Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Field of Dreams

Well, my dear readers, it’s been a while. I’ve spent most of the summer months either with my head down a composting toilet or sucked into the vortex of social media. Such are the joys of opening your own glamping business, so we’ve come to find. It’s fair to say that we’ve been scaling the Mont Blanc of learning curves since April. In the dark. Barefoot. And with our legs tied together.

It has been quite a journey – epic highs and monumental lows. No days off, zero social life but some phenomenal feedback and a wee bit of awards recognition as we slowly get our business on the map. We’ve learnt more than we could ever have imagined, yet still recognise that this is only the beginning. So here, in no particular order are some of our top lessons learned from our first season.

We can now change sheets, duvets and pillow cases in record speed with our eyes shut. In fact, we find this is job much better done with a mild hangover. Except of course during a heatwave. In the height of summer exerting any kind of physical effort under canvas is way more effective than any sauna or steam room for flushing out the toxins! We reckon we've save a fortune in potential gym fees and also...   

El scorchio!

... we feel a lot fitter. You walk thousands of steps in a day turning the tents around then to’ing and fro’ing for all the finishing touches which you invariably forget first time around – flowers, eggs, logs, candles… But any potential weight loss is offset by the copious amount of tasty goodies that our guests leave behind. It doesn’t help the old waistline that the last motorway services before you hit North Wales just happens to have a Waitrose😊.

Camp kitchen

People (and dogs) from all walks of life seemingly enjoy glamping. We’ve had people from all over the world come to stay – Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Kenya, Russia and the US…. We’ve had lawyers, farmers, teachers and builders. We’ve had babies, aunties, cousins and grandparents. Bernese Mountain Dogs the size of small ponies and Chihuahua puppies you can fit in the palm of your hand. We’ve even had a few celebrity guests (and tried, somewhat in vain, to perfect the art of looking non-plussed and un-starstruck!)


We value everything now against the cost of a night in a tent. New pair of shoes for the kids? Service for the car? Replacement chainsaw? These are all measured in £90 increments, our nightly rate. If we have a good run of bookings over a weekend then we can afford the Extra Special range that week. If not, we’re back on the Basics…

£90 a night...
Bell tents and storms don’t mix. It was after we were clearing up the aftermath of Storm Ali and Storm Bronagh that we had a sudden epiphany that our business strategy is all based on the Three Little Pigs. Having realised that canvas tents can’t withstand the huff and the puff of a force 8, we’ve decided that we’ll build the next phase of The Forge out of sticks (wooden cabins) and then eventually onto brick and stone once we get our barn conversions up and running. Take that Tropical Storm Wolfie!

I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your hut down!

We’ll never need to buy socks ever again. As long as we don’t mind wearing odd ones. It is by far the number one thing that people leave behind. We’ve washed and kept them all so if you are reading this and left one behind feel free to get in touch and we can send it on to you!

Happy days! Socks off!

So now comes the fun/hard bit of regrouping and deciding how we build on this first brilliant but exhausting first summer. Do we stick with Airbnb? Do we focus more on courses and retreats? Do we, as one of my friends suggested to me recently, go the whole hog and develop a full-on cross between The Good Life and Butlins with a whole week long programme of activities for our glampers?!  So, a fair bit of head scratching and number crunching ahead of us this winter. 

A few of you have also asked if I am going to ‘sunset’ Cockerels and Dreams? The answer for now is definitely no. I like to think of it as the ‘warts and all’ behind the scenes account of how we made The Forge, a bit like the last 15 minutes of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. They may not come as thick and fast as before, as I focus my attention on The Forge blogs. But writing this is actually a bit of an escape, a form of therapy and perhaps just a little opportunity to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come, before we continue the long march ahead.

Time for a brew and a re-think for 2019!

With thanks to Monica Stott at @thetravelhack and The Forge Facebook competition entrants for these fab photos.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

The heat is on

Here in rural North Wales, we are much more accustomed to wet and windy summers - we know exactly where we are with a pair of wellies and a trusty old fleece. As soon as the clouds clear and the sun makes an appearance it sends us all into a bit of spin. As the temperature continues to rise this week, here are some sure fire signs that the heatwave is here to stay....

All you can hear is the steady thrum of hot metal against long grass as every single farmer across the land gets his mower out to, quite literally, make hay while the sun shines. Given that you need a good week of completely dry weather to make the best hay, this is as good as indicator as any that you’re in for a nice, long dry spell.

