Ready to launch – four brand new bespoke cabins in central Bedfordshire.
Charlotte and Andrew Foster are about to open their glampsite, part of a farm diversification to mitigate reduced revenue from farming activities. Their cleverly designed cabins are the result of hours of painstaking research and the couple are itching to welcome their first guests this December. We talk to Charlotte about tackling planning, interiors, home-schooling and more!
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
My husband Andrew is the third generation of Fosters to run Polehanger Farm. Previously an award-winning dairy farm, it went arable in 1991 and now 122 hectares are contract farmed. We have eight hectares of Countryside Stewardship wildflower and winter bird food margins and 21 hectares of woodland, which is both private and publicly accessible. The farm also features 7km of public and permissive footpaths that connect three local parishes of Meppershall, Shefford and Campton.
Andrew started learning the ropes of running the estate in 2017, working at the farm for several years alongside his job in IT consulting. He finally left his London job two weeks before lockdown in 2020.
I trained and worked as a solicitor in London for several years before moving out to Bedfordshire more than 10 years ago with the hope of starting a family. This took longer than we had hoped, but after a round of IVF, we were lucky enough to have twins. I gave up work to look after them but when they started school in September 2019. I was ready for a new challenge and did not want to return to the legal world, so I joined Andrew at the farm and we started looking at diversification options.
We held our own wedding reception at the farm in 2007 (as had Andrew’s parents in 1973), so we knew it would be perfect as a venue. When a feasibility study indicated that turning our barns into a purpose built wedding venue was prohibitive, we focused on planning an outdoor venue instead.
We were raring to go and started working with a local wedding planner, White Button Weddings, on our launch. We also started researching glamping – summer 2020 was going to be a big year for us but Covid had other ideas! Lockdown started and six months after I returned to work I was back home with the children – with the bonus of having to home school two five year olds!
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
The impending removal of the single payment scheme following Brexit, the unknowns of upcoming ELMS regulations, unpredictable weather patterns and rising input costs, means that the returns from the farming operation are reducing each year.
Andrew identified our current glamping paddock back in 2018 – it would provide true agricultural diversification and support the reduction in income from farming as well as help fund the development of our barns.
How did you research the business?
We went to the Glamping Show in 2019 and it provided an absolute wealth of information. I remember coming back and looking for many hours through the various brochures and magazines that we were given, one of which was Open Air Business. I loved the case studies and stories of people who had taken on the challenge that we were about to embark upon. It was, and remains, a fountain of knowledge – not only for the glamping side, but also outside wedding businesses.
Andrew took on research for the infrastructure side of the project – structures (cabins/pods etc), power, water, sewage treatments plants, parking, landscaping, fencing, tree planting and more.
I researched what was in our local area that may offer something similar – there was nothing, so we really felt we could fill a gap in the market. I spent many hours on the internet looking at similar sites to see what others were doing. I found sites that we would aspire to be like and noted what I liked and disliked about hundreds of others. I also read as many articles as I could – if there was something written about glamping here or abroad I read it!
I joined many Facebook groups of people who ran sites – they are fantastic for advice. We also visited some glamping sites and treehouses so that we could see how these things worked first-hand. We created our own focus groups, talking to friends and family about what they would and wouldn’t want from a glamping experience. We chatted with owners of other glamping sites that were offering similar things (but sufficiently far enough away from us that we were not their competition).
We also met with Kate Morel, who is a glamping expert, to discuss our ideas further with her – just to check we weren’t embarking on something completely mad! She was brilliant, and we were glad we spoke with her early on.
Tell us about your location and site
The glamping site is accessed along a tree lined driveway and the glamping paddock is surrounded by fields, native trees and hedgerows.
While central Bedfordshire is not your typical holiday destination, it is a perfect ‘mini break’ at just 40 minutes on the train to London and 20 minutes to Cambridge. We’re not far from the A1 and M1, and Bedfordshire is a good stopping off point on a long journey north or south.
Having been to every single child friendly place within a 45 minute drive (several times), I knew there was a lot to do with a young family. We also have the Polehanger River Woodland (which we manage) on the doorstep of the farm. We had already run some Christmas and Halloween trail events in 2019, which had been very well received. We have brass rubbing posts and a picnic area, so we knew the river woodland would be an asset.
How did you tackle planning?
We investigated certification through an exemption organisation but felt that it would be too restrictive. We therefore sought to obtain full planning permission – applying for the glampsite at the same time as permission for a car park, and to extend the 28 day rule on structures for the wedding venue. We drafted this ourselves, researching other similar applications and looking in detail at the local plan and both local and national planning policies.
We used a rural consultant for coaching and advice, which was considerably cheaper than asking a planning consultant to draft the document. The biggest challenge we faced was being at the mercy of the local government in terms of timing with two extensions imposed upon us. We had a good relationship with our planning officer, but the department was busy and there were understandable delays. We had no trouble with the planning for the glamping site – it was the wedding venue and car park that proved more problematic, and some conditions were placed on us in respect of this.
How did you finance the project?
We looked in detail into an RDPE grant for the glamping site and filled out the initial application form. Despite making it through the initial selection process for the final round of funding (this was the last RDPE grant available before they were withdrawn), the administrative burden of completing the next level of requirements in a short space of time, securing funding, running the rest of the business, completing planning matters and not to mention home-schooling in a pandemic, we opted to take our time and proceed on our own.
