With the largest collection of French roulottes in the UK, this glamping site in the Scottish Borders breathes magic and romance.
From a passion for travel and bohemian living, husband and wife team Avril Berry and Alan Fraser have created a site reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting, with handcarved French roulottes painstakingly put together over the course of six years. But patience, planning and a unique vision has paid off with multiple award wins and delighted guests. We talk to Avril.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
I am a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. My husband Alan is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist. We both share a love of travel and different cultures and have journeyed extensively worldwide for many years.
Before moving to the Scottish Borders, we lived in Edinburgh and used to host students who were studying English at university and language schools so this gave us an insight into hospitality.
When we moved to the Borders we got right into country life – growing hay in the meadow, walking daily with our two dogs and keeping ponies, then chickens, geese, ducks and quails, so we were kept busy!
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
As you can imagine, life was full on, and as our children grew so did the number of friends who came to play and stay so we needed an escape… enter Ruby Bowtop! We loved the idea of having an authentic Gypsy bowtop and after extensive searching we eventually found the one we were looking for in Devon.
It was love at first sight and the beginning of beautiful escapes to Ruby right next to our house. We used to light the authentic Queenie stove and enjoy the peace and quiet, just by our front door – it was bliss! We then thought perhaps others may like to experience this magic and so the seed of Roulotte Retreat was born.
This would have been around 2006 and before the popularity of ‘glamping’. We both like the unusual, different and thinking out of the box so ideas were no problem, we just had to work out the fine details. We had the land and the idea and so the search was on for the right accommodation. It was to be 2010 before the first roulotte entered our meadow gate.
How did you research the business before entering it?
We searched extensively online for almost a year, constantly working on what sort of accommodation we would like, who our customers would be, what facilities we could offer and where we could find the accommodation that would fit the bill and suit our needs. We based everything on what we like and expect when we travel and then added some!
We wanted to be different, stand out from the crowd, offer guests a unique experience, an authentic stay with a hint of magic and full of romance, so for us it just had to be French roulottes. So began the quest, travelling throughout France meeting up with many designers and builders. This was one of the most time consuming and enjoyable parts of our roulotte journey and also an amazing experience.
Tell us about your location and site
We live and work on site in the heart of the Scottish Borders, near Melrose. We have several acres, some of which has been landscaped to create a wildflower meadow with a burn (otherwise known as a stream) running throughout the edge. We diverted some of this to create a lochan (small loch or lake) in the centre from which the water continues to a wildlife pond before finally flowing along a rill back to the burn again.
Today, Roulotte Retreat is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s 1888 painting, ‘Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans’ with a campfire at its centre and seven colourful roulottes encircled in the middle of the meadow – just magical!
Extensive planting of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers ensures the site is completely in keeping with the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside. We have walks directly from our meadow – through the woodlands, by waterfalls and up the legendary Eildons where Thomas the Rhymer, local poet and seer met with the Queen of the Fairies and disappeared for seven years.
How did you tackle getting planning?
Right from the outset we worked closely with planning and found the team to be extremely helpful. We also worked with SEPA, (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency), Scottish Heritage, Scottish Borders Council plus a variety of agencies in Scotland. We worked closely with a local landscaper, woodland business and specialist in sustainable agriculture who listened to what we wished to create and helped us achieve our dream with their professional knowledge and expertise.
We decided to present our idea to the local village in a public meeting so that we could put across our plans and listen to any concerns the community and the village committee may have and addressed them, adjusting our plans accordingly. Being next to a village and in the countryside it was our desire to work in harmony with nature and the local community.
As part of planning we were also required to put in two passing places on the road coming from the village due to the potential of increased traffic, as well as widening our drive at the entrance.
How did you finance the project?
Roulotte Retreat was self financed and with help from a Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) Rural Priorities Grant for encouraging tourism into the area. We were also awarded an Innovation in Tourism award which helped us with marketing, website and branding costs.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We offer seven roulottes, six are French and one is Dutch, as well as Horseshoe Cottage which now enjoys Ruby Bowtop in its woodland garden. We also have The Studio, an original 1950s wooden building with outdoor covered deck amidst Scots pines, which provides group space for get togethers, events and celebrations.