Making hay while the sun shines

You feel like you have just stepped out of an episode of Rab C. Nesbitt, such is the proliferation of string vests and ‘singlets’ on show (as I believe the Australians delicately call them – much preferable to the “wife-beater” moniker). I am not sure what you need to avert your eyes from more – the liberal display of hairy flesh on show, or the blinding glare from the alabaster white skin that is usually covered up, thus ensuring the perfect farmer’s tan.

It’s like a scene from Mad Max any time anyone drives into the yard. A winter’s worth of mud has now evaporated into huge quantities of dust so it takes you about ten minutes after someone has arrived for it to clear enough for you to establish whether you are dealing with friend or foe.

Image result for mad max downloadable images
"Somebody coming down the drive, darling?"

The local chemists’ shelves have been completely stripped of their dusty, out-of-date bottles of Tropicana sun tan lotion that they bulk bought way back in 1976 during the last “proper summer”.

The dog has taken up permanent residence under my desk in the office, which being the oldest part of the house with walls about as thick as nuclear bunker, remains inexplicably freezing despite the 30+c temperatures outside. This is all rather cute and cosy until he starts having a particularly violent dream about savaging rabbits whilst I am on videoconference with New York and Bangalore and have to try and explain my shaking screen and high-pitched yelps to bemused stakeholders.

The cows are all lying down which of course means…… well I have no idea what it means. Perhaps they are tired, perhaps it keeps them cool. Perhaps they are just maximising upon the fact that they can lounge about all day in the sun while some poor sod runs around in the blistering heat ensuring that they have enough food, water, shade and nookie. Lucky bastards. Mind you, given the ever-present smell of sizzling beef-on-barbecue hanging in the air each evening from our glampers at The Forge, if I were them I would not be lying down – I ‘d be high-tailing over the hills and far away before being next on the grill!

Did someone say barbecue?!

Thursday, 21 June 2018

A sense of place

Although we’ve lived in North Wales for well over three years now it’s only in the past few months since we’ve opened The Forge that we’re feeling like we’re starting to belong. I’m not sure what people thought we’ve been doing all this time holed up on the hill, but now the sign is up and since we featured on the front page of the local rag, we’ve had people dropping in, stopping us on the street to ask us how it’s all going and waving enthusiastically to us as we pass in the car. Here’s a few other indicators that perhaps, just maybe, we have arrived….

Hot off the press

… you start exchanging academic papers about Iron Age hill forts with the farmer next door, who, not only actually comes into the kitchen but also accepts and drinks a ‘paned’ (cup of tea) – there really is no greater sign of acceptance in Welsh farming circles 😊

… you find yourself having hilarious farm-machinery related bants with the farmer who sorted your fencing whilst buying your hen food at the feed store.

… your husband is hobbling about like a dog on three legs because he’s joined the local squash ladder with his new buddies and thinks he’s 41 going on 24…

….. you dispense with cash altogether and instead start swapping wild trout for wild rabbits and chilli plants for sunflower seedlings. It’s the new green economy peeps!

…you start trading piglet rearing (and ‘dispatching’) tips with your girlfriends in the pub instead of ogling the bar staff or discussing Love Island, *sigh* how times have changed…

…..  your Facebook feed is increasingly filled with names of people who identify themselves through the name of their farm or their trade rather than an actual surname, as in ‘Dai Henblas’, ‘Eifion Turkeys’ and ‘Will the Milk’. Turns out old Welsh village traditions DO translate into the digital age…

  the local butcher starts giving you, FOR FREE, his most coveted pie emblazoned with a massive ‘K’ on the top (turns out it stands for kidney… err, yum?) because we have bought so many lambs’ eyeballs and testicles from him for our stag do ‘bushtucker’ trials. Better than a loyalty card any day of the week!

A sense of place

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Open All Hours

On March 30th, The Forge officially opened its doors for business and what had been our dream for over 10 years finally became a reality. You’d think that preparing for such a momentous occasion would be a time of sheer unbridled joy. Errr. Not quite. As we limped over the line somewhere in the wee hours of the 29th March, broken, exhausted and barely able to speak, we questioned whether this was the dream we had signed up for. 

All dressed up and ready to go... we, on the other hand, don't look quite so tidy anymore!

