A Tranquil Oasis in the Heart of the Somerset Countryside.
James and Tara White got in touch to ask me to write about Old Oaks Touring and Glamping Park. I was curious, although the Park is at the foot of the Tor and less than 2.5 miles from Glastonbury Town centre, I had never visited.
While Old Oaks wasn’t quite what I expected, having only experienced ‘glamping’ in a festival context and is certainly not what I’d think of as ‘Normal for Glastonbury’, I was to discover that those things are precisely what recommends it to thousands of visitors, who enjoy its tranquil surroundings and luxurious accommodation. Plus, it’s one of the most eco-friendly businesses in town, driven by James’s obvious passion for biodiversity, wildlife and the natural environment.
I asked James and Tara what they wanted from a post about Old Oaks, they knew that I don’t write straightforward advertorials for the blog, but I am interested in sharing pieces about people’s relationship with Glastonbury Town. It quickly became apparent that their main aim is to forge closer ties with businesses and creative people in Glastonbury. James said “We’ve got customers here, we want to maximise the benefit for the whole local economy”
A Short History of Old Oaks Touring Park
James’s family have been in the area for “7 or 8 generations”. His grandad bought the 90 acre farm in 1918, and his mum and dad started the park in 1981, with pitches for just 5 vans. In 1987 they were granted a license for 40 pitches. It was a family park for 15 years, but children were often left unsupervised by their parents and would investigate the working farm, putting themselves in danger of falling in the slurry pit, or worse!
In view of this, and the lack of specific activities for children locally, it was decided to make the park a quiet, adults only site. At the same time, campervans and caravans were beginning to replace tents in popularity, so the grass camping pitches, which rapidly became muddy due to the heavy clay soil and frequent rain, were replaced with areas of hardstanding surrounded by generous swathes of lawn.
The Park covers 15 acres and has 100 pitches including 6 camping pods, 4 cedar lodges and 2 shepherd’s huts, with splendid views towards Wells Cathedral and the Mendip Hills. Nowadays, it is managed by James and Tara, although James’s Dad still helps out. James’s Mum and Dad still live next door and his brother Dan runs the farm, which supplies ethically reared beef and lamb to the likes of Stephens Butchers and the park’s own shop.
Years ago I’d heard grumbles from hippies in home-built campers that they’d had a less than friendly welcome from the owner (James’s Dad), so I was interested to discover how James, coming from such a long established local family, feels about the changes in the town.
He tells me that he and his brothers have grown up in (for want of a better word) ‘multicultural’ Glastonbury and he’s seen how many of the more ‘alternative’ in-comers have become part of the local economy. He praises Glastonbury’s wide choice of music, with gigs every night, the different coloured shops and the vibrancy of the town. He feels we don’t make enough of being a year-round destination, despite the fact that many people now take their holidays in every season, particularly loves the Frost Fair and thinks the Carnival should have activities going on all weekend, though he’s embarrassed by the town’s lacklustre Christmas decorations. He tells me their daughter loves Glastonbury and feels really lucky to have been bought up here.
I wonder what it was like for James growing up on a campsite, Tara tells me that when he was a young teenager, and the park still hosted families, he would inevitably check out the girl visitors of a similar age to him, but he’d also check their booking to see if they were staying around for long enough “to make it worth putting in the groundwork”. I can’t help thinking that this sort of forward planning put him in good stead to run a large and successful business. Nowadays James comes across as a very respectable, hardworking chap, but Tara also revealed that he was well known in his twenties, before he started working for the family business, for occasionally “getting naked in the Rifleman’s Arms”.
In her twenties, Tara would visit her sister who’d already moved to Glastonbury. on most weekends, drinking in the Rifleman’s Arms and finding Glastonbury a refreshing change from ‘Conservative, straight, boring Sussex’, Eventually she realised she was spending most of her earnings as a PA on petrol to travel to and from the town, so decided to move here. She married James 13 years ago, but initially worked outside the family business, including a stint as a waitress in Nick Cottle’s ‘Monarch’ cafe, and then as a PA for Mendip District Council. She hadn’t wanted to get involved in the Park, but got pulled in after realising that PA work was ‘mind-numbingly boring’. She now loves her job, except for the endless paperwork, and shows clear delight in finding ways to offer guests unexpected special touches to make their stay more enjoyable.
James is the Head Gardener on site (as well as all his other jobs) and he proudly pointed out the razor-sharp neatness of the many hedges. I couldn’t help but ask if he was a Virgo, to which he replied: “It’s all a load of nonsense!”. He then had to admit that he is a Virgo and that I was the second person within a week to correctly guess his sun sign. Other people might attribute the success of the park to its being crossed by ley lines, but James leaves me in no doubt that, in his opinion, “there’s no such thing as leylines!” and besides, the park is clearly a product of many long hours of hard graft. Later, when I suggest that I am obviously more ‘cosmic’ than him he surprises me by revealing an interest in Chinese Medicine, because “it actually works!”
