Glamping in rare, historic caravans, each with their own personality.
An idea born at the school gate, vintage loving friends Jo Pilkington and Sacha Morley created a bijou glampsite in Jo’s Herefordshire meadow. With a selection of rare vintage caravans, guests can enjoy simple pleasures including three course wild feasts and holistic therapies. We talk to Jo.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
I worked in broadcasting for 18 years – both in radio and television, making programmes and commissioning them. With three children under the age of five, I decided to leave the ‘big smoke’ so I could focus on being a mum and bringing up my young children. I relocated to Herefordshire in 2009.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
Sacha and I met at the school gate. She was renovating a vintage caravan (Elsie) but had nowhere to put it. I had a little bit of land at the end of my garden, and so our idea to open a glampsite was hatched in 2012 and we opened in 2013, initially with three vans. The idea of glamping particularly appealed because I had a young family and wanted to work from home. I also wanted to make my house pay for itself!
How did you research the business before entering it?
We went and stayed at a site down in Cornwall in the summer of 2012. We were three mums and 11 children aged from nine down to one. I remember feeling very sorry for the young couple who we shared the site with! We stayed for a week and I remember saying to Sacha that I wanted it to rain hard so I could see what challenges this presented. The answer was sewage… a useful lesson for us, we made sure we put in a good soakaway!
Tell us about your location and site
We are located a couple of miles outside the market town of Ross on Wye in a small village. I live in a Georgian property and the glampsite is located at the bottom of my garden in a small meadow.
We have five vintage vans dating from the 1930s and they include some very rare models. One of them was handmade in the 1940s, another is believed to be one of only two left in the country. There’s also a World War II designed military wagon. They all have a story to tell and are very different from one another – e.g. 1930s Gertie is folksy and stepping into her is a bit like stepping into a first class railway carriage from a bygone era. Elsie is more of a 50s girls, while Monty is more manly!
The facilities – a shower shack, campfire and mess tent – are located in a copse near to the vans.
The site enjoys fantastic sunsets and views west to the Black Mountains. Close by is the River Wye and the Forest of Dean – great for walking, cycling, canoeing and outdoor pursuits.
We are located in a village so I have to be mindful of the neighbours and noise. We have a lot of whole site bookings for celebrations – birthdays, hen parties, family reunions etc. – you know how it is when women hit the bubbles! I call it the prosecco shriek.
How did you tackle getting planning?
We opened without planning – we had no idea how it would go, if anyone would come and stay. You have to remember that back in 2013 glamping was a fraction of the size it is today. There were a couple of tipi places along the River Wye and the odd shepherd’s hut but nothing much else. We then went for retrospective planning the following year.
The challenges were mainly from a conservation point of view. We are located in an AONB and I live in a listed building so the planners were keen that our vans blended in with the landscape and surroundings. I remember they requested we paint them all green… While some of them are green, we argued that Elsie should be left her original cream colour – her value would be lowered if we were to change her.
How did you finance the project?
We put our own money in, 50/50 on all assets and infrastructure.
Do you operate all year round or seasonally?
We are a seasonal operation. We open in time for Easter and usually close at the end of September. This year we extended our season until the end of October to claw back some of the bookings and income we’d lost owing to Covid.
October can be a challenge if the weather’s rubbish – we have no electricity on site so it’s all about building fires and candlelight. Unfortunately this October was one of the rainiest on record, but in these Covid times I feel people are just grateful to be able to get away and we have a lovely mess tent where guests can go when the weather closes in.
What occupancy levels and price per night do you achieve?
We aim for 100% occupancy at weekends and during the school holidays. People tend to book between two and four nights; any bookings during the week in term time are a bonus. This year we had to work around government regulations regarding social bubbles, shared facilities and the rule of six. A lot of our whole site bookings were not able to go ahead, luckily most of them have been able to reschedule for next year.
Prices start at £160 for a two night, low season, midweek stay in Elsie who sleeps two, to a whole site rental of £2,000 in high season.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
Our brand hinges around a name with a difference (the idea came to me in the hairdressers like all good ideas!?) – the play on words (Mad Dogs and Englishmen) seemed particularly apt as we are both dog lovers and owners.
We publicise through various sites including Deanwye (the local tourism body). We occasionally use Google Ads to target specific groups, and of course we use social media – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
When we first started out there was one other vintage caravan site but theirs were gypsy bowtop vans, quite different to ours.
We can accommodate medium sized groups from 12-20 and I think this is part of our appeal – someone can hire the whole site and throw a party, be it for a birthday, a hen party or just a get together with friends or other families.
We also offer three course ‘wild’ dining in our mess tent and holistic therapies in our Lotus Bell tent so guests can pamper and indulge themselves while on site.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
Easy – vintage. We both shared a love of vintage… Decorating the vans was the very best bit, using vintage/retro fabrics for the curtains and finding vintage bits and pieces to put inside.
What challenges have you faced?
We can’t add any more vans or grow the business as we don’t have the space. The biggest challenge has been coming to the conclusion that as a seasonal business it really can only support one person. The business is based on my land so it makes sense for me to buy my partner out. Splitting up after so many years invested together hasn’t been easy.
How have you coped through Covid-19?
We have had to reduce numbers on site as we have shared toilet and shower facilities. There are now a lot more signs on site – I don’t like this but it’s a must under the present circumstances. We weren’t able to offer any holistic treatments this year either.
What was particularly lovely was that a lot of past guests returned to us this year. I think people wanted what they knew and our appeal lay in being a small site.
What are your plans for next season?
We are about to redesign our website but what I really enjoyed this year was welcoming back families and couples. Our focus had been on the big weekends and we’d been pushing the business in the whole site bookings direction for a number of years. Next year, parties and celebrations for sure, but also families and people who want to escape the city.
Describe your average day mid-season
Changeover days are hectic – all the vans have their own cleaning quirks and there are so many parts of the site to clean. In the summer holidays I am juggling with my kids at home… luckily they’re of an age where they can now help me, although getting them out of bed for a 9.30am start can be a big ask… teenagers!
Do you enjoy the business?
Yes – I am very lucky to live in a beautiful part of the country and want to share it with others. I want to give people a special time to remember.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
I also have a holiday let cottage (The Hayloft). Sometimes people take the glampsite together with the holiday let – perfect for big gatherings and those people who prefer bricks and mortar to vintage caravans!
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Don’t come into this industry unless you like people! It sounds obvious but a lot of my time is spent chatting to guests so you need to have the necessary social skills and enjoy meeting people.
Anytime Booking – www.anytimebooking.co.uk
NFU MUTUAL – www.nfumutual.co.uk
Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans
The Old Rectory
Ross on Wye