After all, hadn’t we “left behind our stressful commuter lives” (according to our glossy marketing literature) when we moved here? I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the past couple of months have been way more stressful than any project go live I went through in my consulting days. 2am finishes? Check. 4.30am starts? Check. Heart palpitations? Check. Insomnia? Check. Immune system shot to shit? Check. Not to mention not seeing the kids for days on end, never sitting down to eat and constantly scanning pages and pages of To Do lists, all dog-eared and wrinkled being dropped over and over in the snow and the mud.

Nor did I expect my hard-earned life savings from the past 20 years to be frittered away in the space of a month, swiftly turned into about a million Amazon Prime boxes and eye-wateringly enormous invoices from the builders’ merchants.

"This time next year, Rodney, we will be millionaires". Perhaps not.

Less still did I realise I was signing up to become a chambermaid-slash-toilet cleaner. As I tucked in the last sheets and duvet covers on the 17th bed at around 5am one morning, in the dark, barely able to feel my fingers in a -5c hard frost, I have to confess to questioning my life choices. Even more so when the 17 guests departed, and I was left with the unenviable task of cleaning the composting toilets, obviously without running water (“the blissful off-grid retreat”, so says the website. Hmm).

Mine all mine. Err, not anymore...

And it was only as we watched the first guests tottering through the foot-deep mud in their shiny white trainers with their sparkly pink wheelie suitcases that it suddenly dawned on us that we are now going to have to actually share our place and all of our hard work with complete strangers. And not only share it but be at their beck and call at all hours of the day and night, ensuring they have everything they need, popping out for soya milk, fetching more firelighters, finding spare poo bags for their dog, the list goes on. In fact, it has been so cold in our opening week that I keep waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, fretting that our guests are not warm enough and that I should take them more blankets. Will our lives ever be our own again??? – no weekends, no evenings, no summer holidays. Suddenly the corporate 9-5 doesn’t seem so bad…

A misnomer. Will our lives ever be free again?!

But then we got our first guest review….

And nothing in this world can compare to the euphoria of hearing that someone has described their experience as “absolutely faultless” and that all your hard work and visioning and late-night conversations have actually translated into something that people LOVE. People actually get it! Our concept works and we now have several 5 star (and only 5 star – c’mon people, we’ve just opened a business, this is no time for humility!) to prove it. Some relief I can tell you, although it also heaps on the pressure to keep them that way!

"Absolutely faultless", apparently :-)

Not to mention the buzz we are getting from meeting so many new people from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds. Just when we were in grave danger of becoming reclusive hermits, we suddenly have lots of lovely new human interaction and it feels wonderful! Not only does it assure us that we are not completely off our heads to embark on a project like this (people have been incredibly passionate and enthusiastic about our plans) but we now find ourselves with a replenished bank of new stories and witty anecdotes from our interactions with our guests. We now actually have lots to talk about (and apologies to any friends out there reading this a) for being as dull as ditch water for the past three years and b) for now droning on incessantly about all our new guest experiences).

Best of all though has to be the fact that we get to see the place afresh again with every new person that comes up the drive. Yes, it is a lovely view (how did I forget that?). Yes, it is so green and fresh (guess I just take that for granted now). And yes, you do feel like you are miles away from anywhere (yup, ‘tis true). Seeing the impact that the place has on people and the difference between how they feel when they arrive and when they leave is something I don’t think I will ever tire of.  Sure, there will be guests that don’t love it and there will be days when the cleaning and changing sheets gets a bit tedious but this is our business. We get to make all the decisions and set the direction. We are answerable to no one but ourselves and the buck will always stop with us. It is both terrifying and thrilling in equal measure. And do you know what? I think I could get used to it… 

Nice to be reminded that the view is not too shabby...

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Rise and fall

Pride before a fall and all that. After all the highs and good news of last week if feels like the universe has just flicked a massive two fingers up at us and said, "just hang on one cotton-pickin' little moment there, that all sounded just a little too good to be true….."

Just as we were patting ourselves heartily on the back and congratulating ourselves on our great progress, BAM! The internet goes off. Just like that. From 85mbps to a big fat ZERO. After years of an at best dismal broadband service, it turns out we were gorging on data like a family of starved hyenas that have just wandered across a sleeping zebra. We had somehow used up our monthly allowance of data in less than a week. Oops. You'd think a simple phone call to buy more data would have sorted the issue but no, it required about a hundred phone calls to get us back online. Frazzled, cross and close to yet another nervous breakdown.