A Passion for Biodiversity
James and Tara take me for a walk around the site, the camping areas are in beautifully manicured gardens. I’m not keen on tamed nature as a rule, but there’s a great variety of shrubs, trees and flowers, and there’s a cider apple orchard at the centre of the park, it’s all rather lovely. James points out the plants that have been put in to benefit bees and birds as much as human visitors. Next, we walk through a field which James, true to his commitment to biodiversity and wildlife, is determined to turn into a wildflower meadow. He sowed it last year but wasn’t satisfied with the result, so he’ll be trying different plant varieties this time. Far be it for me to suggest that only a Virgo would demand perfection of a meadow.
There’s a lovely woodland walk through mature trees to the fishing pond, where several people sit quietly and happily casting their lines for tench, carp, roach and chub. Massed lily pads form circles in the centre of the pond, I imagine James wading in and nudging them into these perfect curves, Tara tells me they occurred naturally, but then mentions that James ‘tidies things up a bit’. Emerging from the calm stillness of the pond we come to the large chicken enclosure which provides the Park’s shop with fresh eggs, alongside the old apple orchard, kept to provide a home to wildlife.
Inevitably the subject of the planned bypass to the North of the Tor comes up. James told me he’s not concerned about the bypass affecting business, but he’s been walking the fields that the bypass would cross for his whole life and he’s horrified at the idea of this massive block of beautiful, unspoilt land being destroyed. He says “It will be a fox, badger, deer massacre!” He isn’t too worried, however, as the bypass has been talked about for his whole life, and nothing has happened yet.
You definitely can’t describe James as laid back, he’s clearly got tons of drive and energy and likes to see things done as well as possible. As he says “I don’t do mediocrity”. He’s particularly damning of the flower displays on Glastonbury’s roundabouts, with their single-use tulip bulbs and unimaginative bedding plants that are of no use to butterflies or bees, he has considered sponsoring a roundabout, as long as he gets to design the display with his choice of sustainable and bee friendly plants.
Keen to power the park with as much renewable energy as possible, James designed the beautiful and huge new shower block, with underfloor heating powered by renewable heat pump technology and a massive bank of solar water heaters on the roof. It may be super Green, but it’s also hotel quality. Unlike most campsites I’ve come across you’ll neither get splinters from bare wood or be looking at a whitewashed breezeblock wall while you wash, this place, like the rest of the park, is seriously plush. There are LED light mirror surrounds, hairdryers and high stools, I feel like I’ve wandered into an expensive hair stylist’s studio.
A very hi-tech addition to the park is an emptying and cleaning station for chemical toilets, it’s the size and shape of a vending machine, but definitely doesn’t dispense chocolate bars. Campers drop their toilet cassette into a hatch and it is returned emptied, clean and topped up with eco-friendly toilet fluids. Unlike old-fashioned camping toilet chemicals, the waste can be processed on site, rather than having to be transported to the chemical waste treatment plant in Avonmouth. Their site sewage is processed through their on-site treatment system, before further treatment in the natural Victorian style reed bed system. The next plan is for a compost loo by the fishing lake.
Engaging with the Community and Local Businesses
Tara and James’s passion for sustainability doesn’t end with the Green initiatives in the park itself, they want to contribute to the financial sustainability of the town too. It grieves the couple that campsites are often seen as the ‘poor man’s B&B’ as they are supplying a 5-star service and know their visitors make a very significant contribution to the local economy. The average age of their customers is 55, they are towing £25k caravans, or paying equivalent rates to those charged by hotels to stay in the park’s glamping cabins and shepherd’s huts. These are not people packing their own sandwiches and looking for a cheap holiday. The glamping options are proving popular with younger couples looking for something luxurious but a bit different – proving the Old Oaks isn’t just for old folks.
They want to partner with as many local businesses as they can, they have lots of ideas for services that would be of benefit to their visitors. They’d love to work with someone offering bike hire and bike tours of the local area for instance. Tara runs a ‘Glastonbury Tours’ side business providing their campers with minibus transport to local events like the Glastonbury and Bridgwater Carnivals. the Extravaganza and Glastonbury Festival, as well as coaches for locals to events such as Pilton Party and West Fest. This creates a great opportunity for others to offer talks and walks to the campsite guests – like birdwatching on the Nature Reserves of the Avalon Marshes.
They often work with Mary from the Abbey Tea Rooms who makes the cakes they sell in their shop. On carnival night they book 3 coaches who ferry campers to and from the town (saving 100 cars from having to drive into and park in the town). Campers go to the Abbey Tea Rooms for a buffet and can stay and watch the carnival from there too.
Another of their initiatives is the ‘Good Food Club’ offering special deals at recommended local eateries to their campers. Also, rather than having their own restaurant on site they chose to partner up with local takeaways who deliver to the site, while I’m there a wood-fired pizza oven is being set up in the courtyard. Their modern and well-stocked shop sells essential supplies, camping goods and a wide variety of local produce – Orchard Pig ciders, Rose Farm preserves, meat from Steve the Butcher on the marketplace and beef, lamb and eggs from the family farm, White’s of Wick, you can’t get more local than that!.
