Meet James Lynch, who together with his family has created a business turning over £2million in a remote spot on the Ceredigion coast. Louise Creasy investigates.
“Sometimes what you want is right in front of you. All you have to do is open your eyes and see it.” These are the wise words of Meg Cabots, an American author, and a quote that I’m sure James Lynch could relate to. When he and his family were looking for a change they headed to New Zealand, but within weeks realised that what they were looking for they already had.
“After my partner, Sian, and I left art school in 1981, she specialised in textiles and illustrations for children’s books and I was doing graphics and exhibitions,” he says. “After four years and with some money we saved up and the help of a bank loan, we bought a former furniture warehouse on Old Street in Shoreditch where we lived. We divided the space into studios and rented it out to our art school pals.
“This was the decade that Shoreditch started evolving into a village of visionary pioneers, as people like me began taking over warehouses for visual artists, fashion designers and other creatives to move into. It was the start of my career in property development and we were having a great time. We had lots of friends, and there was just so much energy, but things took a turn for the worse when the recession of the early nineties hit. I lost my shirt – I didn’t quite go bankrupt but it was very bleak for a few years as we had to rebuild everything again. It certainly made me more cautious in business.
“Fast forward 10 years and the place was again a hub of activity, but it was less hippy and more hipster – big-name developers and architects were heavily investing in the area as lofts, former theatres and railway arches came into high demand. Shoreditch was becoming increasingly ‘cooler’, and the city bankers, lawyers and other professionals were starting to move in. We had changed too though; we had four young boys and wanted to take our lives in another direction.
“We decided to go to New Zealand – I played rugby with kiwis and worked with a lot of them and always felt at ease. Sure enough, the people were great and the country was beautiful, but it made us realise that what we were hankering for we had. It was where the boys had spent every summer, it was where Sian’s parents lived, and it was a place we knew really well: west Wales. Six weeks later we moved to our holiday home on the beach.”
Living the dream
At this point – the beginning of 2004 – James happened upon a derelict, but magnificent listed farmhouse that had been for sale for over a year and was 20 minutes from where the family was living. It was extremely neglected and hadn’t been lived in for 10 years but sat within 200 acres, surrounded by a river estuary, wildlife reserve and just moments from the coast. The family believed that it would be possible to create something from it, James’ words were ‘this is the beginning’, and so they bought it.
The dream was born: Sian and James would use the experience and skills they had honed over the years to create a new type of rural escape promoting the best Wales had to offer. Somewhere for families and friends to holiday that would combine the life-enhancing embrace of the outdoors with comfort, great facilities, local food and the same friendly welcome that they received in New Zealand.
They applied for planning permission to build eco-friendly lodges within the woods but kept getting turned down. It’s not a word that James likes to use, but ‘glamping’ wasn’t even added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2016 and at this point sustainable luxury retreats were an unknown concept to most. Two years on, when James finally got consent for 24 units of different tent types, he discovered that local residents were opposed to the idea on the grounds that they affiliated the word ‘eco’ with environmental protestors, such as Swampy.
“There’s been a shift in public perception and now, of course, people have realised what my ecological intentions meant and they can see that with what we’ve done,” says James. “When we started we thought about different ways of reducing our carbon footprint, and over the years we’ve tried to use sustainable materials for most of our buildings, and incorporate eco-friendly cooking, heating, lighting and sanitary facilities.”
The Lynch family began with four geodesic domes and a few Scandinavian tipis and in 2007 the first paying guests arrived. By this point the recession was looming so the farmhouse renovations took a back seat (until late 2015), while they focussed on building the business slowly and organically.
Places and spaces
Almost 13 years later, and Fforest Farm has a range of unique tented and converted farm building accommodations and facilities – all designed and project managed by James. There are also lots of places to eat, drink, gather and have fun, including The Lodge where breakfast and supper is served during the main holiday season and for special events, and Y Bwthyn (The Bothy or Cottage), which is the site’s own little pub. Adjoining a 300 acre nature reserve, Fforest is also able to offer a wealth of activities from canoeing and wild swimming to archery and walking. “People get a lot out of not very much, and the outdoor activities make the best of our beautiful surroundings,” he says.