We were lucky enough to be in a good financial position to be able to secure a large loan. We had hoped to obtain this from our business bank, with which we had worked with for many years. Having given us an indication that the loan should not be a problem, we were advised they ‘didn’t have an appetite for it’. However, we applied for funding with the AMC, via Brooks Leney, putting up some of our agricultural land as security. This was to cover not just building the glamping site (which was a fraction of the loan), but also a major power upgrade and additional infrastructure improvements, which were essential for our future vision. We’ll admit that we didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until the money was firmly in the bank!
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We will have four luxury cabins at the Meadows at Polehanger – each is self-sufficient with kitchen, bathroom, king size bed, sofa bed and bunk beds (in three of the cabins). They each have a decked area and a private garden with fire pits, and two of the cabins have hot tubs.
We wanted glamping accommodation that would be available year-round. It needed to be heated and cosy in winter and light and airy in summer. It needed to have a luxury feel of a hotel inside and a rustic camp site outside. We didn’t want to completely fill the space in the paddock with cabins – we wanted people to be able to enjoy their surroundings without feeling overlooked.
Our ‘focus group’ research from friends and family told us that it was important to cater to larger families, so we wanted our cabins to have a king size bed, sofa bed and bunk beds. But we also wanted parents to feel like the children weren’t in the same space as them once they were in bed – so the bunk beds have been carefully positioned.
While the cabins have infra-red heating, kitchens with hobs and fridges, and bathrooms with electric showers (as we wanted them to feel like a home from home), we made the decision to not install televisions. We feel in today’s world, it’s wonderful to have the excuse to switch off but we’ve installed a lot of plug sockets and USB charging ports, as we know as well as anyone the lure of the tablet! We’ll also have Wi-Fi internet access.
In addition to catering for families, we wanted couples to feel welcome too. We hope to run couples only weekends in the future. Our “couples’ cabin” has a freestanding bath and is set at the end of the rows of cabins, to give couples privacy in their garden with their wood-fired hot tub.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
We worked with a local graphic designer for our logos for our wedding and glamping businesses. They were great and took time to understand our long-term vision in order to design logos which could be adapted for our various future products. We used the same company to design the website and worked closely with the copy writer to get across what we wanted to offer to our guests – time to relax with friends and family, to breathe, to take in the outdoors and get away.
We started social media accounts for the Meadows at Polehanger at the start of this year. We wanted to be able to show the cabin build journey. We perhaps started a little too soon as the money took longer to come in and the build couldn’t start when we had hoped, so we feared running out of content! We also had a blip in recent weeks when we all caught Covid and so social media had to take the back burner.
We have publicised on local Facebook groups and the response has been great. Once we have a firm opening date and website launch, we will increase our social media advertising further afield, but we are currently in a difficult place where people are interested, but we cannot take bookings. We do not have a marketing or PR background, and we will no doubt seek professional help in this regard in the future, but at this stage we are researching and reading everything we can.
How would you describe your ethos and USP?
We just want to offer people a fantastic place to stay. Neither of us trained in hospitality, but we want to be able to provide the facilities for people to have a fantastic break and make memories. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that life is short and people are busy, so if we can help carve out a short amount of time and space for people to connect with their partner, friends, family, loved ones, then we have achieved our goal.
We are very conscious of trying to be as sustainable as possible. Our wood-fired hot tubs will not contain chemicals, so we can use the used water for plants and trees around the site. The infrared heating is low energy, and we are trying to use as little plastic as possible. The main items in the cabins are brand new (mattresses, sofas etc.), but we have sourced a lot of other things second hand.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
For the interiors, we would have loved to have worked with an interior designer to source all the items for each cabin, but budget did not allow for this. We therefore worked with Sarah Wetherall-Morris of White Brick Studios to discuss our needs and put together some mood boards to work from. She had some wonderful ideas as well – such as for the bunk beds and the ‘screen’ between the bed and the living area.
We want each cabin to be slightly different. The kitchens will all be different colours, and this colour scheme will continue throughout the cabins. We love bringing together old and new to create a home from home and a beautiful, relaxing space. We’re planning to use weird and wonderful things that we find on the farm for planters outside – not only is this more sustainable but we love things to tell a story and link the cabins back to the farm in its previous life.
What challenges have you faced?
Other than starting up a business in the middle of a pandemic, home schooling, us and contractors getting Covid, material prices increasing, the bank not having an ‘appetite’ for a loan, unavoidable delays with deliveries, all meetings having to take place on Zoom, flooding, leaks and planning delays – it’s all been smooth sailing! Oh, and working together when married…
What are your plans for next season?
We’ll open just in time for Christmas (my favourite time of year); we can’t wait to welcome people and put all our plans and ideas into practice.
We have lots of ideas too, from yoga days to dinner clubs. We’re keen to work with charities to provide stays for those affected by cancer and respite days for carers.
What are you most proud of?
We were rather proud of our planning application work! It was a long process, but the result was obviously a good one, and we were pleased to do it ourselves as it saved such a lot of money. We are proud that we are creating a space in Central Bedfordshire which we hope people will want to visit again and again and bring in additional tourism revenue for the local area. We know we are providing a location where people can hopefully leave their worries behind while they submerge themselves in the peaceful surroundings the glamping area offers.
Naked Flame Eco Tubs www.nakedtubs.com
Fire Pits UK www.firepitsuk.co.uk
Whitebrick Studio www.whitebrick.studio
MotoPress Hotel Booking and Stripe
Brooks Leney/AMC Finance www.brooksleney.co.uk/services/amc-finance
NFU Mutual www.nfumutual.co.uk
LOGO & WEB DESIGN
Allen Creative www.allencreative.co.uk
The Meadows at Polehanger
Bedfordshire SG17 5LH