Swinton Bivouac – Review
by Helen Johnston
“We’re going off grid.” The youngsters looked up from their phones just long enough to ask what that meant. “No electricity, no central heating, and probably no phone signal.” Words to strike fear into the heart of any Gen Z-er who can’t remember a time without a small screen in their hand.
The new decade was fast approaching but we were turning the clock back to simpler times and upping our eco-friendly points at the same time. The (Not So) Famous Five – six if you include the dog – off on our adventure to the Yorkshire Dales. We were heading for a tree lodge at Swinton Bivouac on the 20,000-acre Swinton Estate, near Masham, in Lower Wensleydale.
“Candlelight and torches”
When we arrived at our wooden cabin in the gathering gloom of a mid-winter’s afternoon, I was the daft one looking for a light switch for the first few seconds. It was a sudden shock (no pun intended) to remember that we would be relying on candlelight and torches through the dark hours ahead. Not only that, we had a wood burner stove to light if we wanted any heating.
Luckily there are two former Scouts in the family and the lodge was well-stocked with wood, kindling and firelighters so it wasn’t long before we were bathed in the orange glow of flames, along with candles and tea lights flickering on every surface, and fairy lights twinkling at the door. It was lovely.
As night fell, we were surrounded by the deep, velvety darkness of the middle of nowhere, a pitch-black sky unpolluted by artificial light revealing a blanket of endless stars, shining brightly in a glorious sparkling display. The lodges sleep seven in a triple bunk arrangement and there is a skylight so that, on the top level, you can lie back and star gaze until you fall asleep.
The quiet was tangible. No traffic noise, not even a distant hum, disturbed the air. The only sounds were the occasional hoot of an owl. There really is something special about connecting with nature in this way, feeling part of something bigger. A place to contemplate life, the universe and everything. There is also that primal instinct to gather round a fire at nightfall, which is what we did as we unpacked the various family games we had brought to see us through the screen-less evening.
Our lodge, called Swallows’ Rest, was tucked into one edge of the woods with fantastic views extending far and wide from the verandah, and an ideal starting point for walks. The next morning we were woken by natural light as the sun rose slowly on the horizon, revealing the hard frost clinging to the grass outside our door.
We struggled to get the fire going properly again in the morning but it didn’t matter, it had stayed warm enough for us to get ready before heading out for breakfast. The tree lodges have a gas stove and grill but the Bivouac also has its own café, about a five-minute walk away, where we ate an excellent full English breakfast to set us up for the day ahead.
This is glamping rather than camping and the lodges have the luxury of a bathroom with a flushing toilet and hot water. The water supply comes from a spring and is returned to the stream after passing through a reed bed processing plant. Recycled tin ‘baths’ have been installed as sinks in the bathroom and kitchen, which was well-stocked with crockery and cutlery, and a kettle on the stove. The washing-up liquid was an eco-friendly brand and the furniture is all wooden.
It felt as though we were miles from civilisation and yet we were only about a ten-minute drive along narrow, winding roads, from the Swinton Park luxury hotel and spa. After the rustic charm of our lodge, it seemed a bit decadent to be donning robes and slippers and trying out the spa facilities, but it was the perfect way to relax after a long walk in the crisp Dales air. It has pools both indoors and out, and the full thermal experience with a Finnish sauna, steam room, salt room and herbal sauna scented with seasonal offerings from the gardens.
The outdoor loungers had blankets and fur rugs to snuggle up in after a dip in the natural pool which has bio-filtered and chemical-free water, giving it the feel of wild swimming. The indoor hydrotherapy pool has various massage options which are great for easing tense muscles. The changing rooms were spotless with generous-sized lockers, hair dryers and water fountains. The spa has a café and poolside service as well. Allow plenty of time to make the most of it all.
Swinton Bivouac is within easy travelling distance of Yorkshire cities (we got there from Sheffield in under two hours) so it’s a perfect solution for getting away from it all in a short space of time. It’s also a good spot for doing some exploring of Wensleydale, such as Masham which boasts two breweries. Both Theakstons and Black Sheep have visitor centres where you can enjoy a pint, learn about the brewing process and stock up on beer in the gift shop. We also spent time at Fountains Abbey, about nine miles away, where Christmas carols were being played in the ruins, creating an enchanting atmosphere. It’s a beautiful setting for a winter walk while soaking up centuries of history.
It turned out that we did have a phone signal at the tree lodge. Sighs of relief from the youngsters. But the place had worked its magic and phones were put down and forgotten in favour of stoking the fire, making hot chocolates, and exploring the woods. Maybe it was partly because we were in that weird time warp between Christmas and New Year, but it didn’t seem important to know what was going on in the outside world.
Our short adventure was declared a resounding success and Five Go To A Tree Lodge had a happy ending.
Swinton Bivouac, High Knowle, Ilton, Masham, Ripon, HG4 4JZ
Tel: 01765 535020
For prices and further information go to swintonestate.com