Financial Times Article

Adventure | Writing |

Cornwall’s hipster holiday camp

A quirky camping experience in a disused quarry is geared to challenge with its wild swimming, tree tents and Triffid-like cabins.

AUGUST 22, 2017 by: Horatia Harrod.

Photo: One of the four cabins at Kudhva, North Cornwall.

It is close to midnight when a taxi drops me off at the entrance to the Prince of Wales quarry in north Cornwall, at the bottom of an unmarked track leading upwards into the darkness. Already it has been raining for hours, and shards of slate and rivulets of water glint in the headlights. Only in Britain, I think, could the beginning of a summer weekend feel like the opening scenes of a police procedural.

Quarries all along this stretch of the Cornish coast, have shipped slate around the world for the past millennium. The Prince of Wales quarry, near the hamlet of Penpethy, doesn’t have the pedigree of the one in nearby Delabole — mentioned in the Domesday Book, and still in use today — because it was only in operation for a couple of decades in the late 19th century. Since then it has been left to ramblers, ravers — who held illegal parties here in the 1990s — and a guerrilla gardener who cultivated a tiny patch of its 45 acres.

Now, though, it has a new advocate. In 2015 the leasehold to the quarry was bought by Louise Middleton, a forty-something artist and leatherworker. When she first visited, there was no access road to the site, and it was so thickly wooded as to be almost impenetrable. But, she says, “I saw a map of it, and saw there were two water sources [meaning it could operate off-grid]. It was in an amazing location. It had the Engine House on it, a Grade II-listed heritage building looking right over the sea. And although I didn’t realise it then, it’s got a perfect solar arc — the sun sets where the sea is, so it has really amazing sunsets.”

Even two years on, there are tracts of the land that Middleton still hasn’t visited. But she is well into the process of reimagining a small plot of it as Kudhva (the Cornish word for “hideaway”), a place to stay in cabins or tents, to explore, forage and swim in the reservoir. This is its first summer and it is, she admits, a work in progress. Occasionally — when the solar showers stop working, or the 1978 Ford pick-up, intended to ferry visitors to the beach, breaks down — it is a little like being thrown into a touch-and-go episode of Grand Designs.

For £45, adventurous types can stay in one of six Tentsiles, tents strung a few feet above the ground from the branches of willow trees. Or, for rather more, they can find their way to one of four wood-and-steel habitations designed by Middleton and architect Ben Huggins: towering, eight-legged structures also known as “kudhvas”, which poke their heads above the tree line.

The stunning sea views from Kudhva at Trebarwith Strand in Cornwall.

Huggins eschews the term “pod” as too cutesy and cosy for his 20ft-tall, Triffid-like creations. “We wanted something that was going to encompass people’s desires for wilderness cabins but also promote art and architecture through the design,” he says. “We didn’t want the typical Noddy-cabin glamping offering. Shake a tree in Cornwall and you’ll find that sort of thing. We wanted to do something different. There’s a brilliant quote from The Swiss Family Robinson, where the father says, ‘There are thousands of perfectly lovely people all over the world, in perfectly nice homes, living low to the ground. We wanted to live in the air.’ ”

Middleton describes a stay in a kudhva as an opportunity for what she calls “rewilding”. A frisson of danger is actively cultivated throughout the site: this is glamping gone bad. The quarry itself offers abundant possibilities for cuts, grazes and twisted ankles, with its shifting slopes of slate and sudden drops into cavernous pits. Inside the kudhva, the threat level is reduced, although you are required to scramble up a steep nine-foot ladder to get inside. My partner, a climber in childhood, sprung up the shallow wall-mounted steps that led to bed, a small crawl space suspended above the living area; I ascended hesitantly, like a lumbering adult monopolising a child’s climbing wall. Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share this chart The idea is not to mooch around in the stripped-back cabin, which is sparsely furnished with a built-in sofa, candles and some metal crockery. It has neither electricity nor

The idea is not to mooch around in the stripped-back cabin, which is sparsely furnished with a built-in sofa, candles and some metal crockery. It has neither electricity nor heating, but retains heat well enough for a comfortable night’s sleep. “We wanted to make the space small, so you would leave,” says Middleton. “We wanted to make everything challenging.” With your sleeping quarters in revolt against your presence, there is little choice but to get out and explore, which is what our fellow campers, mostly in their twenties, were doing. Middleton has made connections with all sorts of people in the area. You can pre-order the trappings for a fry-up from a local supplier called Beautiful and the Feast, who also cater at all-day parties on the first Sunday of every month. There are fire pits dotted around the site, including outside each of the