We opened in 2010 with two roulottes and over the next few years slowly introduced more French ladies until we gained our full complement. They are made from wild cherry, chestnut, walnut, oak and ash from the forests of France, lovingly carved and crafted by French artisans
Initially we opened all year round but after a few years we realised that it was important to take time off and so began our annual break, closing in the first couple of months of the year to maintain the site and recharge ourselves for the next season.
When we looked at accommodation it had to tick many boxes, including the Scottish weather, so our wooden roulottes are well insulated in the walls, roof and floor. We have heaters to keep pipes warm and also trace wires on the pipes. We are geared up for extremely cold winters after the first winter in 2010, one of the worst, when we were bringing in guests and supplies by sledge.
There are wood burning stoves in each roulotte, which are fuelled by eco fuel and electric radiators so no one is ever cold, in fact it is the epitome of ‘hygge’ or to ‘coorie in’ which is the Scottish equivalent of cosying in by the stove, enwrapped by the warm ambience of the hand carved structures.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
Being familiar with self employment through our health and wellbeing businesses, we have experience of marketing and promoting in specific markets. We had ideas of what kind of branding we wanted and worked with a branding company, website designer and local artist to create the branding we had in mind and also initially worked with a marketing company to get us started.
We were fortunate to have an excellent business mentor who encouraged us to write our extensive business plan and helped us be accountable to it with monthly meetings which were invaluable, especially in the early stages of setting up.
In the beginning, when we were looking at marketing in 2009, we didn’t quite fit in to the normal tourism market pigeon holes so were delighted to meet Tom at Canopy and Stars. They were setting up as part of Sawday’s and we were to become one of their first few glamping sites. We are now present on many travel and wedding sites and are still with Canopy and Stars, although nowadays we generate most of our own bookings through our website.
We have been very fortunate with such a unique product to attract much press attention including magazine features, travel books, fashion and film shoots, and TV coverage including the Scottish Passport travel programme and Four in a Bed.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
Eco, chic, magnifique, to borrow a few words from our romantic neighbours over the water. Retreat in harmony with nature, living in colourful French roulottes in the heart of the Scottish countryside – what could be more romantic and magical! There is no other collection of hand crafted authentic French roulottes in the UK.
We also offer Japanese style eco hot tubs, hidden from view beside two of our roulottes for bathing under the stars. We invite guests with a penchant for style and a sense of adventure to ‘step back in time’, get in touch with ‘their inner Audrey Hepburn’ and experience ‘travelling without travelling’ in different roulottes with their own ambience, carvings and characters. Some guests always return to the same roulotte and others enjoy ‘roulotte bagging’, like the ‘Munro bagging’ which any mountain climbers will be familiar with in Scotland.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
With an exuberant love of colours, fabrics, furniture, artwork, style and reflecting our travels worldwide, all of this has shaped the interiors of our roulottes. It’s almost as if each roulotte styled itself and it was a natural and enjoyable experience to work alongside the character of each ‘lady’. Each one is different, with a name to reflect the essence of the character and style.
What challenges have you faced?
Being pioneers of a unique project was a challenge; there was no guidebook or map, we had to find our own way, but this only adds to a sense of achievement. Already we have mentioned the challenges of planning permission and working with local communities as well as environmental, archaeological and heritage agencies – at times it felt like spinning plates and trying to negotiate our way through balls of red tape. However by taking one step at a time and keeping everyone informed, as well as being open to change, things eventually fell into place, not always in the place you originally thought of I may add!
When we started no one knew what a roulotte was so we had to take on the role of educators. Many people associate ‘caravans’ and ‘winter’ as not being compatible, however wooden insulated roulottes with wood burning stoves and radiators are cosier than being in a house in winter. This has taken time to put across to guests but now we have our regular guests who come at least twice a year.
In the beginning, the transport of the roulottes from France to Scotland was a challenge but was eventually overcome by working alongside local haulage contractors who delivered agricultural machinery to Europe and brought our roulottes back as a ‘backload’ thereby helping us keep our eco credentials. Timing was a huge consideration when working alongside the roulotte makers, getting them ready in time for the haulage contractor and adjusting the European schedule to ensure pick up and delivery worked well for all concerned.
