This two-unit site pays homage to a family connection to shepherding
As the owner of the first glampsite in the country to be awarded VisitEngland’s Gold Award, Philip Russell knows a thing or two about what it takes to keep visitors happy. Open Air Business finds out more about his approach to quality and his personal connection to shepherd’s huts
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
My grandfather, Leonard Candy, was a shepherd, and my family home includes a grazing field. Around 2006 I became obsessed with the idea of opening a luxury shepherd’s hut retreat. My first hut, ‘Len’ (named after my grandfather) was a self-build, which was built by myself and craftsmen on-site during the winter of 2012. It was completed in spring 2013 and welcomed its first guests in May of that year.
How did you research the business before entering it?
Because we had been running The Old Milking Parlour holiday accommodation for six years prior to opening Tor View, we had experience of managing guest accommodation. We stayed in other huts to see how they operated, and also engaged the services of a surveyor to help with planning.
Tell us about your location and site
Tor View is located on the Mendip Hills, near Wells, and is within easy travelling distance of several tourist areas including Wells, Glastonbury, Cheddar Gorge, and Bath. Maesbury Castle, an Iron Age fort, is within walking distance.
The site is south facing on a hill and enjoys views of Glastonbury Tor, the Somerset Levels, and, on a clear day, the Exmoor Hills and coastline, and Rampisham Down in Dorset.
How did you tackle getting planning?
The actual planning permission was not difficult, the challenge came with getting approval from the Highways Department. From initially submitting plans to obtaining permission was a period of more than 18 months.
We obtained permission to locate three huts on-site and, after completing the first hut, we decided to alter the location of the second and third hut sites. This decision was made so that the location of the first hut was not compromised.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We have two shepherd’s huts, Len and Ted. Len was designed and built by hand in-situ, whereas we purchased Ted to our specification then created the interior. Both huts offer luxury glamping accommodation, and the newer hut ‘Ted’ enables guests to have a real retreat as it is off-grid without power points (although you can charge your e-book reader and gadgets through USB charging points). Both huts have modern comforts such as an en-suite shower, flushing toilet, fitted kitchen, and a luxury mattress supplied with all the bed linen and duvet, as well as eco wood-fired hot tubs. ‘Ted’ also has an outside oven.
I chose shepherd’s huts because I love the look of them and the idea of compact living. We have managed to fit a lot into our huts.
Describe how you researched and sourced your units
When ‘Len’ was built, there were only a handful of shepherd hut manufacturers, and we visited them all. We wanted to create an en-suite hut, which wasn’t available at the time, which is why we built ‘Len’ ourselves. Our hut supplier, Blackdown Shepherd Huts, was a relatively new company at the time, but they helped us to self-build one of the first 18ft huts in the country.
How do you publicise yourself?
Since opening our first hut, we have enjoyed coverage in publications such as Somerset Life, West Country Life, Conde Naste Traveller, the London Evening Standard, and The Times. We advertise on a number of glamping websites and have our own website. We use social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) to share news and images with our followers. We also have leaflets which are displayed in local venues.
Recently, we have begun advertising in wedding fayre programmes, as weddings, honeymoons and anniversaries are a key market for us. In fact, we have had another engagement occur during a stay in the past month.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
We offer a real retreat from the modern world. Our huts offer luxury glamping and their location means that you can step back from everyday life completely if you wish.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
It was a joint effort between us – my wife, Mandy, chose the colours and I sourced the vintage features such as the clocks, maps, books, and sheep-related items from flea markets and auctions. We often don’t know where the items are going to go when we first buy them.
What challenges have you faced?
The main challenge is cash flow – you can be cash-rich in the summer and cash-poor in the winter.
What are your plans for next season?
We have already doubled in size ready for the 2017 season, and are now planning further expansion for 2018-19. Our plans are top secret at the moment, so you will have to wait and see!
Describe your average day mid-season
Because Tor View is not our only business no two days are the same, but we do our fair share of hut changeovers and administration.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
Managing shepherd’s huts can be hard work, especially in the winter! However, I enjoy seeing guests’ reactions when they first open the door to the huts and see what we have created. I also enjoy reading guests’ comments after their stays, and they obviously enjoy the experience as we have had many repeat bookings! It is also pleasing to put the field to good use and carry on a link with my grandfather through the type of accommodation we offer and the names of the huts.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
The Old Milking Parlour is our two-bedroom barn conversion close to the field with the huts. It is 4-star and VisitEngland Gold Award- rated (www.theoldmilkingparlour.co.uk). It operates as a separate business and offers a different rural holiday experience to Tor View.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Stay in at least three other similar sites. Always assume that building a glamping spot will take longer and cost far more than you think (trust me on that from experience!). You should also offer additional services/add-ons (such as hot tubs and outside ovens); and ensure that repeat customers always see something new, even if that is just a refurbishment.
Congratulations on your Visit England Gold Award. How did you prepare for the accreditation process?
We were really pleased to have achieved this award. As we have held a Gold Award at The Old Milking Parlour for almost 10 years we knew the standard which would be expected, and our assessment score was just short of 100%.
Blackdown Shepherd Huts – 01460 929774 / www.blackdownshepherdhuts.co.uk
Hikki – +46 706 370 820 / www.hikki.se
BBQ & PIZZA OVEN
Hikki – +46 706 370 820 / www.hikki.se
Bookalet – 01234 834716 / www.bookalet.co.uk
NFU Mutual – www.nfumutual.co.uk
Thrupe Marsh Farm, Wells, Somerset, BA5 3HB