Middleton has made connections with all sorts of people in the area. You can pre-order the trappings for a fry-up from a local supplier called Beautiful and the Feast, who also cater at all-day parties on the first Sunday of every month. There are fire pits dotted around the site, including outside each of the kudhvas, and a communal area where you can cook using portable gas cylinders. The

The kudhvas, meanwhile, were fabricated in Devon and Tintagel — whose ruined medieval castle can be reached on foot via a stretch of dramatic coastline in about 45 minutes. “Everyone here has got a really can-do attitude,” says Middleton. “I think that is to do with Cornish industrial history. When I look around that quarry and see how big those bits of slate were, and how they moved those, that is not easy. And I think that spirit has lasted.” When we decide on our second day that we’d like to go surfing, Middleton brokers an introduction to George Stoy, who runs a surf school on Polzeath beach, a half-hour drive from Kudhva. Stoy, a tanned, tousled former stockbroker, moved to Cornwall a decade ago. He has an extraordinary facility for teaching, and everyone from City high-flyers to 67-year-old first-timers have passed through his school. “I remember teaching an ex-Merrill army guy,” he says. “The more he surfed, the worse he got, because he was trying to dominate the waves.” The camp’s 1978 Ford

When we decide on our second day that we’d like to go surfing, Middleton brokers an introduction to George Stoy, who runs a surf school on Polzeath beach, a half-hour drive from Kudhva. Stoy, a tanned, tousled former stockbroker, moved to Cornwall a decade ago. He has an extraordinary facility for teaching, and everyone from City high-flyers to 67-year-old first-timers have passed through his school. “I remember teaching an ex-Merrill army guy,” he says. “The more he surfed, the worse he got, because he was trying to dominate the waves.”

The Kud truck will take to you to and from the local beach when staying at Kudhva.

Stoy is thinking of starting a surf camp where students would spend half their time in the sea and half the time at Kudhva, learning about the theory and culture of the sport. “There’s nowhere else like it around here,” he says. “It reminds me of places I visited in New Zealand, the same atmosphere.” On our last day at the quarry, we decide to venture to the reservoir, enticed by a promise of wild swimming. Middleton hasn’t cut a path there yet, so she accompanies us down a steep slope, across giant wobbly rocks, through thickets of brambles and under a barbed wire fence. Arriving at the reservoir, we make our way along a wall that drops down to the water on one side, and to a road on the other. A prehistoric-looking cliff face looms above us. The water is yellow and opaque. “Have you found any bodies in there?” asks my partner, as we tentatively strip down to our swimming gear. No, Middleton replies, though a diver did find a mean-looking 10ft spike once used in the quarrying process, now resting against the wall. “I should probably move that,” she says cheerfully, before executing a perfect shallow dive into the murk. A few days later, I speak to Ben Huggins over the phone, and he makes a telling point. “I think there is going to be a fair degree of sorting the wheat from the chaff when it comes to who is going to like Kudhva and who’s not going to like it.” Middleton is entirely at ease in these surroundings. As I launch myself into the water, clinging to a child’s surfboard I find discarded at the water’s edge, I can’t help feeling that I have been tested, and found wanting. I turn around, and kick for shore. Details Horatia Harrod was a guest of Canopy and Stars, a website offering quirky accommodation across Europe. It offers cabins sleeping two from £114 per night Photographs: karlmackie.com

On our last day at the quarry, we decide to venture to the reservoir, enticed by a promise of wild swimming. Middleton hasn’t cut a path there yet, so she accompanies us down a steep slope, across giant wobbly rocks, through thickets of brambles and under a barbed wire fence. Arriving at the reservoir, we make our way along a wall that drops down to the water on one side, and to a road on the other. A prehistoric-looking cliff face looms above us. The water is yellow and opaque. “Have you found any bodies in there?” asks my partner, as we tentatively strip down to our swimming gear. No, Middleton replies, though a diver did find a mean-looking 10ft spike once used in the quarrying process, now resting against the wall. “I should probably move that,” she says cheerfully, before executing a perfect shallow dive into the murk.

A few days later, I speak to Ben Huggins over the phone, and he makes a telling point. “I think there is going to be a fair degree of sorting the wheat from the chaff when it comes to who is going to like Kudhva and who’s not going to like it.” Middleton is entirely at ease in these surroundings. As I launch myself into the water, clinging to a child’s surfboard I find discarded at the water’s edge, I can’t help feeling that I have been tested, and found wanting. I turn around, and kick for shore.

Details

Horatia Harrod was a guest of Canopy and Stars, a website offering quirky accommodation across Europe. It offers cabins sleeping two from £114 per night.

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