Another challenge was waiting – once we ascertained which roulottes we wanted, we had to be on a waiting list for two years before our order was started. It then took 6-8 months with two makers working full time to finish each roulotte.
Organising the infrastructure in the meadow was a huge challenge, juggling plumbers and electricians, doing groundwork and organising the drainage all around the newly landscaped meadow. The site had to look ‘green’, not brown (mud) like it did in the initial stages, so that guests of the first two roulottes in 2010 could enjoy their experience. We then completed the ‘meadow jigsaw’ incorporating trees, shrubs and wildflower planting and continued to build up the landscaping while awaiting the rest of the roulotte family over the next few years.
What are your plans for next season?
Welcoming new guests and returners back is always a joy. We shall continue to enjoy the romantic elopements and small weddings. We also plan to organise and facilitate more workshops – in the last few years we have enjoyed yoga, music, art, creative writing, foraging, gin tasting, photography and singing workshops.
Describe your average day mid-season
Every day is different but generally we start our day by saying goodbye to guests who are leaving, preparing eco hot tubs for new arrivals and preparing breakfast hampers if required. Time in the office includes organising emails and bookings.
A treat of the day is a walk along the banks of the River Tweed or a short hike up the Eildon Hills with Bear, our deerhound lurcher, some yoga practice, then it’s meeting and greeting guests who are arriving.
There’s always some maintenance or gardening, so we enjoy a varied working day meeting new people and being outdoors. Although there is a pattern to our day, not one day is the same and life is never boring.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
Yes, we are passionate about our business. From a kernel of an idea when we enjoyed Ruby Bowtop all those years ago, Roulotte Retreat has grown up and is a lifestyle business with a romantic heartbeat at its core. We get to be outdoors, live in a beautiful part of the countryside and enjoy organising our own time. We meet the most lovely, interesting people and we are always delighted when guests have enjoyed their stay, taking a break from their busy lives to find that calm place within.
We also work well as a team, with tasks split between us – Alan’s forte is accounts and keeping the necessary paperwork, somebody has to! He is also excellent at problem solving with maintenance issues. I handle the marketing, bookings and interiors. We have an excellent team who have been with us for many years taking care of all the changeover tasks and also great support from our local electrician and plumber whose services are crucial.
What are you most proud of?
Our vision became a reality! We felt great satisfaction having had a spark of an idea which formed into a vision and then step by step we created Roulotte Retreat from scratch with no map, list or compass to show us the way. It was a long journey and at times seemed almost impossible, yet our beautiful roulottes are now nestled around the wildlife lochan in the heart of the Scottish Borders as though time has stood still and they have always been there. In fact one of the best compliments we ever received was from a guest who said, “So you bought these in France and then drove them in here?” If only she knew!
We also feel privileged that couples choose to get married in our meadow, their special day witnessed by the birds, surrounded by wildflowers with the sunset as a backdrop.
And of course it’s always satisfying to receive recognition for our ideas and hard work, including: Tourism Innovation Award from Scottish Enterprise, Tourism Business of the Year Award sponsored by Visit Scotland (Scottish Borders Excellence Awards), Regional Finalist in Best Nature Based Experience Award (Visit Scotland Scottish Thistle Awards), and Trip Advisor’s Hall of Fame Certificate of Excellence for five years in a row.
But most of all it’s when all our lovely returning guests come back time and time again.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Allow for much more time and financial layout than you initially anticipate. Looking back with a wry smile, Alan’s initial idea of a £30 extension cable turned into a transformer costing in excess of £14,000!
Be passionate about what you do and believe in yourselves, you are going to have to be prepared to put in a lot of work and be on hand 24/7 so it will be your passion and energy that will drive your business.
Be prepared to wear many hats throughout the day, take one step at a time and don’t become overwhelmed. Think outside the box, be original, be yourselves, take time out and have fun!
Bowden Mill, Melrose TD6 0SU
0845 094 9729