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Born for fun: Hampshire’s Springsteen-inspired glamping site | Hampshire holidays

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‘The Rat’s Sleek Machine” reads the sign on one of three parking spots just inside the gate. Though our battered Toyota wasn’t ever sleek, we know that’s our space, as we are to be the first guests in the Magic Rat, a brand new unit at The Meadow Glamping, near Broughton in rural Hampshire.

Giddy with pleasure at being out of London, and at the prospect of sleeping somewhere other than our bedroom after too many months, we gaze across the sunny field and spot our billet among weeping willows by a small lake. The Rat is a small narrowboat that owner Kate McAllister has added this year to the Meadow’s two other glamping options: Wild Billy’s, a traditional red-and-yellow-painted Gypsy caravan; and Mary’s Place, a hybrid comprising a brightly painted summer house and a catering wagon made into a luxy bedroom with thick carpet, metal bedstead and fairy lights.

Wild Billy’s, a traditional Gypsy caravan
Wild Billy’s, a traditional Gypsy caravan

Trundling our belongings along a bark path called Flamingo Lane, we cross a footbridge and are excited to realise the boat is moored on a little island in the lake. It’s our own watery domain, complete with outdoor fireplace, seating, another summer house and, in a little wooden shed, the (compost) toilet. Daffodils and pansies are blooming everywhere, and the impressive trunk of a ruined oak adds atmosphere. Like many of us, I’ve spent too long indoors this winter, unrelieved even by travel to the office, and this airy space really lifts locked-down spirits.

Across a little gangway, the Rat itself is undeniably compact, with a double bed taking up half the space, bench seat, kitchen area and cast-iron stove converted to burn bioethanol. In restoring it, Kate was eager to avoid the narrowboat cliches of colourful bunting and painted jugs; it instead reflects more contemporary canal lifestyle, with tattoo artwork, curtains made from old pairs of jeans, and repurposed vinyl LPs as porthole covers. Coathooks and curtain rails are bits of copper piping, and “cupboards” are vintage biscuit tins nailed to the walls.

The Magic Rat interior with double bed
The Magic Rat’s compact interior

The two-acre meadow feels very Covid-safe. It would be perfect, in fact, for the most antisocial glamper: each of the three two-person plots has its own “estate” of outdoor seating, firepit, loo and more, and is screened from the others by trees or shrubs. There’s no sharing of facilities: each unit has a dedicated (and themed) shower room, reached along a winding path.

We sit with glasses of wine in the late afternoon as the family’s pet ducks clamber over our feet, a woodpecker pecks loudly, and great tits trill their distinctive “dee-doop” song. We had a big wedding anniversary during lockdown, so I’ve arranged a celebratory dinner from local caterer McCrimmon and Reid (three courses from £28 a head). Kate sends us off on an evening stroll and we return to a table set with candles and fairy lights, and a man approaching with a big box containing our three courses. Pea soup, salmon teriyaki, belly pork and desserts are great – though I make a mental note that not even the best triple-cooked chips keep their appeal after being packed and transported a few miles.

Dedicated shower rooms for units at the Meadow Glamping
Dedicated shower rooms for units at the Meadow Glamping

With its hand-painted signage, chandeliers, hammocks and sparkly stuff, the Meadow feels less like a campsite and more like a boutique festival – albeit with a very select guest list. And I gradually realise who’s headlining – the Boss. The name of our boat comes from Jungleland on the Born to Run album: “And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine/Over the Jersey state line.”

The path to the shower and washing-up area is called “Gypsy Angel Row” – from Spirit in the Night (on Welcome to Asbury Park, NJ). Wild Billy, Mary’s Place and Flamingo Lane are pure Springsteen too. Seems Kate’s a fan …

North-west Hants could end up finding new fans this unusual year: it’s got as many cute villages, woods and rolling hills as any stretch of Devon or Dorset, but probably won’t be quite as busy this summer. Over a couple of days we walk quiet stretches of the Clarendon Way and Test Way long-distance paths, and visit NT house Mottisfont, a few miles away. There’s a buzz in the market town of Stockbridge on the Monday as customers hit shops and cafe terraces for the first time in months, but nowhere is packed, even though it’s the Easter holidays.

In pretty Broughton village there’s a joyous mood in the garden of the Tally Ho pub (table service only). While locals greet long-lost neighbours – “all right Frankie, made it through, then?” – we order from a lunch menu revamped over lockdown (not on the website). I make another mental note: eaten outside, dishes like its tartiflette (potato and bacon gratin with reblochon cheese) and crouton-topped french onion soup, served in deep earthenware bowls, keep their heat and appeal best. The fries are good – OK, I’ve missed chips! – but soon cool in the spring breeze.

The Magic Rat boat on its island, with the Mary’s Place bedroom unit to the right
The Magic Rat boat on its island, with the Mary’s Place bedroom unit to the right.

I say spring. This April has of course seen a freak cold snap, making even glamping challenging. The stove’s ethanol pods last less than an hour, so as it drops below freezing outside, things get pretty bracing. Duvet and throws make the bed cosy, but you need your face exposed to breathe … We wake each morning to frost, and loo visits in nightwear, coat and boots are character-forming as well as comical.

The cold meant we didn’t sample some of the Meadow’s delights: playing tennis on the new grass court, taking the rowing boat out on the lake or watching for trout in the gin-clear Wallop brook. But as temperatures head for the mid and late teens, this will be as idyllic a spot as can be found little more than an hour from west London.

It could be the setting for more Springsteen daydreams. Jungleland continues with a “Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge/Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” Sounds like an English summer.

The trip was arranged by Host Unusual, which lists offbeat and whimsical accommodation across the UK. Stays at The Meadow Glamping cost from £105 a night for two, self-catering, two-night minimum

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