Then POW! The gas goes off. Right at the exact moment that we have a group of esteemed guests assembled to watch the flipping extravaganza. So, we then dabbled with physics, attempting to cook our batter any which way possible (microwave, oven, wood burner…). Needless to say, none produced anything remotely pancake-like and we ruined a fair bit of kitchenware while were at it. Thankfully we managed to find a gas canister and hob in one of the barns to save the day. The even worse news was that the gas also powers our central heating so we've had to lug on average 10 baskets of logs back and forth to the house to keep the house roughly above freezing until the sodding gas company arrive to refill our tank. They assured us on Tuesday (and every day since), in classic North Wales fashion that, "we'll definitely be there tomorrow". Still no sign of them….  This wouldn't have been so bad except that….

Can you cook pancakes on this thing?!

BOOM! We all came down with the flu. Huddled together like penguins round the fire to keep warm we've snuffled and coughed our way to the end of the week, all four of us sharing a bed at night to ward off the cold from the ice crystals forming on the insides of the windows.

Then KAPOW! The final slap to the chops was the phone call from the water board to tell us that we have an "astronomically high" water bill. Like more than ten times higher than expected. Shiiiiit. It turns out we have a suspected water leak somewhere on our land. Our account has been frozen (yes, yes, very drole given current battle for heat) until we find said leak. Trouble is we are all too poleaxed with the flu and the freezing cold to do anything about it…. That or we’re too busy dealing with….

SPLAT! Just when we thought we had nailed the potty training with our youngest daughter and were smugly telling everyone what a piece of piss it was (no pun intended) second time around – we’ve had some catastrophic toileting disasters. Exactly what I needed in my freezing cold, wife-free home this week, NOT!

Whole of the Deer course in full swing

BUT it is not all bad. This week has definitely started to feel like spring with the birds singing and the sun shining. We've managed to plant our tomato, cucumber and pepper seeds and we've thrown a few peas into the polytunnel to chance our arm on an early spring crop. We’ve also run our first two bushcraft courses of the year: a full day with a group of seven young people from the Centre of Sign-Sight-Sound in Colwyn Bay and a Whole of The Deer course for three clients up from London. 1800 trees have arrived and are being planted to create our new woodland. Plus, we've also FINALLY managed to finish our new websites. You can check out the Wild Bushcraft Company here and The Forge site is here. This means we are now open for bookings from Easter - woo hoo! Please do spread the good word and, after the week we’ve just had, help put the smile back on our faces!

Planting up 1800 trees to create our new woodland

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Tales of the Unexpected

Another week, another series of weird coincidences and seemingly unbelievable developments that make me wonder whether I am actually living in some rural Matrix.

Thing one, road contractor arrives along with a whole host of seriously enormous diggers and machinery ready to start work on our new Forge superhighway. Turns out it’s the same guy I got my first pet lamb from about 30 years ago. I know North Wales is a small place and all but what are the chances?!  Perhaps less unexpected is the classic Welsh weather which delayed us by two weeks and has now rendered the whole place a complete mudfest. 

The Forge new superhighway

Thing two, car won’t start. Not a flat battery. Not a dodgy spark plug. Nada, no life. Call out the RAC man to be told, and I shit you not, that a mouse has nibbled through the fuel pipe. Now you know you’ve got to take your rodent problem in hand when they are chowing down on the bloody vehicles! The perfect excuse for yet more smallholding gadgetery, this time in the form of a chicken powered hen feeder, that only works when the chooks stand on the platform to open the trough. Genius. 

Open sesame!

Thing three, just when I am close to a nervous breakdown with the shockingly unreliable broadband service from a well-known telecoms provider (not to mention any names, BT YOU BUNCH OF FECKLESS HALF-WIT IDIOTS) it turns out EE have launched a new service which means you can get superfast internet connection through your 4G signal. So, I’ve gone from a crushing depression when it turned out that BT had happily sold us fibre broadband and charged us handsomely for the privilege when NO SUCH THING EXISTED IN OUR AREA and I obsessively monitored the download speed of between 0.2 and 3mb per second (trust me, when your life depends on the internet you become ultra-obsessive about these things) to a guaranteed 30+mbps for ever more. I am still weeping with joy. 

