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Our Glamping Adventure: Creating Noddfa

I wasn’t really sure where to start with my first blog, so I thought, where better than…at the beginning? Iwan and I have been on what a master of understatement  might call ‘a bit of an adventure’ in creating Noddfa. It’s been a rollercoaster, that’s for sure, but one we’re glad we hopped on. We’ve been through highs, some stomach-lurching lows, and muttered the odd profanity along the way, but we finally got here. Now we’re at the really exciting point where we get to share it all with you.

The lightbulb moment

It was Iwan who came up with the idea of glamping as a diversification project. It’s been a difficult period for traditional family farms in recent years. Significant changes have affected our ability to keep the farm going and continue to produce the traditional grass-fed lamb and beef from cattle and sheep that graze the mountains in summer and lower pastures in winter. 

We wanted to find a secondary income to help see the farm through tougher times – but it had to be something we were equally passionate about. As we thought about what we love about Penygraig Farm, the penny dropped. The stunning views across the Welsh peaks, the peace and quiet, the fresh country air and clear, star-filled skies…it had to be holidays. Glamping, to be precise. Together we’d create a tranquil haven on our special little piece of Wales for others to share. 

‘Brilliant idea!,’ I said, “Er, how do you actually go about that, then?”

We’d been to the Glamping Show at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire to look for inspiration for the last couple of years. The trouble was, we never had the time or energy to think about actually making the leap and heading off on our glamping venture. But we knew that diversification was what the farm desperately needed if we were to balance the books and look forward to a hopeful future. 

It was the mounting winter feed costs and fall in lamb and beef prices that gave us the push we needed to finally take the plunge. And so we started the long, difficult climb up what is commonly known as the ‘learning curve’, but actually felt like scrambling up Mount Everest in cheap flip flops. 

Snakes and ladders

The first step was gaining the financial backing to enable the project to go ahead. We fell into that group of farmers who were ‘land rich, cash poor’. One look at the old Massey Ferguson 265, with its rusty wheels (well rusty everything, to be honest) would tell you Iwan is no gentleman farmer. 

In fact, one look at Iwan would tell you this was no gentleman farmer – no label, working wellies, a woolly hat (because there is no time for a visit to the barbers) and an old leather belt that either expands over winter or pulls right in to the first notch during lambing. Quite often, said belt is removed to strap together some part of farm machinery in order to get home, resulting in Iwan constantly tugging up his trousers to avoid looking like he’s offering somewhere to park your bike. 

The application form to the bank was a bit like a game of snakes and ladders. Just when you thought you’d supplied everything needed, they’d ask for more answers on topics so random we felt like supplying our pant size, the name of the next-door neighbour’s prize bull and when my great aunt Doll’s annual daytrip on the National Express was, just in case. And then there were the bank’s solicitors, who seemed to work at pace that would force a snail to put the brakes on. 

Calling Channel 5

This all began back in August 2020, and very early on Polly from our booking agency had left a message to say Channel 5 were looking for farms that were about to begin diversification projects for a TV series. She’d thought of us immediately and told one of the crew, Carlo, that she’d ask us to give him a ring. 

We felt a bit cagey at first. The thought of having cameras following our every move, how we’d be portrayed and how we’d look on camera all raced through our minds. 

Fillers are something you stuff between slices of bread in egg mayonnaise or coronation chicken form in our house. And the reason both of us are constantly wearing hats is that haircare doesn’t figure very highly on the daily agenda. 

But the more we thought about it, the more we imagined our perfectly pristine geodesic dome, with its luxury hot tub and sparkling copper bath, unveiled to the world on TV by the nation’s favourite farmer Adam Henson. Then the titles roll and the bookings flood in. The more we thought about it, the more it appealed. 

After all, what could possibly go wrong…?

Lockdowns, delays and unmuted mikes 

Well, quite a few things could go off kilter, as it turned out. The loan, applied for in August, didn’t hit our account until the end of April. Filming with Gavin, the producer, and Carlo on camera began in October and finished late February. 

As anyone could imagine, the cameras became the least of our concerns (although there were several embarrassing incidences when I forgot to mute the microphone when having a wee or singing to the cows off camera). Iwan and I became adept at our own form of sign language to check we were both on mute before beginning an argument that had been festering all day while we ‘smiled and waved’ for the cameras. The stress was incredible and not even considered in our aspirational plans where everything ran like clockwork. 

