Meet Mr&Mrs Mills of Dursley Cross - Forest of Dean glamping pioneers
Nicola Mills’ son, 18-month-old Arthur, is asleep in a cot by the front door as we step into a caravan on a rainy, muddy February afternoon.
The family’s temporary home, bought on Ebay after they moved to Gloucestershire from London, sits alongside their Grade II listed farmhouse where husband Gary works to renovate the stripped out interior.
And at the back of the property on the old Dursley Cross Farm, sits a plot of land which Nicola hopes that, by August this year, will host three 16-foot tents – the start of the Mrs Mills Yurts “glamping” project.
To describe it as ‘ambitious’ barely does justice to the scope of Nicola’s vision for Dursley Cross Farm. Here’s the plan in a nutshell: a renovated farmhouse; a converted barn for the parents-in-law to live in; the yurt campsite; a bed and breakfast within the main house; a community marketplace for local artisan brewers, bakers and other producers to show their wares. Oh, and a smallholding with goats, pigs, ducks and chickens. All alongside raising a family.
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“It’s a big risk,” she says. “We know that. And maybe we underestimated quite how massive this project is going to be. But we are in it now and we have got the experience and the enthusiasm, so we are just going to get on with it.”
The potential really is fabulous. On a clear day, views stretch across the Forest of Dean. An enormous, grassy trench runs alongside where the yurts will be – Nicola tells me it was the old road before the new A40 was built – and it’s a perfect adventure spot for children to play in. And with the main road offering easy access from the Gloucester direction and from Wales, the location’s certainly feasible for a successful business.
So what gives Nicola and Gary such confidence that their grand vision will become reality? Aren’t they the classic, wealthy and overambitious Londoners who fancied a move to the country and have bitten off more than they can chew?
Not so, says Nicola, formerly a fine dining delicatessen and cheese shop owner from Battersea in south west London and also a tea and coffee expert. Gary’s a plumber by trade, either looking for a local sustainable energy firm to work for or considering setting up on his own.
“We are not just rich Londoners who want to have a bash at living in the countryside. I never wanted to bring Arthur up in the city and we had started looking to move long before I got pregnant.
“We knew that we wanted to move to Gloucestershire – then we found this place and fell in love with it. Then we did our market research and decided that glamping was a viable business for us. I’ve run a successful business before, I know a lot about food and produce, and we know this can work.
“And we’ve always liked the area. We holidayed here before and we’ve got friends in Stroud. Gary’s parents Linda and Steve have retired now so they’ve come over too and they’re renting a cottage in Mitcheldean while we get the house finished.”
Planners at Forest of Dean District Council gave the (almost) unanimous go-ahead to the Mills’ proposals late last year.
As you’d expect, there were several objections from residents in May Hill, the village next to the site. Accusations were levelled at the glamping proposal – glamping means “glamorous camping”, by the way – that it was going to cause extra noise and disturbance. One resident reported fears of “all nighters, with lots of champagne, caviar and chat”.
But Nicola rejects any notion that visitors to the site will be an incongruous blight on the area. “People see it as a campsite rather than a glamping site,” she says. “It’s a bit of a lack of understanding really. It’s supposed to be something a bit more upmarket than your regular campsite.
“We’ve got permission for a maximum of five yurts but we’re planning to start off with three and build it up if it’s successful.
“Each one only sleeps four so it’s not going to be a campsite on a big scale. We’re hoping to target couples and young families, like us. After all, it’s much easier to market to the demographic you are in.
“And we’d like people to come here all year round. There will be wood burners in the yurts and they’re surprisingly warm, so people can come here in winter as well.”
So where does the project stand at the moment and what’s the timescale? Well, Nicola admits there’s a lot of work still to do as the work on the house is dominating any prospects of the glamping vision being realised.
But she’s made enquiries with the manufacturers of the £4,000 yurts, even though some tall white sticks in the ground are the only indicator of where the tents will eventually be.
“I’d really like to get some up by the end of the summer but realistically it’s all going to start properly next year.
“I want it to look amazing, so it depends on the weather that we have in the spring and how much we can get done, planting trees and so on.
“But we’re looking forward to the weather getting better and getting started. We’re planning to raise our family here, to be sustainable and make this site a great feature of the community.”