Thing four, more good news. If it was not the broadband that was slowly breaking me one day at a time then the motorbikes and boy racers passing the house at the speed of sound were a close second. So, I practically grabbed the lovely gentleman from the Highways Agency by the cheeks and planted a big smacker on his lips when he turned up at the door this week to tell us that they are putting in place average speed cameras on our road. Ha! Take that you Valentino Rossi wannabes!

And finally, yet more good news. Our planning application for more bell tents and our Canadian style trappers’ huts has been granted! With unbelievable ease and lack of hassle. We can barely believe it and keep double checking the paper work for the catch. But no. It seems we are good to go. So it’s full steam ahead for Phase 2 of The Forge. Just the tiny detail of getting Phase 1 completed first. But hey it’s valid until 2023 so we have a little time. 

So seems like we are on the up and up. For now at least. Until they change that matrix code...

Monday, 8 January 2018

Rural life hacks

So here we are. A week into the New Year, time of resolutions and making changes and starting afresh and all that. Personally, with two small kids, a ruck of animals and vegetables to look after not to mention a job and a major project in the offing I can’t be bothered with all that bollocks anymore. No. Quite frankly now I’ve hit forty I’m more concerned about making life easier for myself rather than imposing any more constraints that make it even harder. Which is why I have come up with these five rural life hacks. All intended to streamline our lives and make us happier and just a little less knackered in 2018.

1.        The Phantom Pig Diet
We really do miss our pigs dearly. Not in any kind of sentimental, emotional type of a way. No, more in the ‘Jasysus – do we really produce this much food waste every day?!’ kind of a way. Since we ate Chanel and Gucci and no longer have our porcine waste disposal units we’ve become acutely aware of what we now have to throw away. And the bloody dog is no use. Despite being half Labrador, he is the pickiest canine known to Man. He will very delicately nose his way around any rogue pieces of pasta or potatoes in his bowl to nibble his dog kibble, leaving anything else to one side. Which is why we have now given up cooking for ourselves and instead wait and watch the kids eat, salivating like a pair of famished wolves, before pouncing and gobbling up all their leftovers. It’s a win-win-win: save time and effort, reduce waste, lose weight (especially when they don’t leave anything at all).

2.       Sunshine therapy
Who needs a membership to the local health spa or a holiday to some winter sun destination when you have a polytunnel?! When the sun comes out you can bask in there to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that with the doors shut, and a few choice digging tools made available, the kids are going nowhere so you can relaaaax. Hell, sometimes it gets so warm in there you can even take your woolly hat off! Vit D for free. Nice.

Who needs a sauna?
 3.       Fire cleansing
Nothing like a massive burn up to start the year. All the leftover boxes and wrapping paper and broken deckchairs and old toys and feed bags and…... the list goes on. You just hurl it all on and watch it all go up in smoke in a matter of minutes. No lugging stuff to the tip, or faffing about with eBay or onerous trips to the Post Office. I can’t tell you how cathartic and cleansing it feels. And just for good measure I throw a token bit of sage on at the end. To ward off the bad spirits and all that…

4.       Tree recycling
It may be a sign of how bloody freezing our house is but the two real Christmas trees we had this year barely shed a needle despite being up for over a month. Tim, the wise old woodman who gave them to us as a gesture for spending so much money with him this year on wood for the bell tent platforms (eeek), assures us that we can get at least two years’ worth out of these trees. Despite having been cut and not in soil or anything, apparently if you stick them back in the ground they will last. Cue a new reverse Christmas tradition. Taking the trees back to the woods and wishing them a nice year until we bring them back into the house. And hopefully saving myself a whole heap of hassle come next December.

The new reverse-Christmas ritual
5.       Friendships
It is so important to nurture your friendships and spend time with those nearest and dearest to you. Which is why we are enthusiastically inviting everyone we know to come and spend a ‘relaxing break’ in North Wales where they have the 'wonderful opportunity to make their mark on our great project'. In other words, they are handed a drill, some decking screws and a large saw and are roped into helping set up our bell tent platforms in a sort of ‘slave labour in return for food and a lot of drink’ arrangement. It’s working a treat, as it means we still have some semblance of a social life whilst not feeling overly stressed and guilty about not working every hour God sends on getting ready for our grand launch of The Forge in the spring.  

What are friends for?
So there you have it. My secret to a happy, healthy and productive 2018. Here’s hoping!