Covid had forced a second lockdown, so the availability of materials had nosedived and the had prices shot up, sometimes three-fold. It seemed that, due to being confined to their homes, the entire population of Great Britain had decided it was a good time to improve their house, shed, garden and dog kennel. 

Demand for trades people soared too, resulting in us being fitted in where possible by the team of people we had doing our work. And the money for their services and the geodome wasn’t quite there due to the ongoing issues with the bank’s solicitors. (Our own solicitor was great I have to add, just in case he’s reading this – Vernon, thank you!)

Filming continued, but with no dome and no sign of the loan we couldn’t see how looking at a large area of decking would hold any viewers’ attention. We’d initially been told the loan would be in by the middle of December and now it was the beginning of February with no loan in sight. I have to say the stress and disappointment took its toll on both of us. 

As well as the glamping project, we still had the farm to manage, Iwan’s father John had been unwell and I, due to an accident on the farm in 2019, was still waiting on major surgery. The second lockdown also meant we were unsure of the markets for livestock. With restaurants and the usual outlets closed, we didn’t know what the immediate future would hold. And we felt a huge responsibility to Gavin and the crew at Channel 5. 

Are we there yet?

However, luck finally decided to play us a fair hand and at the very last minute the first section of the loan was released. Now, it was a mad dash to get everything ordered and in place. With the decking down, we enlisted the help of friends to begin the erection of the dome itself. Arriving late at night on a lorry all the way from F Domes in Poland, it was such a relief. I think we both felt tearful that finally we had something to show for all the paperwork, disappointment, more paperwork and a lot of scratching of heads. 

The dome construction was a bit like playing with a giant Meccano set. Erected over two days, the light grey membrane was stretched over the frame and held in place with ties under the base plates. To me it looked like a giant swimming hat and brought back the childhood trauma of forcing my mane of long, unruly locks into a cap so tight it made my head shape resemble that of Beaker from The Muppets.

With the bore hole in place, electrics started and decking now housing the long-awaited dome, we felt that completing the glamping diversification project was finally in sight. What we didn’t foresee was the fact that stock like outdoor seating, the wood fired hot tub, sheds, timber in general – in fact just about everything – was depleted due to Covid. ETA’s now stretched beyond eight weeks. 

The final furlong

I think at this point we were just as depleted of hope, energy and at times our sanity. Adam, Gav and the crew were great. They almost held our hands through all of it, making suggestions and doing everything they could to support us. As could be seen when the programme aired, we didn’t finish the dome on time for the programme. In fact, Amy, one of the crew, went on a mad dash shopping spree to provide us with furniture for the interior as we had nothing; no hot tub, no kitchen, bathroom, copper bath – nothing. 

All of the grand ideas we thought would be aired for the great viewing population to feast their eyes on were completely dashed. The crew (who felt like old friends at this point as they’d accompanied us through the emotional rollercoaster I wished we hadn’t bought tickets for) packed their gear and headed away for the final time. 

We waved goodbye to Adam as he headed home, having purchased three of my Anglo Nubian goats for his Cotswold Farm Park. And that was that. We felt deflated, but at the same time so grateful for all their help and advice. Shortly after their leaving, there was just the slightest glimmer of light at the end of a Gotthard Base sized tunnel (no, I’d never heard of it either – I Googled the world’s longest tunnel for effect). 

Stock was finally beginning to fill the shelves of suppliers in the UK and emails were tentatively promising the arrival of long waited orders within the next two weeks. Slowly but surely, the jewels in our glamping crown began to arrive. With the cautious return to the ‘new ordinary’, people’s obsession with home improvements waned, freeing up the local trades people we so desperately needed (though I gather solicitors practicing in divorce proceedings may now have their work cut out).

The glamping game plan 

It’s the end of July as I write this. The dome, its interior and exterior are almost complete. In fact, thanks to our friends in the beginning and the long-suffering trades people who have stuck with us throughout, we only have the electricity and water to connect. The website is under development and thanks to Angus, Emma and their team at Web Adept, and Joe Purches our photographer, this website should be up and running for by the time ‘Our Family Farm Rescue’ airs on 3rd August. 

It has been a heck of a journey, to me it feels a bit like labour. You go through it the first time and as time passes the pain fades and you get to do it all again. So, next the log cabin and then the real work starts….the treehouse! (I have a sneaky feeling it will probably make the dome feel like a jog around the newly stained, anti-slip decking.) Can’t wait……

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