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An “All-Encompassing” Stay at Elmley Nature Reserve, An Hour from London


An “All-Encompassing” Stay at Elmley Nature Reserve, An Hour from London

Rebecca Douglas June 21, 2024

Tucked away on an island just 50 miles south of London is Elmley Nature Reserve, a 3200-acre expanse of marshland on the low-lying Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Nine years ago, Georgina and Gareth Fulton took over the reserve from Georgina’s father. He had managed the estate for decades, transforming what was once intensive farmland into an internationally important wetland site that attracts 12,000 visitors a year, most of whom come in winter when the shallow scrapes and ponds are filled with rare migratory birds.

Wishing to broaden the appeal of the reserve, the Fultons invested in a handful of secluded shepherds’ huts, giving visitors the opportunity to stay overnight on the reserve and become fully immersed in the languorous rhythm of the landscape. At the same time, they converted the cavernous, mid-19th century grain store at the centre of the site into a communal event and dining space. A few years later, the neighboring derelict Victorian farmhouse was meticulously restored. Today, Elmley retains that end-of-the-world atmosphere, albeit—quite literally—with added creature comforts.

Let’s take a tour.

the expansive landscape of elmley nature reserve, the uk&#8\2\17;s only nat 17
Above: The expansive landscape of Elmley Nature Reserve, the UK’s only nature reserve you can spend the night on.
the landscape, which is riddled with human made waterways, attracts rare endang 18
Above: The landscape, which is riddled with human-made waterways, attracts rare endangered species, including breeding wading birds such as avocets, owls, marsh harriers, hares, water voles, and dragonflies.

The main hub at Elmley—the café, barn and farmhouse—is at the end of a two-mile track. As you approach, the industry on the shores of the river Swale recedes and unfamiliar shapes appear both on land and in the sky. It’s not unusual to spot the resident barn owl gliding between fence posts, alert hares hunkered in the grass, and lapwings bouncing around on the breeze.

“We really notice the restorative effect that a stay seems to have on our guests,” explains Georgina. “We see people check in feeling harried, after a busy week at work, and they are almost unrecognizable by the time they depart a couple days later, having had time and space to truly relax. It is something about being immersed in nature, the sounds of the wildfowl on the water, waking up to the call of the birds—the visual and sound effects of the reserve. It is all-encompassing.”

dusk at elmley farmhouse, which had stood derelict for 60 years before being tr 19
Above: Dusk at Elmley Farmhouse, which had stood derelict for 60 years before being transformed into a luxurious bed and breakfast.

The 18th-century farmhouse was restored in 2020 and is now a luxury six-room B&B that is also available for group bookings. (Weddings are popular here as there’s ample space for additional bell tents and no neighbors to disturb.) There are three communal rooms that are especially difficult to leave, an intimate dining room for evening meals, and a contemporary kitchen extension where guests gather for breakfast at a shared table. There are views of the expansive marsh from every window.

the moody hued snug at elmley farmhouse. 20
Above: The moody-hued snug at Elmley Farmhouse.

The farmhouse interiors are by Francesca Rowan Plowden: “My inspiration for the rooms at Kingshill Farmhouse came from the vast open skies of Elmley,” she says. “After staying a night in one of huts, before the renovation even started, I was taken by the extraordinary range of colors that enveloped the reserve. They went from the glorious pinks and yellows of the sunrises and sunsets to the dark moody greys, greens, and blues of the coastal storms rolling in.”

the interiors take inspiration from the rosy dawn skies. 21
Above: The interiors take inspiration from the rosy dawn skies.

