Meaning ‘boat house’ in Welsh, this contemporary take on glamping repurposes used shipping containers and provides a ‘space to share’ right on Cwmtydu Beach, Cardigan Bay.
Eco architect Nigel Humphrey has created a near zero carbon, contemporary glamping development with activities including fishing, kayaking, windsurfing and climbing from the beach just a stone’s throw away. We talk to him about how he handled the planners and the great support offered by Business Wales.
What’s your back story – your life before ty Cwch?
I’ve always been architecting, apart from nine years in France when I bought and renovated a ruined water mill and farm buildings which were then rented out as holiday accommodation.
While there I also worked for several clients, converting a range of traditional stone buildings from barns to pig sties, often for holiday use. It’s amazing what you can fit in!
Living in old stone buildings through cold continental winters provoked a keen interest in how to keep warm, and after we came back to the UK in 1997 I completed an MSc in Energy Efficiency in Building.
We were living in Somerset for 14 years, where we renovated two houses for ourselves and then we moved to Cardiff and renovated a third house for which we won several awards.
Now, 20 years later, I’ve worked on buildings from Donegal to Brittany, traditional and contemporary, and have the expertise and experience to produce a very energy efficient building like ty Cwch. It doesn’t yet have the planned PV panels which will make it nearly zero carbon but because the energy load is so low, and we use only renewable electricity, it isn’t doing badly even now.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
I wanted to enact the planning consent and had a limited budget. I knew from my research that the demand for short stay activity holidays was growing rapidly. I’d already made the link with a local (inland) activity provider looking for a coastal location.
The plan originally was to provide space for daytime use only but the advantage of also providing sleeping accommodation quickly became clear.
Ty Cwch is a bit of a hybrid and could be described as a bunkhouse or glamping. It combines all the comforts of home (nearly) with the experience of being in a natural landscape.
We finished the building in late September and were officially opened by Ben Lake MP in late December. This will be our first year.
How did you research the business before entering it?
Visit Wales has a lot of detailed statistics available on its website about the tourism trade, including bookings. At the time when I was writing the business plan Visit Wales was very keen to encourage catered activity holidays. It was also clear that there was a big increase in the numbers of people taking shorter, more frequent, breaks.
I had the previous experience of holiday rental from France to call on, and did the usual SWOT analysis, looking at the competition and the risks.
Tell us about your location and site
My first visit to Cwmtydu was on a crisp sunny Autumn afternoon. We drove downhill for two miles through the steep sided wooded and sun dappled valley until eventually emerging to a narrow view of the sea between two steep hills. For me at the time this gave a deep sense of retreat. Because of the hills there was no telephone signal, no Wi-Fi, peace.
The Ceredigion coast path runs beside ty Cwch. Up the coast or down are beautiful views, and inland lots of woodland walks.
Cwmtydu feels relatively undiscovered. It’s much less busy than New Quay or Llangrannog and in the evenings in the summer the visitors go and peace and quiet returns for the locals to enjoy.
How did you tackle getting planning?
We bought the site with a planning consent but not for what we wanted to build. I had to remind the planners that the wording legally constituted Full Planning Consent and to prove to them that if they granted a new planning consent that I couldn’t just build both!
Many people think of the planners as policemen and they get abused. My advice to clients is to study the Local Plan and Supplementary Guidance and look for ways of telling the planning department the story that they want to hear. Say what you want to do, why it’s a good thing, and have a fall-back position which you can find acceptable.
How did you finance the project?
I tried for several years to get grants without any luck, and was told by brokers at the time, “nobody will lend money for a tourism project west of the Severn”. So the project was funded mostly from capital and a loan from Business Wales, for about 18% of the build cost.
Business Wales was excellent and I’d recommend anyone to go to it.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We have four pods on the ground floor each of which opens on to the ‘deck’ which is covered by three permanent sails. One is just storage for valuable equipment, the others are all fully insulated and heated. There’s a sitting room, kitchen, and utility room (with two WCs). At the end of the utility room there’s a further two showers.
The pods are made from 6m shipping containers which are quite special because the whole side can open.
In the deck area there are also large sitting and dining areas, and the outside walls of the deck open fully giving views of the sea, making it a very flexible space. It’s a bit difficult to describe but if you look on the gallery on our website you’ll see what I’m talking about.
On the first floor there are three cabins each with four bunks (again fully insulated and heated) and two showers/WCs.
The choice of shipping containers arose from practical considerations of how to create the retaining wall that I needed at the back of the site, cost, issues around embodied energy, and energy in use. They’re very well sealed and have low thermal mass, so they heat up quickly and are easy to keep warm.
Guests can always be cosy inside the pods regardless of what the weather’s doing outside, but on the business plan I assume that we have very few bookings if any between October and Easter.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
Ty Cwch means the ‘boathouse’ in Welsh. The design deliberately plays on that theme with sails, a boat deck, large round portholes, and galvanised steel walkways. I should put up a sign, ‘Port Out Starboard Home’.
A recently retired school friend was a university marketing director and has been an excellent help. I’d suggest getting help from someone either privately or from the equivalent of Business Wales where you are. Just knowing the ropes of diary notices, press releases, who to get hold of and how, makes your efforts much more productive.
I have also been cheeky and gotten in touch with people. Visit Wales and the Ceredigion Tourism officers were happy to be contacted and to help. This network has then produced other interesting contacts. I’ve used CRM software to make lists which can then be used to keep in touch with them all.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
I described ty Cwch once to a visitor as, ‘a place to share’. It’s possible to book just a pod, or the whole place, but since we have 12 beds even that will mean a certain amount of sharing and getting on with each other.
Beside the location and the building, which are very special, the activities are a USP. There’s a wide range available for groups or families. So, plenty to discover and enjoy.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
Generally, a theme was the kind of things that you might expect to find in a shipping container, hence boxes, pallets, sawn timber. Another was from the Mexican hammocks we’d bought at WOMAD. Bright, colourful, holiday colours.
What challenges have you faced?
All the challenges that usually come with building – time and cost. It usually takes three people to build well, the client, the architect, and the builder. I’ve been all of these in the past and decided that you can just about get away with being two at the same time but not three.
Also, this time I must stick around and make the building, and the business, work. Usually this is the point where I walk away!
What are your plans for next season?
This will be our first season, so I plan to be spending quite a lot of time finding out how this business works. Obviously, I’ve done holiday rental before, so I’ve got some idea.
Describe your average day mid-season
Do you enjoy the business and why?
I enjoyed working with the people who made the building, a mixture of old and possibly new friends. I realised a while ago that I do like people. When we ran the gite business in France I wasn’t so sure.
What are you most proud of?
I’m tempted to say, ‘sheer dogged determination to keep going’, but that’s not necessarily a virtue.
I take great pleasure in my children’s comments about the building, and even the building control officer said, ‘this is so cool’! I hope that my children are as pleased with the business.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Get advice and help wherever you can, don’t be shy. Do your business plan as well as you can, research thoroughly, allow more time and money, and you’ll give yourself much more chance of enjoying what you’re doing.
I’m writing my own short report on the building, suppliers, and costs. If you are interested, please get in touch.
Llandysul SA44 6LQ