A chance TV encounter led to the development of an eco-tourism business, but this couple has faced some huge challenges including losing many hundreds of trees and almost half a hand…
Husband and wife Charles Hooper and Lisa Aitken grew up two miles from each other in West Sussex, but having run parallel lives in Paris then Sydney in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they finally met in London almost 20 years ago. Lisa inherited her family home in 2008 and they set about thinking of ways they could derive an income from a six acre plot of land including three and half acres of an old, coppiced ash woodland.
In 2009 Charles, a TV commercials producer turned landscape designer, was a participant in the green woodworking episode of BBC show ‘Mastercrafts’. “It was a life changing experience,” says Charles, “and green woodworking has since become a passion, which I have been teaching for the last decade. Lisa and I had similar interests in horticulture and Lisa developed a keen interest in permaculture and specifically forest gardening. We combined our knowledge and skills and launched Forest Garden Shovelstrode in 2010”.
The property near East Grinstead has been in Lisa’s family for over 50 years and comprises a paddock where Lisa used to keep her pony, woodland and a small copse which is home to half a dozen chickens. “The question quickly became: how can we sustain a living from such a small piece of land?” We decided to teach people different ways of living more self-sufficiently through a variety of woodland craft course. We began by running courses in bee keeping, green woodworking, clay oven building, hurdle making, willow weaving and bronze casting. Our first yurt was initially used for coffee breaks, and then we turned it into over-night accommodation. It proved to be so popular, we soon built another yurt.
“This was pre the ‘glamping revolution’ of 2010, and in 2015 we created a beautiful log cabin. We built the cabin ourselves from western red cedar. When the local planning officer was inevitably notified, we explained it was built by ourselves and our course students, and he was impressed with the level of craftsmanship. He advised us to apply for retrospective planning, which we did. We were then later able to apply for full permission to use the cabin as guest accommodation”.
Charles points out that it is well worth thinking ahead when undergoing any planning application, and to apply for any additional structures and expansion plans all in one go, even if it takes many years to reach that stage in the actual development of the business.
“Our first big planning application was very time consuming, and also hinged on us getting an EU grant to complete the works. We were turned down for the grant initially, but we produced a short film garnering local industry support, and finally won them over! The second retro application for the cabin was surprisingly easy, apart from the one annoying neighbour who objects to absolutely everything and sits on both the parish and district council! However our third application in 2017 to build three more cabins was even harder and much more expensive. We met every council objection, but then had to pay a hefty CIL (community infrastructure levy) for each cabin, which completely negated the impact of a second EU grant we had been awarded”.
Having secured the final part of their planning in 2018, the couple faced a disaster in 2019 when the Forestry Commission confirmed their worst fears, that the woodland was badly infected with Chalara, ash dieback disease. “Most of our woodland at that time was coppiced ash (about 85%), which had originally been grown as fuel for the Wealden iron industry. We had built our business within the woodland, and the yurt decks were cut around the trees. Thankfully we hadn’t opted for treehouses!”
Over the next 15 months trees were removed, in the first phase by hand felling, and in the final phase with the help of a 23 tonne excavator with tree shears, which was much more efficient. “We had initially hoped we might be able to save some of the healthier looking trees, but the level of disease was rife and so we bit the bullet and went all in. The first phase was completed just in time to open for the first lockdown! We finally re-opened for business in summer 2020, but we closed down again in the autumn to complete the final phase of forestry and replanting”.
It was never Lisa and Charles’ intention to add ‘woodland management’ to their job roles. “We haven’t had any financial assistance with the project and we have had to take out a very large loan at just the wrong time. We are now very busy managing a regenerating woodland! Despite my training as a landscape designer, I have little previous experience in designing a woodland, but it has been an incredible process.
“Very soon after the trees were removed and the hazel understory was cut to the ground, by the spring of 2021 the dormant seedbank exploded in riot of colour. Many wildflowers appeared including red campion, ragged robin, foxgloves, bluebells, woodspurge, orchids, dog rose and columbine to name a few. There are many new saplings, and we have planted more than 1,000 mixed native and non-native trees. The hazel has shot up more than two metres in the first year with all the available light, and now instead of a closed canopy of magnificent ash trees, we have a horizontal view of a wall of vibrant greens, with big blue skies ahead as you wander through.
“We now have a wide variety of trees to create a diverse woodland that is more resistant to future threats of disease and climate change. It has been an unexpected privilege to design, and is a legacy for future generations to enjoy”.
The Forest Garden and wildlife pond was created 12 years ago in Lisa’s old paddock. “During its infancy it was cradled and nurtured by the ancient ash woodland behind it. Now with the large trees removed, the support roles have been reversed as the established forest garden looks out over an emerging woodland,” says Charles. “The forest garden is based around growing a wide variety of useful and mostly edible plants, within the seven canopy layers, from root zone to upper canopy. It is like three dimensional perennial vegetable gardening!
“And of course, there is the wildlife that the process of opening up woodland glades has encouraged. The site is now teaming with woodpeckers, mice, owls, rabbits, deer, sparrowhawks and buzzards”.
Not really ‘glamping’
Being totally immersed in nature is one of the main attractions to guests at Forest Garden Shovelstrode. The accommodations are off-grid, and are comfortably and tastefully appointed with many handcrafted items and furniture. “There is no Wi-Fi in the woods! Although there is a good 4G signal for any digital nomads,” Charles admits. “We don’t offer hot tubs, flat screen TVs or Nespresso machines either! We offer ‘back to basics’ luxury camping in secluded and tranquil surroundings, for discerning eco tourists and green travellers.
