A ‘pop-up’ summer glampsite on the north coast of Cornwall
Rural upbringings and a shared love of the Cornish coast prompted Simon and Sarah Curley to give up a busy life in the city to buy a working farm and offer glamping as part of its diversification. Open for a short season during the summer each year, the site is kept deliberately small to ensure maximum comfort for guests and is completely dismantled at the end of August. We talk to Sarah.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
We met through work back in 2001. I worked for a TV channel and Simon worked for an advertising media agency. We both loved our jobs and the busy pace of London life but having both grown up in more rural areas we always knew that we would love to escape the city sooner or later. We left the bright lights of London for the big skies of Cornwall in 2005 and Polgreen Glamping was born in the summer of 2009. Having both fallen in love with the north coast of Cornwall on childhood holidays we had always returned for a yearly beach escape as adults. When the chance to move to the countryside came up we knew that Cornwall would become our home. Our property search was easy, Polgreen Farm was the first place we viewed and we were charmed – gorgeous countryside and endless beaches!
Our time in Cornwall has been an adventure. Our small London garden has been replaced with a 40 acre farm and our nearest neighbours are now fish, sheep and pigs! Our ‘normal’ jobs were meagre preparation for becoming fish farmers, however we like to think we are up for a challenge and have loved giving the good life a real go.
What made you decide to start offering glamping?
Farming nowadays demands resourcefulness and Polgreen Glamping is one of the diversification projects that makes it possible for us to live and work (and play) at Polgreen. We got married in secret but a year later threw a party on our farm to celebrate with all of our family and friends.
We had a pop-up campsite as part of the festivities and invested in a bell tent to stay in ourselves. We loved the experience so much we decided that it would be great to share it with others. We first opened in 2009 so this year will be our 10th season. August is one of our quieter times on the farm but it’s the perfect time for family holidays so our short season offers us the perfect balance.
How did you research the business before entering it?
We have always loved camping and we know what makes the perfect camping trip for us; it was this that really informed most of our choices. At the time there wasn’t anyone else offering bell tent camping in Cornwall so it wasn’t a case of looking at the competition. Our best learning came from trying it out for ourselves. Before we opened we decamped from our house to the glampsite to make sure we understood the experience from our visitors’ point of view.
Tell us about your location and site
Our site is in a meadow on our farm. It’s a great location down an unmarked lane between a lovely village and gorgeous beach. However its tucked away location does present some challenges. It wouldn’t be a suitable spot to open a large ‘turn up and pitch’ campsite, the lovely little lane couldn’t cope with all the traffic. That’s one of the main reasons we went for a small site of six bell tents that can only be pre-booked. We also make sure we tread very lightly on the land – when we close at the end of August everything gets packed away and the sheep move back into the field. The site structures are all temporary and we ask everyone to treat the environment sensitively so that when the campsite disappears at the end of the summer it does just that, disappear. This is not the bright lights of the city; all after-dark lighting comes from solar lights, wind-up lanterns and candles. Cooking is BBQ or gas stove style and the only heating comes from the sun or a fire brazier outside the tent. We have temporary compost toilets that are stylish and sustainable and all our water is (filtered) spring borehole water. This works for us but does present some challenges as we need to balance the eco nature of what we do with our guests’ comfort. It’s wild camping with home comforts!
How did you tackle getting planning?
The site open dates mean that we don’t need planning.
How did you finance the project?
The project was self financed.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We chose bell tents as they really work well for our short season. They are easy to put up (and take down) and work really well for the summer months. They are comfortable and cosy and look wonderful dotted around the four acre meadow.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
Our pre-Cornwall background means that we did our branding ourselves. We have a self-built website and we manage the full booking process. We have lots of repeat visitors – we even have guests that have been coming every year right from the start. As a small site that is only open for a short time we always end up fully booked. We don’t open for bookings until the start of each year and have a large mailing list that we have built up over time that we reach out to when we open up our availability. We do list with some of the free camping and glamping pages but only have one paid-for listing. We’ll do some search engine advertising if needed as we approach our open dates.
How would you describe your ethos and USP?
We love this special place and we’re determined to preserve and enhance it in everything we do. We want to make sure everyone has a wonderful holiday while respecting where they are. When we started we were the only bell tent campsite in Cornwall but now we are one of many, and as a small site only open for a short time we’re not trying to compete with some of the larger sites with more infrastructure.
