Go off-grid at Elmley Nature Reserve, a 3,300-acre conservation-led escape under an hour from London, with stylish shepherd’s huts, cosy cabins and secluded bell tents looking out on a vast, wildlife-packed landscape. The homely hut interiors feature cast-iron radiators, wood-burning stoves and ash-branch beds topped with Romney Marsh wool throws – but don’t forget to venture outdoors. The Kingshill Farmhouse has individually styled rooms and charmingly rustic living spaces. Trails lead from your door out across the wetlands, where barn owls glide over the reeds at dusk and flocks of birds swarm in the gigantic skies. It’s time to ditch digital and re-wild.
Get this when you book through us:
Staying in a hut? You’ll get locally made cookies; if you've hired out a cottage or the Farmhouse you'll get a bottle of English sparkling wine
10:30am, check-in 3pm, but both are flexible, subject to availability.
Double rooms from £120.00, including tax at 20 per cent.
At the hotel
Free WiFi in communal areas and in the Kingshill Farmhouse and Elmley Cottage. In rooms: Roberts digital radio (in the cottage and Farmhouse only), kettle, tea and coffee, fire wood, Verden bath products. There’s a projector and DVD player which can be used on request.
Our favourite rooms
Each of the large huts has bifold doors opening out onto goosebump-inducing views across the landscape. All cabins and large huts have the extra allure of an outdoor vintage bath tub. The Damson also has a hammock above the bed, if you’ve got a mini Smith in tow.
Treatments by British brands Votary and Verden – in one of the reserve's Swale Studios, which look out to the namesake river – can be booked.
In summer months don’t forget your towel; the reserve's private Cockleshell beach is a fine spot for an afternoon dip.
The Linhay is wheelchair accessible, and there’s a ground-floor bedroom in the cottage, too.
All ages are welcome in the Shepherds Huts, where travel cots can be added upon request, and both cottages.
Babies and up
The huts have handy kitchenettes as well as hanging hammocks and pull out beds, but larger families should go for Elmley Cottage or Kingshill Farmhouse for maximum personal space.
The property's in-house guide offers tours of the reserve, and during school holidays they offer plenty of additional kids activities. On rainy days there’s plenty to keep idle hands busy too – children’s books, board games and colouring books.
You can order dishes for kids and grown-ups to your cabin, and a wide range of mealtime kit is available to borrow on request – including highchairs, bibs, beakers and cutlery.
No need to pack
A travel cot, baby bedlinen, a changing mat or a potty.
Some paths are shingle or grass, so bring a sturdy, off-road-ready buggy if possible – or prepare to carry your tyke in a sling.
Naturally. All fresh ingredients are seasonal and sourced from local farm shops, and meat is pasture-fed. The hotel generates its own electricity, and conservation is key: sheets aren’t washed every day for stays of longer than one night in an effort to save water. Food waste and coffee granules are used for compost, there are water butts to collect rainwater and power comes from solar panels. Huts are built from local and reclaimed wood and they’re well-insulated to reduce heat loss. Natural cycles and habitats are respected – so bees, moths and butterflies are left undisturbed.
Though there isn’t a traditional restaurant, there’s no going hungry or having to forage your own food here. Whether it’s breakfast in bed you’re after (a ‘Kentinental Breakfast’ anyone?), a lunchtime picnic, or a warming two-course dinner, Elmley can deliver delicious, locally sourced hampers directly to your door. They can even set you up in a secluded spot on the reserve, with barn owls and stars for company.
The Linhay is a rustic space with a wood-burner, games and books; a cosy spot for snacking away throughout the day or a nightcap. It’s not serviced, but is stocked with tea, coffee and snacks (honesty-policy applies). If you’re in the market for something stronger, the team will be happy to mix up drinks on request.
You’ll find the reserve on the south coast of the Isle of Sheppey, where the Thames Estuary opens out into the North Sea.
Elmley is just an hour from London City Airport, and a little more from Gatwick (Heathrow is around an hour and forty minutes away, if the M25 is kind to you). You can fly into London from just about anywhere in Europe, along with most international hubs around the world. An Uber from City Airport will cost around £70.
Take the one-hour train from London (Victoria, Stratford International or St Pancras) to Sittingbourne, which is eight miles from Elmley. From there, you can take a 20-minute taxi, or change and catch a train to Swale, just three miles from the reserve.
Driving is the easiest way to get to and from Elmley, and it’s handy to have your own car for exploring the local area. Hire from the airport, or from a car rental company in central London.
Worth getting out of bed for
You don’t have to go far for a little wildlife watching – just draw the curtains and scan the marshes for hares, owls and birds of prey. Then pull on your wellies and follow endless paths through the wetland wilderness yourself. With you appetite well and truly worked up, order a home-cooked meal to your hut, or skip straight to dessert with toasted marshmallows around the firepit. Above all, give your screens a rest (there’s no WiFi anyway), and gaze at the stars instead.
Beyond the reserve itself, there’s plenty to explore. Go antique-hunting in the market town of Faversham, then drive out to the Brogdale Collections, home of the National Fruit Collection – take your pick from over 4,000 types of fruit, and sign up to classes in cider-making, basket-weaving and grafting. Think of a fairytale castle and it’ll probably look a lot like Leeds Castle (Maidstone), with stone turrets towering over the moat; there’s a mighty maze to tackle, and if you time your visit well you might catch a mediaeval jousting tournament, too. If you’re after seaside strolls and good old fashioned fish ‘n’ chips, set your sights on Whitstable; if July’s Whitstable Oyster Festival is on, even better. Minster Leas is a Blue Flag beach fit for a summer paddle or sprawl on the sand, while Shellness beach, on the eastern tip of Sheppey, is made entirely of – you guessed it – shells (fair warning, its other claim to fame is its tolerance for nudity). From Whitstable, take a slow-and-steady sailing barge along the Kent coast, passing Second World War forts, wind farms, and a bunch of birdlife on the way.