“There is a great deal of variety of accommodation in a now very heavily saturated market. We are clear about what we offer and we are very experienced in dealing with all types of enquiries. In managing people’s expectations, we may sometimes recommend a more appropriate site”.
The yurts are shut from November to February but the cabins are open all year round. “The yurts are remarkably resilient,” says Charles. “We’ve had them up for more than 10 years continually, although now with many trees removed they are much more exposed, and when storm Eunice hit us, we were both holding a yurt down and having to lash it to the deck in 90mph winds!”
Guests enjoy hot showers and flushing toilets in the converted old generator house. “Rather than trying to educate guests on the theory and proper use of composting loos, we decided to completely overhaul the old sewage treatment plant that was on the property. We found the original plans that were over 100 years old in the family records, and had all new components manufactured in stainless steel. The upgraded system now runs brilliantly and should last at least another 100 years!”
The on-site café and shop sells produce made on the site including Forest Garden honey, homemade jams and chutneys, Charles’ greenwood crafts and their own apple juice.
On the telly
Forest Garden Shovelstrode has enjoyed some great TV exposure on both Made in Chelsea and Four in a Bed. “We came a resounding last,” says Charles. “Not surprisingly, as producers do like to put apples with oranges to make good TV. The competition is also very much based on breakfast and neither of us had poached an egg before so we were looking up Jamie Oliver’s ‘perfect poached egg method’ while trying to cook breakfast! We have had some great PR from the TV appearances, with 4IB being frequently repeated on various channels around the globe at which time our analytics go through the roof! It has had a very positive effect on our bookings over the years”.
The business also does a lot of location work. “About 10% of our turnover comes from film, TV and photoshoots and producers seem to really like us. They choose our location because of the many photographic options that we have. However once for a fashion shoot the agency booked the entire site and then just photographed a couple of kids on a log pile and cleared off! They could do that anywhere, but here there are many different shots and lots of great props available to them, and being just 55 mins from London Victoria makes it an easy choice. We also have the on-site café, production office and facilities which is preferable to shooting out in the sticks”. It helps too that Charles started off his career as a film location manager!
The site is the perfect space for intimate boutique weddings. “We only host small weddings. 50-80 people works perfectly, although we’ve had a wedding for 120 people before. We can sleep 24 in shared beds, and have several additional camping pitches in woodland glades for bell tents etc. There’s also room in the car park for a couple of camper vans.
“We have many hen weekends, and we do generally attract the right kind of hens who enjoy being in nature and not those who’d rather be on a Brighton pub crawl. However one bonkers group covered themselves in fluorescent sun screen war paint, and lined up multiple vodka shots on a fallen tree before getting dressed up as giant teddy bears for a game of hide and seek in the woods! They were spotted darting from tree to tree by guests attending one of our chair making courses”.
Since Covid, the business has also been looking at the corporate retreat market and promoting team building and wellness days. “We had a couple of yoga retreats last year with one donated to NHS employees. We have more planned for 2022 and a women’s menopause retreat planned for September”.
The site is promoted via its website, social media and though Canopy and Stars for its overnight accommodation. “Long gone are the days when you could create a website with some keywords and expect to be rewarded by Google search. Unless you pay, you’re going to end up on page 15, whatever you write. We advertise on various platforms including social media which reaches people who have expressed an interest in what we’re doing, rather than from a specific search. The whole advertising landscape has dramatically changed since my day and it’s hard keeping up!”
Charles is not alone in reporting a lull in this year’s bookings. “It has been slow to gain traction this year. People seem to genuinely have a desire to travel overseas again, and there is now a huge over supply of people with a field and some tents, whose interest was piqued last year with a captive market and the 56 day rule. Add to that spiralling inflation and the threat of World War III and it’s understandable why many operators are hoping for last minute bookings.
“This is our twelfth year and we are well established in what we do, and experienced at holding our nerve in difficult times. As the whole industry has grown exponentially in the last couple of years, it’s important that we crystallize our own unique offering, and accurately target our segment of the market. Glamping is no longer a label that accurately describes what we offer. We are not for everyone, and vice versa! Our plans to build a wood-fired sauna and complete the natural swimming pond will soon resume as we continue to grow and develop our eco-tourism business.”
Operations are managed by Charles, Lisa, two housekeepers, Sarah and Silke, and ‘Saturday lad’ Alfie (Sarah’s son). “I really look forward to seeing Alfie,” says Charles. “I have sustained a lot of injuries developing this business and leave all my big heavy jobs for him. He started when he was 14 and is now a strapping 6’4” 18 year old”.
Among these injuries is a broken back, a shoulder the requires completely replacing and a reattached hand, an incident that traumatised for life an unsuspecting WWOOF’er (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
“I was showing Sarah, our new WWOOFER how to use a carving axe and misjudged my strike. A momentary lapse in concentration. I cut my hand in half so it was attached by not very much at all. Lisa wasn’t answering her phone and when I realised this girl couldn’t drive, I uttered something like: ‘Great – I’m just two miles from a hospital but I’m going to bleed out in the woods!’ Fortunately I was rescued by Lisa who came running down to the woods, but poor Sarah fled that night while I was still in hospital and left a note saying she couldn’t cope!”
The story doesn’t end there though… Following an operation to reattach everything, Charles snapped a tendon while doing his physio, underwent another operation in which the anaesthetic wore off and had an allergic reaction to the penicillin. Then drugged up on steroids and heavy duty painkillers it was his and Lisa’s wedding the next morning. “The only memories I have of that day are from the photographs!”
Charles still has the axe, safely in its leather sheath in a cupboard. “It has my DNA on it and I am keeping it there so that one day I may be able to create a clone and hand everything over to my younger, more energetic self!”
Forest Garden Shovelstrode
West Sussex RH19 3PH