Besides Fforest Farm, there are two other sites. Cardigan Quayside, on the banks of the Teifi, is home to the PizzaTipi where guests can enjoy wood-fired pizzas, Tafarn Smwglin (Smugglers Inn) serving Welsh beers, ciders and spirits, and an events venue, which was once the town’s coal yard. Directly across the river at Teifi Wharf are beautifully restored Granary lofts, created within what was one of the town’s main maritime warehouses. James had already acquired these some years ago to justify spending the family’s entire summer holidays in the area – he thought that one day they would be a great project.
And then down the estuary and up the coast, Manorafon is the sea camp, comprising cabins, tented accommodation, and Ty Manorafon, another restored farmhouse that sleeps eight. It is a converted dairy farm and some of the rustic buildings are still in place but serve different purposes – the stable is now the communal relaxing area, and the cedar barrel sauna and firepit are further additions. The sites can accommodate 150 guests in existing accommodation, with the possibility to add a temporary tented village for larger events.
“While we were founded on family holidays embedded in nature, we also host weddings in each of our three locations, although only during school term time,” says James. “There is an early and late season for weddings and we host around 25 a year and each one averages around 120 guests. Weddings account for 40 per cent of the business so financially they’re very important to us. Holiday accommodation accounts for 30 per cent, events 10 [more on that later] and catering 20, which is actually a very important aspect of what we do.”
Being a wedding venue however was never on the family’s radar. “In 2008 Guy and Kathryn, a couple who had stayed with us in that first year, asked if they could have their wedding with us. We said no, we weren’t set up for it and that it was too much of a responsibility, but they were so enthusiastic and insistent on working together to make it happen that we gave in. We’re so glad that we did – it was a lot of fun and we were very satisfied that we managed to pull it off. They chose us because we weren’t a formula and they saw that they could have an event that would be unique and memorable, and it was.”
The first few weddings were with people the family had already built a relationship with, but as they started to promote that side of the business it wasn’t long before they gained a reputation. Since then Fforest has hosted hundreds of weddings, and the press coverage that has been attracted speaks for itself. “When a bride- and groom-to-be propose a campsite wedding it must horrify some parents, but on the day they realise it’s quite different. We offer a venue that’s deep within the forest but all wrapped up with touches of luxury and practicality in terms of the accommodation and different venues we can provide. The menu is similarly fantastic, boasting the very best seasonal food the local area has to offer. We grow all of our own veg too, and we now have plans to home rear all of our own meat, so weddings can be grown to order.”
As the business grew, and the couple gained experience from holding weddings, things took another twist in direction as they decided to put on their first event in 2016. Gather, which is billed as a ‘new kind of holiday’, is essentially two six-night family friendly gatherings held in the middle of summer. With an emphasis on nature, music, culture, making, growing and simple pleasures, it makes the best of all Fforest has to offer, as a revolving cast provides workshops and outdoor activities during the day and evening. The events are restricted to 300 people, and guests can camp or stay in one of the accommodations on site. “It’s like a collective of friends, the atmosphere is so wonderful. All the creative stuff is part of our DNA and when you combine that with the entirely unspoilt quality of the environment – this stunning, fantastic wilderness, and our simple but very tasty food – it really provides a magical experience for our guests.”
Fforest also offers Glow Camps, which are creative four-day retreats – one in the winter, one in the summer – for women to learn new skills, reconnect with nature and eat delicious food. With workshops offering activities such as dying, weaving, cooking and preserving, the camps are designed to be nurturing weekends.
Twice a year Fforest holds a feast, where it collaborates with local producers and suppliers to put on an eight-course dinner showcasing their food.
New for 2019 is the Fforest Nature Writing Retreat, an immersive writing course spread over five days and led by professional authors and poets.
With the space, resources, facilities and skills to create memorable events – and ones that were getting noticed by mainstream media – it wasn’t long before the business was getting corporate enquiries, and D3 Eventz (for Red Bull), Cotswold Outdoor and J. Walter Thompson are just some of the people it has worked with. James says: “It’s a venue with a twist, with the ability to facilitate from 20 to 200 people, but in an incredible and exclusive environment. This is an area of the business we’d like to expand upon and hopefully, now we’re increasing our accommodation offerings, the two will go hand in hand.
