe Centre has a holiday cottage and a B&B, but the subject of today’s blog is something much more interesting – the Living Van. This fully restored road-worker's van, or ‘Shepherds Hut,’ is set in Kingcombe Meadows, at the top of the Centre’s orchard and organic gardens.

Secluded, but not too remote, the Van is a wonderful place to camp-out in style. Set in a fenced-off, gated area, the hut sleeps two adults – and our German Shepherd, Indie – in comfort.

The perfect tranquil spot for
a bit of R&R.
Whilst it's very-much old school, it does have some mod cons; electricity, lamps, and even a small log burner with fuel. Oh, and there are cups, wine glasses, plates and cutlery, so all you need to do is bring your food, flannel, and your toothbrush, some food for Fido … and a bottle of something bubbly!

Raise a glass to the Kingcombe
Centre's Living Van.
Inside, it’s a fantastic, comfortable, and private place to retreat from the scorching sun. There’s even a concise selection of books on local flowers, grasses, birds, butterflies, insects … all the things you’re likely to see whilst staying or strolling at Kingcombe.

But you won’t want to stay inside if the weather is fine, so there’s a campfire, a bench big enough for a family gathering, and chairs and log seats, so you can invite your friends for a BBQ around the campfire.

A few yards walk from the Van, at the bottom of the orchard, is a private shower block for the use of Van occupants, and two toilet cubicles, along with fresh running water (don't forget to damp-down after your campfire). And, if you want to say farewell in style, a full breakfast at the Centre's CafĂ©, a few steps from the orchard and showers, is included – and very nice it is, too!

The Living Van is believed to have originally come from Eddison, a haulage factory that thrived in Dorchester from 1868, and would have been paired with a steam roller, of which hundreds were built at the factory. For the road workers, it was the perfect combination of convenience and comfort, and you could take your accommodation with you to the next job.

Indie the GSD felt right at home by the campfire.
A Living Van is a little different from a shepherd’s hut, although the two are very similar. Living Vans have the wheels set under the body, and the door is centred on the steering plate end. The body was built of tongue-and-groove, while shepherd's huts tended to be covered with corrugated iron.

Plankbridge, the company that restored the van, believes the van began its life early in the 1900s, and spent many years behind a steam engine, up until the 1950s. After its road working life, it became a game keeper’s hut, on an estate in North Dorset, before being moved to mid-Dorset’s Greenhill Down, in the 1970s, by the then owner, Angela Hughes. A period of use as ‘holiday accommodation’ by Angela and her two young children was followed by a stint as a base for conservation volunteers working on Greenhill Down nature reserve.

By the late 1990s, it sat quietly unused, disappearing into the vegetation. Greenhill Down and the van were donated to DWT in 2004, and work began on bringing the van back to life. Sadly, Angela died in 2009, but had had a long association with DWT: she received an OBE for her services to conservation.

Plankbridge’s work was painstaking, and the company went to great lengths to adhere to traditional design and techniques, replacing like for like where possible, and retaining any parts that could be reused. The result is a stunning piece of living industrial heritage and social history.

So, aside from DWT’s truly amazing work helping to conserve and protect wildlife, educate and enlighten, and give everyone safe access to our wonderful wild heritage, it also offers a magical, marvellous place to stay, under the trees and stars.

Head over to DWT's website to see just a little of the amazing work it does, in conservation, awareness, education, and more. Visit its shop, support a project, or – better still – join DWT to support all the vital work the charity is doing. And, if you’re feeling a little fried and frazzled, or want to escape to the country, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to relax, unwind, and get back to nature.

Don't forget to follow and like Dorset Wildlife Trust on Facebook and Twitter, too.

The Living Van is perfect for two people and doggy companion, but the roomy bench and seating area, and a campfire in easy reach, makes for a great place for an outdoor gathering with friends.

If you've stayed at the Living Van, or if you know of another great place to stay outdoors, comment below, or get in touch and let us know at and you could find your story on our blog!

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