Beyond the farmhouse, the huts are spaced out across the reserve in their own secluded clearings. “We’ve recently worked with Francesca to make some updates to each of the hut interiors,” explains Georgina. “Nature, the landscape, and the outdoors are again referenced, and are the inspiration for the changes that have been made.”

samphire: one of two traditional shepherd&#8\2\17;s huts at elmley. 22
Above: Samphire: one of two traditional shepherd’s huts at Elmley.
a tub with a view in the elmley room. 23
Above: A tub with a view in The Elmley Room.
the ferryman&#8\2\17;s is one of the larger huts, with room for up to two a 24
Above: The Ferryman’s is one of the larger huts, with room for up to two adults and two children under 10.
guests are advised to sleep with the curtains open so that they are attuned to  25
Above: Guests are advised to sleep with the curtains open so that they are attuned to the gentle awakening of the marsh.

“Our huts have all been designed to position people in nature,” explains Georgina. “Each hut is positioned at a precise angle, carefully thought through to offer the best visual experience, so that guests feel as if they are part of the landscape whilst at the same time feeling shielded and private. This is the same for the Farmhouse rooms. Everything is about the view, whether from the bath or bed.”

elmley new hut interior
Above: The Damson: “The larger huts and cabins have floor-to-ceiling glass fronts from the foot of the bed to offer minimal interruptions to the views across the marsh,” explains Georgina.
bathing under big skies at the vanellus hut, which is named after a genus of wa 27
Above: Bathing under big skies at the Vanellus hut, which is named after a genus of wader bird.
elmley shepherd hut bath deck
Above: Outdoor bathing at The Ferryman’s. All bathrooms—indoor and out—are stocked with D’Orangerie products by Verden, and there’s a small range of wellness treatments available, created in partnership with the founders of Votary and Verden.
the shingle clad roost hut is one of elmley&#8\2\17;s latest additions. 29
Above: The shingle-clad Roost hut is one of Elmley’s latest additions.
elmley courtyard dining
Above: Guests are invited to eat in either in Kingshill Barn, a cavernous converted grain barn, or in the courtyard garden.

For more nature-centric stays, might we suggest:

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Frequently asked questions

What is Elmley Nature Reserve?

Elmley Nature Reserve is a beautiful wildlife reserve located on the Isle of Sheppey in England. It spans over 3,300 acres and offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

What can visitors do at Elmley Nature Reserve?

Visitors to Elmley Nature Reserve can enjoy a range of activities including bird watching, wildlife photography, hiking, cycling, and guided tours. There are also several accommodation options available for those who wish to stay overnight.

What types of wildlife can be found at Elmley Nature Reserve?

Elmley Nature Reserve is home to a diverse range of wildlife. Visitors can spot various bird species including lapwings, redshanks, and avocets. It is also a habitat for marsh harriers, short-eared owls, badgers, hares, and many other animals.

Are there any facilities available at the reserve?

Yes, Elmley Nature Reserve provides several facilities for visitors. These include parking areas, toilets, a café, and picnic spots where you can relax and enjoy the surroundings.

Can I bring my own food to Elmley Nature Reserve?

Yes, visitors are welcome to bring their own food and have a picnic at the designated picnic areas within the reserve. Alternatively, you can also dine at the on-site café which offers a selection of refreshments and snacks.

Are dogs allowed at Elmley Nature Reserve?

Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed at Elmley Nature Reserve as it is a protected area for wildlife conservation. However, assistance dogs are permitted.

Is there an entrance fee to access Elmley Nature Reserve?

Yes, there is an entrance fee to access Elmley Nature Reserve. The current prices can be checked on their official website or by contacting their visitor center.

Can I book accommodation at Elmley Nature Reserve?

Yes, Elmley Nature Reserve offers various types of accommodation including shepherd's huts, rewilded cottages, and luxurious cabins. Reservations can be made online through their official website.

Are there guided tours available at Elmley Nature Reserve?

Yes, guided tours are available at Elmley Nature Reserve. These tours provide visitors with insights into the wildlife, habitats, and history of the reserve. Booking in advance is recommended as spaces can be limited.

Can I bring my camera for photography at Elmley Nature Reserve?

Absolutely! Elmley Nature Reserve is a paradise for photographers. The beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife offer excellent opportunities for nature and wildlife photography.

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