“Getting people to us is sometimes an issue. They get excited about what we can offer them from looking at our website but we’re a good five hours from London so they don’t appreciate they may have to factor in a day’s travel time. Now that we’re introducing different types of accommodation that are more flexible we’re hoping it will encourage more corporate events.
“We started out offering family holidays but now, with such a high proportion of weddings and events, the sites lend themselves more to having flexible sleeping spaces that can cater for couples, individuals or larger families come the summer. We started to introduce this type of simple, characterful accommodation with dining and kitchen areas on outside terraces in the second half of last year with our Garden Rooms and we instantly saw a return.
What makes Fforest?
So, what is the secret to Fforest’s success? “While I’ve always kept my ear to the ground observing and thinking about what the business needs, together with a focus on infrastructure, we’ve always taken a soft approach and to a degree just let things happen. A lot is on instinct, see what works and build on that. Saying that, food, architecture and general design are what I’m most passionate about and I’m very up to date with those things – this is the lens I steer the business through.
Funnily enough The Future Laboratory, a trend forecasting agency, used us as a model a few years back, and it came pleasantly and completely true. Fforest is a big part of domestic tourism in Wales, although part of that success is down to the fantastic relationship we developed with Visit Wales. But while we have the location and resources to create an experience that people want, quality trumps everything.
“One of the disadvantages to having a business in rural Wales is the stark seasonality. The weddings are a good way of spreading income over the year, and we’ve been lucky enough to have help through grants from Visit Wales and loans from the Development Bank of Wales. The other issue is if you want to get things done it can take time. I’m not a local and it’s taken me a long time to escape that. Unlike major cities, where you meet people and stuff happens, in our rural corner you need to create your own opportunities – and to do that you need resilience and resources.
“We just try to do things better than our competitors. It took 10 years to reach maturity and become commercially sustainable, and that’s because of our approach. We’re continually improving, refining and evolving, but it’s about being fair in your business dealings and how you look after people, too. The character and quality of this place are a lot to do with the personalities that work for us. We employ a lot of youngsters and their love and enthusiasm for our place is very important to us – if you set up the right conditions that will happen naturally. If there is one thing I’ve learnt in business it is dedicating the right people to the right jobs. Bringing people on, no matter their age or gender, if they show promise, encourage them. I like to evolve people in the business.
“I’m also really proud of the PizzaTipi on Cardigan Quayside– we get 300 to 400 people visiting per day over a summer weekend, which is great for what is a relatively remote location. It’s a melting pot of locals and holiday makers of all ages. It’s important for our visitors to immerse themselves in the culture here, but it’s equally vital that the locals can feel at home. It is something for everyone to enjoy and there’s nothing else like it in the area. A beautiful riverside courtyard location, it’s also a little bit urban – so it goes down well with the younger members of the community.”
So, what does the future hold for the business? James is in the process of developing a hotel on the riverside built on the same Fforest philosophy – creating simple luxury the Lynch way. “It will look fairly discreet and it won’t be obvious it’s a hotel. It will have an event space for 200 people, a big restaurant, and a spa – but not how one might think of a traditional hotel spa, more in a sense of outdoors and nature. So think Nordic sauna, Japanese onsen, cold showers… all in the open air. I’m very inspired by The College Hotel in Amsterdam, which is run entirely by hospitality and catering students, and I’m aiming to employ young people learning on the job. Work will start on that later this year and will take around two years to complete.
“I’m also working on a preservation project with the Church in Wales with help again from the Welsh Government. We are creating a series of hostels for touring cyclists by putting mobile pods inside redundant churches and chapels. The accommodation will not interfere with the structure of the churches but will create a sustainable model for preservation and their upkeep.”
Despite the fact that James turned 60 last year, he clearly doesn’t have any immediate plans for retirement and his businesses show no sign of slowing down either. By a process of experience and introspection, James and Sian identified what counted as meaningful in their eyes. It may have taken a while to work out but they’re making up for it now.
Fforest Camps Limited HQ
Bridge Warehouse, Teifi Wharf
Cardigan, Wales, SA43 3AA