A bijou, off-grid glampsite for couples on a working farm in mid-Devon.
We talk to Jane Tapp who, after much research (and a water diviner), realised her vision for glamping on land adjacent to her husband’s family farm, with two bespoke shepherd huts and a recently completed split level treehouse cabin. She now juggles farm and family life with the enterprise, which enjoys excellent occupancy and repeat business.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
Glamping wasn’t a first career for either of us. I started out as a teacher and loved my job. Everything changed for me in January 2007 when I was widowed with a young family. My youngest was just seven months old and I made the decision that things had to change so I could be there for my children.
I took a total change of direction and was starting with livestock and plans of an education centre when I met Iain, a dairy farmer about 20 miles away. Clearly he couldn’t easily move his cows so I upped and moved to the farm. I was lucky enough to be able to buy 35 acres near Iain’s family farm and we built up our sheep flock and planned a diversification into glamping. This was my baby and luckily Iain was 100 per cent supportive of the entire concept.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
I grew up on the North Devon coast and all of my holiday jobs were in tourism. I like people. We had a beautiful spot that we wanted to share and the area we are in had very little accommodation to offer. We had a passion for making things eco-friendly and were adamant it needed to be low impact and off-grid. Glamping was the only real answer. We opened our beautiful bespoke shepherd huts in 2017 and our treehouse cabin finally came ‘live’ at the end of 2020.
How did you research the business before entering it?
I have to confess to becoming a little obsessed and spending every spare minute researching sites already running, suppliers and, significantly, off-grid solutions. We have been Glamping Show stalwarts since the first show and had a very clear idea of exactly what we wanted and how to achieve it before actually taking any action.
Tell us about your location and site
Holly Water Holidays is in the rolling hills of rural mid Devon with the small Holly Water river (from which we take our name) running by. We have glorious views of open countryside and the livestock that share the fields are all nearby. Guests are able to wander and explore the 35 acres where the glamping units are located. This space includes an old bluebell copse, steep and sloping pasture and meadow land crossing the river. Guests enjoy finding a hammock, cocoon seats and a lovely traditional swing for two in the fields as they wander. Picnics by the river are also popular.
At the outset there was no water or power on site and intermittent mobile signal (at best!) but as we were keen to concentrate on eco-tourism we didn’t let that bother us too much. After all of our reading and research we were fairly clear on what we needed to do for our off-grid, digital detox retreat. The first physical sign in the fields was a little red flag that the water diviner put in to mark the spot to drill and from there the development began!
Now the two shepherd huts, Oak and Bluebell, sit in their own space. Each has their own outdoor area with patio furniture, firepit, pizza oven and wood-fired hot tubs. Each hut was designed and built for two as the perfect romantic escape. They have indoor kitchens, shower rooms and log burners so they are truly comfortable all year round.
The treehouse cabin was never in the original plan but after having several guests return with friends and book both huts together we thought something built to accommodate two couples would be a good idea. This way if the great British weather is less than kind there is still space to comfortably have a meal or spend time together inside. The Beehive is our beautiful new addition and is a field further from the road although the track has been made drivable so our guests are able to park right next to their own little corner of Heaven.
The Beehive also has its own unique outdoor living space in the form of raised and linked decking areas holding the outdoor furniture, firepit and wood-fired hot tub. It’s totally bespoke and absolutely gorgeous! Having so little light pollution here, star-gazing in the hot tubs is a favourite activity and our guests comment on the peace, quiet and the abundance of wildlife which they share the space with.
How did you tackle getting planning?
After speaking to one of the planning officers, who was quite positive about our plans, we got down to an application for full planning permission. All felt optimistic until our assigned officer informed me that “although your project fits with the local and national plan I intend to recommend it for refusal”. This was obviously quite a shock and he gave us the weekend to prepare further supporting documentation and a full and detailed business plan. Fortunately we had a start on a business plan but I had the bit between my teeth and went through the local plan in detail cross referencing it at every point.
We were very lucky with local support and we had over 20 public comments in support of our plans on the council planning portal. Our local council had also quite recently commissioned a study into tourism in our area and found that accommodation was lacking so in the event this worked in our favour and our plans were actually approved. Since then we have put in a second application for the treehouse and this time we went in with everything covered in the tiniest detail and thankfully had no problems.
How did you finance the project?
When I sold my house to move to the farm I was able to buy the fields and put in the initial capital for the shepherd huts from my house sale. The treehouse has required finance in the form of a mortgage against the land.
Why did you choose your accommodation?
Right from the beginning we knew we wanted to be open all year round and that influenced our choices massively. The accommodation had to be well insulated and be able to be heated with a log burner. We were also siting the initial units in the sheep field so shepherd huts were the obvious choice.
The new treehouse cabin was chosen because of where it was to be. It is located at the end of the bluebell copse, it’s surrounded by trees and on quite a steep slope. We didn’t want to level the site or to use lots of concrete as we were concentrating on our eco credentials. We wanted to use ground screws and stilts to create the level and this kind of lent itself to a treehouse style cabin. Wild Hart, who built it, were keen to follow our lead.
