It’s all about wood at this Herefordshire glampsite that offers sustainably sourced structures overlooking the Malvern Hills
A serendipitous encounter made dreams come true for actors Penny Tasker and Will St Clair. Offering timber structures from the quirky to the all-out luxury, guests enter a ‘woodland wonderland’ and can even enjoy working with wood during their stay. We talk to Penny.
What’s you back story – your life before glamping?
My partner Will and I met in London in a Chekhov play and spent the next 10 years travelling the world as actors until Will’s love of green woodwork and my love of yoga, horses and the countryside took over. While living in London we hatched a dream to set up a woodland wonderland incorporating glamping, yoga and a woodwork school – our favourite things!
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
Our journey was a little bit backwards. While most people have land, then decide to add glamping, our glamping dream was formed from inner city London – but we didn’t have the land to make it a reality. On our path to making that happen, the first thing we did was enrol in a ‘How to run a business course’ through the Prince’s Trust. This was very hands-on and they gave us lots of practical advice. They also told us that without a million pound property in a coveted location, our dream was never going to happen! This of course completely broke my heart.
Somewhat deflated, an opportunity then arose for Will to become an apprentice chair builder for an established woodworker at Brook House Woods. We took our life to Hereford and while working one day, Will bumped into the farm owner and got chatting. Serendipitously, he was on the look-out for someone to manage the 65 acres of Forestry Commission regulated woodland and was inspired by our vision and ethos. Within 15 minutes of them speaking we had agreed to take it on! To me, this just goes to show that if you are passionate and inspired to create something, you will attract the right people and opportunities can present themselves – although I will admit we were very lucky!
How did you research the business before entering it?
As we didn’t come from a traditional business background, much of our research was focused on how to run one successfully and was guided by the course and resources available through the Prince’s Trust. We then researched the different types of glamping accommodation available extensively – in particular the price we might be able to charge per night and how that compared with the initial investment cost.
We knew we wanted to offer an eclectic mix of glamping accommodation. We began with one yurt, because they are well established in people’s minds as a glamping experience and are quick and easy to set up. We then added a small ‘hobbit hut’ which gave us something a bit different but was again small and easy to get going. These, alongside the woodworking school, allowed enough income to stabilise us while we took our time researching exactly what else we wanted to offer.
Using sites like Canopy & Stars and Cool Camping allowed us to see what was already on offer and what potential gaps existed. We saw quickly that there was a real demand for tree house stays, and with such beautiful woodland on our site this was a natural next step.
Tell us about your location and site
Our site is mainly woodland with some areas of meadow. We’ve continued to develop the land with a diverse range of areas and habitats which complements our different accommodations. We’ve found getting to know your space and assets particularly important. With such a heavily wooded site, the obvious choice for us was a tree house, particularly given their popularity and high per night prices. However, our woodland is only about 30 years old so we don’t have the large mature oaks required for large, traditional tree houses.
We’ve gone less traditional by incorporating tree cabins and a Tree Tent. These luxurious cabins are elevated slightly and take in the views of the Malvern Hills beyond. Secondly we wanted to add something totally unexpected and get people higher into the tree tops. This is where the Tree Tent comes in. A futuristic, round tree pod suspended high in the canopy, this type of accommodation allowed us to take advantage of our site’s assets – the views and the beautiful ash and oak woodland – while dodging some of the pit falls of traditional tree houses. The Tree Tent is so lightweight it can be suspended from younger trees with no impact on them or the surrounding environment.
How did you tackle getting planning?
Some of our structures, such as the Tree Tent, didn’t require a planning application at all. They are so low-impact all that was required was a land use change application for the glamping site as a whole, which we already had.
We did have to get planning permission for our larger tree cabins, however, as they have formalised drainage. For this my two pieces of advice would be: first, submit a pre-application, and second, use someone local who knows and understands the project, area and the planning department process and people!
Submitting a pre-application allowed us to work closely with the planning office to get our application up to speed and get to know the people at the planning office before the formal submission. As part of this, the planners came to our site where we showed them some of its amazing features, like the rare spotted orchids, that we were really keen to protect.
Completing a pre-application also gave us the opportunity to explain how important it was to us to use sustainable, locally sourced materials and local people. Working like this gave everyone the opportunity to understand the project and we were also able to take on advice and make amendments to the application before it was submitted. And it worked as we passed with flying colours first time!
Secondly, we found a very experienced local architect to complete our drawings. His knowledge of the planning process, the people in the department and the local areas turned out to be invaluable in contributing to our planning application’s success.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We have a yurt because we like yurts; they are quick and easy to put up and a great way to get started while deciding on other structures. Our hobbit hut is small and perfect for couples or as something a bit different, and the high-end tree cabins are fully kitted out with kitchens and bathrooms for the luxury end of the market. The Tree Tent, which is totally bonkers and almost futuristic, is loved by guests and really helps our site stand out from the crowd. Staying in it is an amazing experience!
