And if you're wondering just how and why Paul, Maggie, Matthew and myself ended up at Dolbryn - then here's our story......
*taken from an article published by Welsh Coast Magazine (August 2016)
Quitting the 9-5 grind to run a campsite seemed like an idyllic lifestyle, but did it prove to be a dream come true or was it a rude awakening?
We were sat outside our tent at a favourite campsite on the Pembrokeshire coast, near St Davids, one warm, sunny evening drinking in the views – and the wine! – and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere.
“We could do this,” I said to my husband, Matthew. “Wouldn’t that be great?”
“What, live in a tent?” he replied, checking my glass.
“No, I mean we could run one, couldn’t we? What a life this must be.” I gazed across the peaceful campsite admiring the colourful sunset, the smell of barbecues wafting over the tents, and watched the happy campers dawdling across the fields. It’s a memory I’ve often returned to over the past 10 months since our dream came true and we started running our own campsite. Sometimes our lives do reflect that charming scene but often they don’t, and when we’ve been working an 18-hour day and still have jobs to do before bedtime, it’s good to remember just why we wanted to do this in the first place.
The idea of running a campsite appealed to both of us and it began to take hold after the wine and sun-fuelled discussion on that fateful holiday. We loved the thought of a laid-back lifestyle, of being our own boss and giving up the 9-5. We also liked the idea of living by the coast, jobs that fitted in with family life, running the kind of campsite we’d love to stay at and leaving campers with happy memories. But we worried that it might be a pipe dream. There was no way we could afford to give up our jobs in Manchester and even less chance of pulling together enough money to buy a business. But then, about five years ago, my parents mentioned the idea of joining forces and resources and the four of us buying somewhere together. They’d just retired and the family house in Porthmadog, North Wales, was on the market. Not content with sitting in an armchair they were also looking for the next challenge.
It was never going to be easy – even finding the perfect site took almost three years. We searched all over the country, from Cornwall and Devon to North Yorkshire, but only one caught our eye. It was a lovely site called Dolbryn in the heart of the Teifi Valley in West Wales, about 10 miles inland of Cardigan. We all fell in love with it. It had acres of wild spaces, beautiful trees and a wonderful, relaxed atmosphere.
After six months of negotiation, nailbiting waiting and battling with banks, it finally came together. We packed up in Manchester, said goodbye to friends and set off for our new lives on 15th September 2015. Since the day we took over it’s been a whirlwind of new experiences. We’ve never done anything like this before so each day is a learning curve for us all. We’ve picked up skills such as marketing, accounting, dealing with suppliers and gardening, and we’re still learning.
One of the biggest challenges was taking over the Dolbryn animals. The site came with two pigs (Noah and Meredith), a goat called Malarkey, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and three chickens. The small animals were easy and having the fresh eggs from the chickens gave us a huge amount of joy but the pigs and goat are another matter. We have to cut Malarkey’s hooves regularly and learning to do this without catching the soft skin of his feet, while keeping a 15-stone goat with terrible wind and bad breath in one place, was a challenge!
One of the things I love the most about our new life is that there is no typical day. We close between November and March so the winter was a tornado of new projects, from putting in extra hard-standing pitches to creating a new shop in the reception area and renovating the bar, as well as all the usual maintenance jobs such as hedge cutting.
Even when we’re open, no two days are the same. Weekends and school holidays can be manic – we can have more than 150 campers on site at a time, so just keeping our facilities clean is a major challenge.
Escaping the 9-5 was one of the driving forces for our lifestyle change – we’ve certainly done that. During busy times we often work an 18 or 19-hour day. We’re up before 7am to prepare the freshly baked croissants and breads that campers can order from the shop. It’s then a manic few hours of keeping the showers and toilets clean through the morning rush before feeding the animals, which the children staying on site love helping with. Before lunch, we give the toilets and showers a deep clean, which in busy times can take two to three hours and, admittedly, is not one of my favourite jobs.
The afternoons are often quieter but campers are constantly popping in and out of the shop so we need to be on hand for any questions or even just for a chat, which is one of the best things about the job. We’ve met people from all walks of life – teachers, pilots, dinner ladies, parents, house-hunting families, servicemen and singers. Our youngest camper so far has been three months old and our oldest has been 85.
In between that we need to find time to make sure the rubbish area is clean and tidy, grass cutting, cleaning out the camping pods ready for new occupants, organising family activities such as holiday craft clubs or fun sport events, answering emails and phone calls, keeping on top of our social media pages and then opening our small, on-site bar in the evenings.
There is a lot riding on the business – financially for two families but also emotionally for us all. We desperately want Dolbryn to be a success because we take huge pride in our work and our campsite has to reflect that. It can be incredibly stressful, especially the times of the month when all the bills are flying out of the bank account or when the weather forecast is set to permanent rain – we could do with a really warm, sunny summer to get everyone excited about camping and booking their holiday. But, of course, the Welsh summer is nothing if not unpredictable.
Learning not to stress about the things I can’t control and putting my energies into the things I can has been another steep learning curve for me..........
Although we always knew the challenge would be tough, it was harder than I ever imagined. I felt instantly at home at Dolbryn and I am in love with the surroundings but the workload is constant, the to-do list is never ending and there are still days when my heart aches for the straightforward life we had in Manchester, not to mention that I miss our friends terribly. We’ve had to accept that we can’t really have many days off to see our friends during the busy summer period so we do skip a lot of social events. For many people, the idea of working with parents, or parents-in-law, would be a challenge but for us it’s worked really well. Each of us has a unique and valuable set of skills to contribute and it definitely helps that we are all close and get along well. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its difficult moments. We are four headstrong individuals, which can mean that it takes an age to reach a decision but, so far, we’ve been able to find a compromise if we’ve needed to. From the start, we vowed that we would all be open and honest about what we want and feel, and that every single decision – from the brand of toilet roll to whether we need to invest in a new ride-on lawn mower – would be discussed and agreed between the four of us. We all work closely in the daytime but have our own space in the evenings, which is important so that we have a chance to unwind.
I really love seeing people enjoying their stay here and I get a kick from the positive comments or reviews that we get. Growing up here will be a wonderful upbringing for our toddler, Isla, as well as for her sibling who’ll be born in July. We’ll all be working flat out for the first few years while we get to grips with the business and grow it gently but we hope that, after that, we can all achieve a more even work-life balance. Recently, Dad asked me, rhetorically, if we’d sell Dolbryn if someone offered us a million pounds, which would mean a fantastic profit in less than a year. For me, the answer was most definitely “No”. Being here was never about the money, it was about finding a special campsite and a home that has a bit of magic to it. Here at Dolbryn, we’ve certainly got that.