A summer glampsite in the beautiful Kentish countryside with stunning night skies
After a large family gathering planted the seed of an idea, country store owners David and Debby Clark charged their daughter Holly with setting up a campsite. The following year, after an inspiring visit to the Glamping Show, they decided to up their offering and now offer seasonal bell and safari tents. We talk to Debby.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
Star Field is part of Charity Farm which has been in my husband David’s family for three generations. He and his family have run the on-site country store for more than 40 years, supplying animal food and accessories to local farmers and small holders. We branched into clothing and gifts as a natural progression and I fully committed to being part of the team 10 years ago.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
Retail has gone through a few rough years, and we were hit by some local competition offering prices that we could not compete with, so we looked at what we had and how we could diversify.
After a family party, where people camped, we decided that our beautiful field was ideal for camping despite being on a slope, so in 2017 we challenged our daughter Florence, who had just come back from university, to set up a campsite under the 28 day rule. In 2018 we wanted to do it completely differently so we went to the Glamping Show and were inspired by Mark Scott from Clear Sky and some of the other speakers to just go for it.
How did you research the business before entering it?
The Glamping Show was great for research, we were a bit overwhelmed to start with, but the more speakers we listened to and the more suppliers we talked to, the more our confidence grew. I stalked a few local sites to see how they had set up their price structures and copied some rules and regulations making a few amendments to fit our requirements. I spent several hours on Pinterest to get ideas too.
Tell us about your location and site
Our location is just outside of Cranbrook in the High Weald of Kent. We are in an AONB and on the edge of SSSI ancient woodland. Our skies are dark and we usually benefit from the best of the British weather.
Our site is kept as natural as possible with long grass between units. We are close to Sissinghurst Castle, which is a big attraction for our glampers, as well as several other castles, and just 30 minutes from the coast. We are also an hour away from London which means we do get a lot of Londoners escaping to the countryside.
Our site is on a slope which can be tricky when it rains an awful lot for some of the cars (we ask guests to park off the site and only drive in for loading and unloading). The tents are all on decks built by David so our guests can have a glass of wine without it sliding down the table!
We have running water but no electricity other than solar so have gas powered showers and compost loos. This generally hasn’t been a problem, just a matter of changing the gas and/or batteries.
How did you tackle getting planning?
We started off utilising the 28 day rule for a campsite with portaloos and showers and lots of grass pitches. It was a big learning curve for us and we knew we would not want to do it like that again. Planning has always been a bit of a headache so we decided to go down the certification route. We heard of The Greener Camping Club on Facebook so we contacted them. Their ethos fitted so well with ours and they were extremely helpful. They came to visit us and gave us the go ahead.
They do have rules, which include having a mix of glamping and camping and as much recycling as possible, but they fit nicely with us.
How did you finance the project?
We self-financed the project. Starting off with bell tents was the cheapest way and offered a good return on our investment. We have increased the number and this year bought two safari tents. We had always admired them and felt they fitted in well with our site and again offered a good return on investment.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We now have two luxury bell tents which are completely kitted out with proper double beds and futons for kids, bed linen, rugs and tables. They have their own shower, loo and kitchen with a gas stove and all the pans, crockery, cutlery etc. needed for four people. There is a handmade picnic table and fire pit too.
There are also two naked bell tents with a double bed and futons but no bed linen. They have their own loo and, from next year, their own shower, fire pit and picnic bench.
The safari tents are a step up, sleeping five in proper beds with an internal kitchen and seating area. David has built bathrooms on the back of them making them unique to us. They also have fire pits and picnic benches.
What occupancy levels and price per night do you achieve?
We achieve at best 80% occupancy. Our prices for this season are £100 per night for the luxury bell tents, £65 per night for the naked bell tents and £125 per night for the safari tents all, with a minimum two night stay.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
We decided to focus on our clear skies and publicised ourselves on Facebook and Instagram. We started off using Pitch Up but quickly decided that Cool Camping was a better fit for us. This proved to be true as they featured us in The Telegraph which resulted in a lot of bookings.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
Our ethos is to be family friendly and back to nature so that people can relax and enjoy the countryside. Our selling points are not necessarily unique but are still desirable; the clear skies, the beautiful area and the farm shop on site – our campers and glampers only have a two minute walk to get their breakfast or dinner for the day. Our eldest daughter Holly hand paints all of our signs with the name of the unit and a picture, which is pretty unique.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
We named our bell tents after wild flowers such as nettle and dandelion and have based the interior decorations on the colours of these plants. We didn’t want to be too twee, but we wanted them to reflect the British countryside. I made tassel bunting in the appropriate colours because you can’t have a bell tent without some sort of bunting!
The safari tents are named after common birds, Robin and Wren. We decided to keep the colours quite calm and neutral as we wanted to create a relaxing space, not one that might jar with glampers’ taste.
What challenges have you faced?
As we do everything ourselves, from building the loos to emptying them and choosing the bed linen to ironing it, it is a challenge to fit it all in with our existing jobs of running the country store. We do have excellent staff at the shop however, who keep it running smoothly. The laundry has been overwhelming this year so we will be getting some help with changeovers next season.
The weather has been more of a challenge this year and David has had to tow several people out after bursts of extremely heavy rainfall.
How have you coped through Covid?
Covid has meant that we have had to think more about our cleaning protocols. Although they were pretty robust we have tweaked them to be compliant. We have allowed a day between glampers, which has obviously affected our occupancy. Our season last year was much shorter but quite intense. The season this year has been quite long and the intensity hasn’t eased up. Interest has been immense and we have had to turn away lots of potential custom.
What are your plans for next season?
Our plans are to try and increase the length of stay; generally it is two nights and we would like to increase that to three and have fixed changeover days. We will upgrade the bell tent facilities so that the naked bell tents have their own showers as well as loos. Rather than increasing the number of units we have we will be looking at improving the experience at Star Field with some communal areas, but these haven’t been decided on yet.
Describe your average day mid-season
An average day mid-season would see us working in the shop until 11am when we do any changeovers that are needed – this can take four hours for the two of us. We then clean the communal camping facilities and I start on the laundry while David does site maintenance. We then head back to the shop to catch up on anything that needs to be done.
Our check in time is between 3pm and 8pm so we often meet and greet while we are on the campsite, or guests will check in at the shop. David also delivers fire kits that have been ordered.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
We do enjoy the business despite the hard work. It is very satisfying when people enjoy what you have provided for them. We love meeting different people and hearing their stories.
What are you most proud of?
We are most proud that we have personally built something that people enjoy and keep coming back to. We have a lot of returning glampers which is the best feeling – many from the beginning and some who come back within the same season!
Do you operate in any other outdoor hospitality sectors?
We have had enquiries for weddings but we don’t feel our site is suitable.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Decide on your target audience and aim your social media activity towards that. Join glampsite owners’ Facebook groups – there is an awful lot of support, knowledge and advice in these groups. Oh, and don’t expect to get rich quick!
Clear Sky – www.safaritents.net
Shower King – www.showerking.uk
Free Range Designs – www.freerangedesigns.co.uk
Bedful – www.bedful.com
Cool Camping – www.coolcamping.com
The Greener Camping Club – www.greenercamping.org
NFU Mutual – www.nfumutual.co.uk
Star Field Camping
Charity Farm Countrystore
Kent TN17 3PS