Practising what he preaches, Charlie and his family are living ‘the Good Life’, with multiple countryside enterprises split between two estates.
In 1990, Charlie Gladstone and his wife Caroline left jobs in music and design and moved from South London to The Highlands of Scotland.
“It was a no-brainer,” says Charlie. “Our first son was six months old and we wanted to live our life in the countryside, surrounded by children, dogs, chickens and horses. So, we packed our bags, sold our house and off we went.”
Starting out with a vintage décor mail order company, Pedlars, he now describes himself as “a farmer, tree grower, property developer, publican, festival owner, holiday entrepreneur, restauranteur, shop keeper, author of two books, podcaster and…”
Glen Dye is a magical place – a private estate of around 30,000 acres with cabins and cottages surrounded by wilderness forest and moorland on the banks of the River Dye. “The location is fabled,” says Charlie, “watched over by the massive granite tor of Clachnaben and at the northern end of the Cairn o Mount mountain pass. This is where the Howe of the Mearns finally gives in to the Highland boundary fault; wild, beautiful and very, very quiet.
“It pulls you in and wraps you in a warm, gentle, inspiring embrace. It has been in my family for seven generations, since the 1840s.”
Charlie and Caroline knew that the main house was in poor condition. “It had no heating and no functioning electricity. But it is a beautiful house in an incredible location and we had sold our home in London so were armed with the cash, optimism and energy to renovate it.
“But perhaps we should have been paying better attention when we agreed to take on the wider estate. Or perhaps someone should have pointed out a few simple things to us; that the place was on its knees, deep in debt and profoundly neglected! Actually, I’m not sure that would have changed our minds, such was the lure of this special place.”
The couple soon realised they had taken on an insolvent business, over 20 derelict houses, several neglected farms, tumbledown farm buildings and a small, disillusioned team.
“In between other jobs that allowed us to pay our way, and with help from a massively supportive bank (yes, there is such a thing) and a fine team of people, we slowly started to renovate the place. It was often very hard. It took around 25 years. But we loved Glen Dye with a passion bordering on insanity (it does that to people, this place) and that drove us forward. And now we’re there; houses fixed, farms working, buildings renovated, people positive and happy.”
“We always wanted to create a holiday business,” says Charlie. “To welcome people to this unusually wonderful place. And we knew that we wanted to do things really well, to be world class; original, unusual, beautiful, comfortable.”
Over the course of 20 years, Charlie and Caroline did just that. In 2018, Glen Dye Cabins & Cottages launched.
“We currently have four perfect holiday cottages, each with outdoor, wood-fired hot tubs and one with its own private cabin. By Easter we will have opened another six. We have also converted the old estate sawmill into a private outdoors paradise; there’s a 1955 Airstream with a giant bed, a fully restored foresters’ kitchen and sitting room, a spectacular outdoor shower and a wood-fired hot tub. These cabins and cottages combine jaw dropping wild locations with perfect comfort and style.
“Guests are welcome to stay in our bell tents or bring their own and can visit our horsebox trailer for fresh, organic vegetables and fruit from the vegetable garden as well as eggs from our hens. There’s also a beautiful timber sauna to enjoy, handcrafted in North Wales by Heartwood.”
Exceptional design is evident throughout the properties, with Young Architects of the Year, NORD, creating both the Hay Loft and No 4 Steading Cottage. “This semi-detached house was designed in 2012 as part of a full conversion of a set of then derelict Victorian farm buildings. It is heated by a central wood chip burner and was built to a strong aesthetic and environmental brief,” says Charlie.
“We were only open for a year when the pandemic hit but I am very confident that the enterprise will be profitable after three years; we invested £550k and have worked with total focus on quality. Guests have come in their droves; it’s wonderful.
“We have used family assets and our own cash and expertise, and the combination has worked well. At the moment Caroline and I work with three of our daughters.”
Glen Dye has a number of spots to host wedding ceremonies. “My pick would be down at The Saw Mill or The Old Lodge Paddock, ideal for erecting marquees and offering camping pitches for guests.
“The cottages and cabins can sleep 40 people and the Byre at the Steading can seat 30 for dinner. We hire out a wedding co-ordinator at an hourly rate.”
The Good Life Experience
In 2015, Charlie and Caroline co-founded the Good Life Experience festival at their other estate in North Wales (see Open Air Business – Issue 1). “It’s held at our Hawarden Estate and is a festival of music, food, ideas, craft and the great outdoors,” he says. “It isn’t profitable yet – we were getting there but then the pandemic hit. We are six years into the project and it has been far more difficult than I thought. Our overhead (site manager, accountant, marketing, design etc) is £150k and much of that has had to continue to be paid despite postponement/cancellation. We’ve probably invested £600k since we started – a mix of savings and bank funding.
“Moving forward I feel that smaller, higher-ticket events will work well for us and this year we are launching Summer Camp, a 15 day event for 100 people a day. We have events at both Hawarden and Glen Dye.”
A lot of the recipe for success will come from Glen Dye’s tried and tested mini residential events, Camp Glen Dye, which have already sold out for 2021.
“It is an immersive camp for those who are passionate about wild cooking, food and making with some of Britain’s finest chefs and artisans. We charge £995 for four nights and have capped numbers for this year at their current levels to ensure we deliver a world class experience within the necessary Covid guidelines.”
Making it work
Charlie is a confident ideas man. “I have never done research; I am too impatient and too sure of my own opinions. I also have strong confidence in my taste because with our online business Pedlars we sold hundreds of thousands of items, all chosen by me. We endlessly change – every day. My profound belief is that inertia is slow death so I empower my teams to embrace change and change their minds. We try and keep ahead of the competition by being fearless in executing what we believe is right.
“I can find inspiration at every turn, everywhere that I look. My original inspirations for starting a retail business were Sir Paul Smith and Sir Terence Conran. I also find young people massively inspiring, especially my children. I am immensely proud of my six children, and 33 years of marriage.”
As well as his feelings about inertia, Charlie operates by the principles of ‘build it and they will come’. “I am also an advocate of working hard and being nice to people.”
And work hard he certainly does. Charlie also owns a farm shop at the Hawarden Estate and nearby pub – the Glynn Arms – which he has been converted into a community shop during lockdown.
Glen Dye Estate Office
Bridge of Dye Steading
Banchory AB31 6LT
Listen to Charlie’s podcasts at www.charliegladstone.com