What occupancy levels and price per night do you achieve?
Since opening our occupancy has increased year on year which was our aim. Obviously 2020 has been something of an odd one but since re-opening on 4 July, and up to the second lockdown, we had six nights when we were not full in one of the huts. We have yet to discover how occupancy goes with the treehouse but I feel optimistic. We have a minimum two night stay policy and prices range from £90/night for a shepherds hut in low season to £195/night for the treehouse in high season.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
We are all direct bookings so our Instagram and Facebook pages have a live feed to our website. We are also listed on Go Glamping, Love Glamping, Devon Glamping, Visit Mid Devon and Farm Stay.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
Our off-grid and rural farm location is what we build on. We work hard to have the best eco credentials we can and have a Gold from Green Tourism. People come for a digital detox.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
Each unit is named after something from our landscape. The huts are ‘Bluebell’ and ‘Oak’ and the treehouse is ‘The Beehive’ so their colour schemes and interiors in some way reflect their names. For example, we had bespoke shower panels and cooker splash-backs made using photos to add a personal touch. We want our guests to feel at home and comfortable, although with the Covid situation we have had to remove some of the throws and cushions at present.
What challenges have you faced?
One of our biggest challenges was getting the water correct for environmental health. This doesn’t sound like a big deal and if you have electricity it really isn’t but to get all of the necessary filtration etc. without any power took a bit of working out! Thanks to a very helpful water chap we got there in the end. Our water pressure is also low as it is relying on gravity and this has been a challenge with water boilers. They are not perfect but do the job and fortunately our guests understand the limitations we are under.
How have you coped through Covid?
Covid has obviously presented some stress in terms of uncertainty as much as anything else. We were very grateful that in the first lockdown all of our guests opted to postpone rather than take refunds. We had committed to funding for the building of The Beehive and, at the start of lockdown, we had little idea when it might actually happen so that was a little unsettling.
Cleaning protocols and risk assessments needed doing to get the AA and Visit England Covid certification but generally you just have to ride the storm and once re-opened we were very busy which made up in some way for the closed period.
What are your plans for next season?
We’re very excited about the next season and seeing how things turn out with The Beehive. I’m also hoping to put a small wildlife hide on the river bank for guests to enjoy. There’s always something else we can add!
Describe your average day mid-season
The phone is always on so a text from a guest in need of something can come at any time and call me away but otherwise it might be something like this. My first job with my first coffee is to check emails for bookings and answer any enquiries. We are a farm as well as a glamping site so after this my mornings usually start with animal rounds followed by taking our youngest to the school bus.
If I have a changeover and new arrivals it might then involve baking of bread or scones if they have been ordered or cookies for the welcome pack and picking up anything I need for guests from the shops. Next I head off the couple of miles to site, arriving soon after check-out to start the cleaning regime. My first job is to set the hot-tubs to drain as this takes some time. I then start inside keeping an eye on the tubs so as soon as they empty they can be cleaned and put on to refill. Our water pressure is low and this is the thing that takes the longest!
Once cleaning is complete I usually head home and get the first load of washing on before heading off along the rough track on the quad bike to take logs over to the wood stores and do the rounds of topping up bird feeding stations.
By this time I can probably swap over washing and head off on another livestock round before getting back to the house to iron any bedding ready for tomorrow’s changeovers and prepare the boxes for that.
Once this is done I might do some online banking, social media posts, emails or ordering of materials.
Guests self check-in but I aim to pop over between 5pm and 8pm to make sure they are OK and have everything they need before family food time!
Do you enjoy the business and why?
I love it. I love making things nice for people and take so much pleasure from guests’ enjoyment. I feel a huge sense of pride when a guest has enjoyed their stay and an enormous satisfaction when people come back. We have a high level of repeat visitors and recommendations and seeing them in my email inbox is just the best feeling.
I love our units which have all been built bespoke to our wishes and are exactly how we envisioned them at the planning stage. It is hard work and constant, being open all year, but it was absolutely the best move for us. It keeps me out of mischief whilst Iain works the crazy hours of a dairy farmer!
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the lovely reviews we have received and the repeat visitors which makes me feel that we must have got something right!
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Be realistic about returns and also the time required to do the job properly. If you opt out of using an agency be prepared for the huge volume of admin.
Ashton Shepherd Huts www.ashtonshepherdhuts.co.uk
Wild Hart www.wild-hart.co.uk
Naked Flame Eco Tubs www.nakedtubs.com
Ebdon Firwood www.bbqfirepits.co.uk
Farm Stay www.farmstay.co.uk
Go Glamping www.goglamping.net
Love Glamping www.love-glamping.co.uk
NFU Mutual www.nfumutual.co.uk
Holly Water Holidays
Devon EX17 4DP