Describe how you researched and sourced your glamping units?
For the tree cabins we were inspired by the Grand Designs episode with Ben Law and found out that his apprentice, Rudi Meseg, lived locally. So we chatted to him and together formed some ideas. The Tree Tent was suggested to us by Canopy & Stars. We were on the lookout for something really special and different but that came with a strong return on investment. For the yurt, there are so many suppliers out there all we had to do was type ‘Yurt’ into Google to find someone local!
How do you publicise yourself?
We work primarily with glamping booking agency Canopy & Stars. They have been great and incredibly supportive and have really shown us the way in terms of publicising our site. They go above and beyond with their listings and we have featured in many newspapers and magazines as a result of their hard work on our behalf. They have got us a lot of editorial features in magazines and newspapers.
Also, keeping a really strong social media presence through Instagram and Facebook along with a good website has been critical.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
From the very beginning we knew we wanted our glamping site to have a strong sense of place and care for the environment. We source local as much as possible and insist on suppliers, like Tree Tents and Rudi Meseg, who share our vision of quality products that are built to last and have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. Almost everything on our site is handmade in the UK and centred around locally sourced wood.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
By spending lots of time on Pinterest! Our focus is the woodland, and with two skilled woodworkers – Will and Rudi Meseg – much of the interior decoration for our tree cabins is also handmade out of wood. The Tree Tent, being primarily made of wood too, fitted into this aesthetic nicely. We chose a selection of the cleverly designed interior fittings, such as fold out beds, tables and a wood burner, which Tree Tents offers as part of a package so it arrived and was installed ready to go. All we then had to do was throw in a few vintage bits and bobs to make it feel like home!
What challenges have you faced?
Mud. Mud makes things extremely hard and slows everything down. We factored in extra time for all the builds but still ran over. Timber framed buildings become very slippery and quite dangerous to work with, deliveries can’t get into your site and the rain and cold slows everyone down.
After building the three tree cabins it was a relief to have the Tree Tent prefabricated off-site and delivered on a small crate. This meant we could get it into the woodland easily and it was installed in just two days.
What are your plans for next season?
Next season we are developing a new part of the wood where the Tree Tent has been installed. We are planning an entire village high in the canopy where you could spend your entire holiday without planting a foot on the ground. If anyone has any ideas about getting a hot tub up there, let us know!
We are then going to add one of Tree Tents’ other beautifully designed structures, the Firma Shell, and have some exciting ideas to make it our own. Watch this space!
Describe your average day mid-season
It’s pretty cool, I like it! The woodwork school runs separately to the glamping, and Will is usually very busy with that, which leaves me running the glamping!
Our check-in days are Friday, Monday and Wednesday. Guests leave around 11 or 12pm then I need to turn over four or five units before the next guests check in at 4pm. Employing someone on Fridays has been hugely helpful but all check-in days are pretty full on. I also do all the laundry and cleaning myself, which is do-able but busy!
We work with a local caterer called Myrtles Kitchen who delivers hot home-cooked food so when that arrives there is a big rush to get everything to guests, including matching the food with wines from local vineyards. We work with local yoga instructors to run classes for people in the mornings and many of the guests also choose to do a woodwork class. Then there is marketing and general business admin. So lots happening all the time!
Do you enjoy the business?
Absolutely! One of the best things about this business is that the type of people who are attracted to stay here are (usually) really great. Our site is beautifully wild and miles away from anywhere making you feel like it’s just you and the person you are with. People who aren’t up for that just wouldn’t come here and we like the sort of people who are!
The best thing is when people arrive stressed and uptight and leave relaxed after a few days of disconnect saying how much they’ve enjoyed their time. Nothing makes me happier.
What are you most proud of?
Staying true to what we believe, even when it’s been really hard. This means not taking the easy or cheap option to use lower quality products that don’t have good eco-credentials. It can be tempting when you look at the cost difference but I know in the long term it’s the best decision – for our bottom line, our guests and our environment.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We run the Green Woodworking School, which really complements our glamping business and adds a unique point of difference. Many of our glamping guests decide to do one of our short courses. These start at 9am on check-out day, which gives me extra time to turn the units around before the next guests arrive! More serious woodworkers, who complete a week long course, often choose to stay in the glamping units.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Be prepared that through the season (May to September) a glamping business can be all consuming and really full on. Your social life is non-existent and you won’t get much time with friends and family – unless they come to stay with you! But then the winter offers amazing freedom.
If you don’t let year round, you can take big chunks of time off to pursue other things in life. This winter I’m travelling to India to complete my yoga instructor’s course. You can really make this work in your favour, but don’t forget to plan!
Myrtle’s Kitchen www.myrtleskitchen.co.uk
Canopy & Stars www.canopyandstars.co.uk
Brook House Farm
Bromyard, HR7 4LB