By all means, go to Deal Pier Kitchen for the unique location (on the end of the pier, with views over the water and back to the seafront), but the food deserves your attention too – especially the full English brunch of local sausages and organic eggs served on sourdough toast. Macknade (Selling Road) is a café crossed with a kitchen larder; sit in with platters of cheese and charcuterie, or pick up picnic supplies from the farm shop. For a Sunday roast with all the trimmings, get thee to The Lighthouse (50 The Strand); it’s an arts venue too, so check out the timetable for upcoming gigs. Fancy dinner: The Sportsman (Faversham Road) is a beloved gastropub drawing produce from the local area – so expect the likes of thornback ray fillet with brown butter and cockles, or salt-baked celeriac with Kentish apples.
Canterbury’s 19th-century city gaol has been converted into The Pound (1 Pound Lane), an upscale cocktail bar with Chapel Down English wines in the cellar, Curious beers on tap, and a waterside terrace overlooking the River Stour. Prison has never been so appealing…
'We’re going to a naturist resort?' asks Mr Smith, eyebrows raised. 'Well, we won’t need to pack much then.' I hate to disappoint him, but he’s slightly misheard me. We’re off to Elmley Nature Reserve. Less only-wearing-Birkenstocks, more birds.
If you know your lapwing from your lark you’ve probably already heard of Elmley. This 3,300 acre site is one of the biggest bird-watching spots in the UK and the only nature reserve in the country where you can spend the night.
But we’re not talking about bedding down in a bird-watching hide. At Elmley there’s a cottage sleeping 10 which can be rented for self-catering stays and a selection of luxury shepherd’s huts and cabins, complete with outdoor bath tubs and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Our taxi driver at Sittingbourne station (just an hour from central London) gives the first hint that we’re headed somewhere fairly isolated. He wants to warn us that the 15-minute drive to Elmley could take substantially longer. 'There could be a cow in the road,' he explains, matter-of-factly.
As we cross over the bridge from the Kent mainland to the Isle of Sheppey we’re greeted by the vast, flat landscape and some big open skies. If wanting to feel a million miles from the city but travelling less than 50 is the aim, we’ve come to the right place.
We’ll be staying in the Kingshill Farmhouse. Our room feels like sleeping inside a ray of sunshine, with canary-coloured walls, a roll-top bath which looks out over the salt marshes, a rain shower, his and hers sinks, and two soft pink velvet armchairs. The oil paintings of nudes in our room might be the closest we get to seeing others in the buff, but this room is still very sexy indeed.
We think about joining one of the daily guided walks, but decide to get acquainted with the Great Indoors instead. This is our first break as a couple since having our daughter, so you’ll forgive our, ahem, laziness.
The super king bed, complete with woollen blankets and ridiculously plump cushions, is just too inviting. Little touches like a Roberts Radio, Verden toiletries in the bathroom and mini hot water bottles elevate this way above your usual country hotel stay.
Just before dinnertime we amble downstairs to the drawing room, where the woodburner is ablaze and there are board games and books aplenty.
It’s like every cottagecore fantasy you’ve ever had, without having to get up at dawn to milk the cows. Instead, a little basket of teas and coffees and a tiny glass bottle of fresh milk is delivered to the door of our room early the next morning and we drink our brews in bed before slipping down for our 'Kentinental Breakfast', a still-warm croissant, served with home-made jam, and berries, yoghurt and granola.
Cooked breakfasts like truffle mushrooms on toast or farmhouse baked eggs can be ordered on request and if you’re staying in one of the huts, breakfast can be delivered to your bed in a hamper.
Eventually we make it out for our first walk and it’s the perfect terrain for city types like me who are incapable of reading maps, as there’s really only one track to follow so it’s impossible to get lost.
Following this path takes you to four different hides for spotting all sorts of birds which change depending on the season. We’re here in the autumn and so could potentially spot buzzards, peregrine falcons and sandpipers (not that we’d really recognise them if we did). And when it comes to going off-grid, aside from one chap with a very large camera lens (not a euphemism), we don’t see any other people at all.
We get in touch with our inner Bill Oddie by getting surprisingly excited when we spot a kestrel (it could have been a kestrel) hovering and then dive-bombing for prey in the marshes. But mainly we just gaze out over the meadows and up at the wide blue sky, where murmurations of starlings seem to be doing their dance just for us.
Our afternoon is spent reading, soaking in the gargantuan tub and doing that activity that all new parents secretly do when they finally get a much-longed-for break away from their offspring: scrolling through endless pictures of their child on their phone.
Suddenly it’s almost dusk and we decide to squeeze in one more evening stroll. We hear owls in the trees and frogs in the reeds, and even spot a hare which glances in our direction and then quickly scarpers. It’s a little alarming when a tiny little snake slithers off the path.
There’s plenty to do on the island if you are feeling active – maritime museums, award-winning pubs and very old churches. But for us a visit to Elmley was a chance to reset, switch off and do not very much at all. Spotting all that wildlife was an added bonus.
We vow to come back here in the summer, if only to find the secret beach for a wild swim. That sounds like the kind of place where naturism would be very much encouraged.