A Home for Happy Glampers

14th July 2017

In need of a restorative change from routine? Want to get back in touch with nature? Francesca Baker experiences a mini-break with a difference…

Familiar sights in the fields and villages of Hertfordshire might be tractors, parked up against hay bales. Perhaps the green shimmer of crops quivering in the wind. Lines of trees marking the boundaries. Old buildings and open paddocks. Classic countryside.

And, in Elstree, you’ll also now spot twelve white tents in a circle: our home-from-home for a night. Three traditional Mongolian yurts and nine bell tents that sleep a total of 51 guests make this essentially a boutique hotel – but with a twist… a farm, woods, and a flower meadow.

The Gibbs family have lived in the area since 1647, and have been farming here for over 300 years. But businesses change and develop. A combination of family illness, a yearning for the wellies she grew up with, and the practical challenges that farming faces today prompted Jess Gibbs to set up Home Farm Glamping with her father in 2015.

She’s not the only person to have done something similar. According to the National Farmers’ Union, in 2014 fifty-six per cent of all farm businesses had some sort of differentiated activity. In 2011 Defra earmarked £25 million to go towards helping existing rural businesses diversify and generate economic opportunities in the local community, as traditional arable and livestock farming becomes less lucrative and sustainable. Tourism is a key strand of this: a viable option for farmers and landowners wanting to broaden their portfolio and spread their income.

It’s true that farming today centres around mechanisation, automation, large-scale enterprise, subsidies and streamlined industrialism. But this doesn’t mean that a farmstay like this one is deluding people with a distorted picture of nostalgia. It’s still a great way to get people into the countryside and show them some aspects of a life outside of the city.

Home Farm was a cattle farm until 1983, when Jess’s father switched to arable and started farming wheat, oats, barley and beans. The site that’s now the glamping meadow was used for crops but it was poor farmland, so eventually Jess applied for change of use, ploughed it up and re-sowed it with meadow grass and wildflowers.

The real advantage of Home Farm Glamping is its location. Twenty minutes on the tube from St Pancras, another ten in a cab, and we’re there. Half an hour from the bustling chaos of central London to the open space of rural Hertfordshire. It feels like we’re deep in the countryside, but in moments we could be in the city. It’s all so easy.

Glamping is essentially about rethinking the notion of camping – hanging on to the connection with the outdoors… but without the inconvenience and the discomfort that come with cold showers, flimsy canvas and damp bedding. Here they’ve really thought about how to optimise the balance of comfort and desirable disconnection. The large barn holds a kitchen, fridges, table tennis table, and all the essentials you might need for a weekend away. There’s a communal bowling green and plenty of space in which to mingle, but each tent is far enough away from the others (across four and a half acres) to offer privacy. The pine chalets housing the showers and bathrooms are clean and luxurious, far nicer than many houses I’ve been in, and run on a generator system for piping hot water.

In an odd kind of role reversal, Jess actually lives in the hubbub of multicultural Brixton, and commutes out to the farm every morning, looking forward on her journey to the fields, trees and grass she loves so much – describing her life as the best of both worlds. For a while she tried to juggle running the farm and Home Farm Glamping with her career as a solicitor in a big City firm, but the lure of the space to think and reflect, as well as the practical signs of success, persuaded her that it was time to devote herself full time to the project.

One of the pros of such a hospitality set up is the minimal impact on nature and local culture, with much of the infrastructure being already in existence. It’s easy to get there without a car, and people don’t want bright lights or noisy nightlife, so there’s no additional pollution created by tourists. The big barn housing the communal area and kitchen was a cattle barn, the ventilation in the roof making it perfect for barbecuing under.

Simple pleasures are magnified. Yes, we have full mobile phone reception and probably could just get sushi sent via Deliveroo. But it’s more fun to make a fire on which to slowly cook jacket potatoes whilst we chat into the night. The marshmallows in our goody box on arrival taste far sweeter than any gourmet dessert, once we’ve toasted them on our little barbecue. Our eyes start to drop as the sun does, and, with no electricity in our tents, it’s a pretty early night.
But low impact does not mean that the visitor is short-changed. Featuring double beds with deep mattresses, chests of drawers, beautiful chests, a line of books and large candles, all the tents are gently luxurious. The traditional Mongolian yurts are cosy and warm, and there’s plenty of extra blankets and hot water bottles on hand if not.

Although running the business is work for Jess, as a calm oasis away from the brilliant but often frazzling pace of London, it doesn’t feel such a drain. Knowing how valuable she finds the space – ‘I can feel my brain settle into the slightly slower and calmer way of thinking, just from being out in the fresh air’ – is one of the reasons that she knew it would work for others. ‘It has allowed me to build a business aimed at allowing other Londoners to escape too. All you need is a couple of days to totally reset yourself, and rather than fight the traffic out of London which increases the blood pressure rather than helping it, at Home Farm you just need to hop on a tube after work and you’ll be with us in under an hour.’
Plenty of companies are seizing upon this, and bringing their staff here for team building and escapist retreats. A number of city firms, including Jess’s old company, Linklaters LLP, have made Home Farm their location for corporate overnighters. After a couple of days of physical activity, team-bonding exercises and social evenings, everyone is back on the train with a bacon sandwich and coffee and at their desk, refreshed and energised. Individual city workers are also popping out for a midweek break, spending just one night under the stars before going back to work the next morning. Given that the average London commute is 74.2 minutes, you can see why a quick jaunt out to Home Farm is tempting. And it’s an amazing secret to have when you’re tapping away at the screen the next day.

Whilst the locals were initially rather confused by the concept, opinions have changed. Not only do the original doubters acknowledge that it can be an amazing experience, but most are in fact ‘quite proud of it.’ Over time, Jess has gradually formed bonds with local businesses whom she believes complement their work. Evening suppers and breakfast fry-ups are made with local produce. Every morning eggs are collected from the farm opposite at Aldenham Country Park. The same family own Church Farm in Ardeley and Jess orders further meat and produce from here. A vegetable patch keeps the kitchen well stocked with salads, and delicious honey comes from beehives on site. They’ve also collaborated on wine and yoga workshops with local providers, as well as hosting a monthly pop up supper club with a local caterering company.

Given the bright evenings and mornings, there’s plenty of opportunity to adventure into the woods and wander around the lakes, exploring the locality however brief your stay. In fact, it’s the connection with the local area that makes the project such a passion for Jess. ‘I love meeting people who run their own great businesses and working out how we can work together to create something really special.’

Just like they have at Home Farm.

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