The experience we offer is about a welcome stay with home comforts in a beautiful and wild place! Because we only welcome six families or couples at any time it means we can offer a really personal experience and our guests often comment on how we go the extra mile to make sure they have a great holiday. We also make sure we get the detail right and, even though the nature of our site means that there are some things we can’t do, we turn this into a positive.
We might not have an on-site launderette but we will do our guests’ washing and drying for them. We don’t have a mini market but we do bake fresh bread every morning and have an honesty shop with all the camping basics and treats available. We don’t have a cafe or restaurant but we do have surprise tea time treats for all our guests, pop-up foodie offerings and gas stoves, BBQs, and pots and pans for everyone to cook up their own feasts.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
The inside of a bell tent is gorgeous – we love the way the shadows of nature play on the canvas – and this means that we keep it fairly simple. The decor has a vintage vibe to suit the bell tent style. Bunting, crochet blankets, floral quilts and vintage crockery complete the look. We think the nostalgic look works for our guests as one of the most wonderful things about camping is a sense of returning to more simple times.
What challenges have you faced?
The weather is usually our biggest challenge. When the sun shines you couldn’t think of anywhere more blissful to be but when it rains it does create lots of work on the site. We don’t have hard standing parking so if the parking area or our cut grass paths start to get soggy it’s out with the bark chippings and stones. It must work though as we have only had to get the tractor out for a stuck car once. This year we have decided to split our short season into 2×2 weeks so we have a break for site maintenance if needed. That way we don’t need to interrupt the peace and quiet of our guests while they’re here.
What are your plans for next season?
Each year we make tweaks to the site and at the end of each season we email all of our guests to ask for their thoughts and always try to implement any changes they suggest (within reason!). This coming season we’re extending our bell tent hire service where we set up bell tents at local locations for weddings, parties or extra accommodation. This means that guests that can’t come during our open dates, miss out on the dates they want to stay or need something a bit different can still enjoy some Polgreen Glamping bliss.
Describe your average day mid-season
Simon gets up for a site clean (toilets, showers, central shelter) just as the sun comes up to make sure everything is ship-shape for when the site wakes up. I get baking the morning’s bread and open up the honesty shop updating the tide and weather board. Between 8 and 10am I’m on call for any guest questions and usually try to check in with everyone before they head out for the day – just to see if they need anything or would like any suggestions of what to do. We have our own local area guide that comprehensively lists all of our favourite places to go and things to do, and we try and get a sense of what we think each of our guests would particularly enjoy.
Simon is out on the farm for most of the morning and once or twice a week we’ll take the kids from the site to meet some of our animals. When everyone has headed out we do another site clean and any maintenance that’s needed. We’ll then get on with other jobs on the farm unless it’s a turnaround day when it’s all hands on deck to clean the bell tents and get them ready for the next arrivals. The honesty shop is open again from 5-7pm so we’ll check we’re stocked up and perhaps bake some teatime treats ready for when everyone heads back to site. There’s nothing like a scone or cake after a day at the beach.
After dark we pop back to the site to check everything is in order and to do another quick clean. When the site is open we’re on call all day every day and while it’s tiring to be ‘on’ all the time it means we know we’re doing our best for our guests. And if the sun is shining there’s always a chance we might get to pop down to the beach for a nap on the cliffs in the middle of the day.What do you enjoy about the business and why?
It’s really special to be a part of making someone’s holiday wonderful. We know that Polgreen Glamping has given many people amazing memories and that feels great.
What are you most proud of?
We’re proud of everything but the thing that makes us proudest is the wonderful feedback we get from our guests with many returning year after year.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We offer bell tent hire alongside the site which means we’ve been involved in outdoor events, weddings and this year there are even plans for a festival pop up. I work on weddings and fairs as part of another business, duchyvintage.co.uk, so there can be great tie-ins across the businesses.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Make sure you like people as you’ll be dealing with them all the time! Be happy to hear what they have to say and imagine you’re one of your guests when you’re making decisions. Also be sensitive to your guests’ personalities, be yourself but make sure you know which guests love to chat and which ones would like to be left in absolute peace. Work out the main reasons you want to do this – if it’s just about the money there might be easier ways.