Supporting Local Artists and Craftspeople
Local carpenter John Tucker made their first wooden glamping pods, with all the materials being locally sourced. When they found out an old oak tree on the drive was diseased and would have to be cut down they called in Anthony Rogers from Frome to carve it into a beautiful organic, spiralling form.
The first thing you see when you enter the park’s shop is a photograph of the Tor taken by Kev Pearson on two walls and Phil Holly’s locally made stained glass is for sale here too – check out his website Lost in Glass. The shop will soon be stocking Tara’s sister Donna’s beautiful ceramics.
Elsewhere on site, faced with what was a hideous concrete block wall, they commissioned local artist Jon Minshull to paint a huge mural of a Somerset landscape, featuring the Tor and an abundance of local wildlife. I’m blown away by it, it’s spectacular.
Jon also painted the mural on the wall of the Glastonbury Experience Courtyard alleyway, it features Tara’s sister’s naked bottom, painted slightly larger than life.
A Tranquil Retreat in Nature
So who stays at the Old Oaks Touring Park? It’s popular with visitors who appreciate quiet, it’s part of ‘Tranquil Parks’, there are no big events, no screaming children and no big groups (as “even the Goddesses make loads of noise”). They don’t offer one night stays before or after Glastonbury festival, as before the event festival goers are hyped up and overexcited, while afterwards they are really just looking for somewhere to wash off the mud. As they explain “it’s not snobbery, it’s just business” they are giving their guests what they want – luxury facilities, glamping and peace and quiet in nature. They must be doing a lot right as they are the overall winners of the AA Campsite of the Year for England 2018 award.
The facilities are a far cry from my experience of campsites. The glamping options – shepherd’s huts, lodges and cabins, are quirky but luxurious, two even offer a tastefully screened wood-fired outdoor hot tub. The cedar lodges are beautiful and offer wonderful views, plus all that cedarwood smells amazing. For those whose accommodation doesn’t include fitted bathrooms, the park’s original shower block has been refurbished to create individual shower and changing rooms, so you won’t have an audience when you are hoiking your knickers up.
Unusually everything really is as immaculate as the photos in the brochure. I can’t imagine the amount of work that it takes to keep everything so spotlessly clean, tidy and well maintained, an army of elves with invisible brooms is the only logical explanation. Or it could be down to the hard work of the 6 wardens who work in pairs, the 3 cleaners and the apprentice gardener, altogether a staff of ten, plus James and Tara.
Tara tells me that the park is very popular with people who want to take their canine friends on holiday. It’s very dog-friendly, with a dog walking area and a fully featured, split level, dog shower, with doggie shampoo. Tara tells me they are getting a dog hairdryer next, I assumed she was joking, but then I saw all the other facilities and decided she probably wasn’t. I imagine a walk through affair, like the final stage of a drive-thru car wash, from which the pampered pooches will emerge with magnificent bouffants.
With the Somerset Levels on the doorstep, it’s an ideal spot for cycle touring. I’d cycled to the Park myself from Benedict Street. I’m not fit enough to tackle the most direct, but very hilly, route up Wellhouse and Stone Down Lanes, so I chose the cycle path along the bypass to West Mendip Hospital and then Brindham Lane and Wick Lane to the Old Oaks. I was surprised at how quick and easy this (virtually) flat route was. For walkers, there are the 15 acres of the park itself, the Tor and many walks into Glastonbury Town and across the Levels.
James and Tara tell me that they are the kind of people who would get into trouble if they were guests in their own park – they like camping with big groups of mates, drinking, partying and festivals. When they go to Glastonbury festival they take their caravan to stay with friends in a backstage camping area. But Tara says “It makes for an easier life when the customers aren’t running around drunk”
I ask them if they have any ‘Normal for Glastonbury’ stories where the peace and quiet were disrupted. James describes an incident with a young guy, probably on magic mushrooms, who alarmed the other campers by running around naked shouting “I am God” and “I’ve seen the light!”. A few years ago another young man, just wearing pants, emerged onto the park scratched and bleeding, having forced his way through the thorny hedgerow, he explained he was “following the leyline”. James remarks wryly “that’s worse than following a sat nav”.
James and his family clearly derive some dry amusement at the antics of some visitors. He tells me they once had a customer who checked out early “because the energy of the earth on the site was too strong”, Another wanted him to wash the pitch as “the previous campers had left negative energy”. James’s dad’s most oft-repeated comment on Glastonbury’s High Street is “We’ve got one butcher, one baker and ever so many candlestick makers”
Tara tells me they want to do something different, exceed expectations, make people go ‘Wow!’. She says “We’re constantly being complimented on our park, how can that not be a nice thing, knowing we’ve provided people with a really memorable holiday?”
If you provide a local service that might be of interest to the users of the park then do get in touch with Tara at firstname.lastname@example.org, she’d love to hear from you.
If you are visiting the town and want a truly tranquil experience in nature then I’m sure you will be well looked after, if you are attending a retreat in the town Old Oaks Touring Park would be ideal. Those of us that live here might want to recommend the park to their visiting relatives who love nature but not mud, especially those who’d like to visit Glastonbury but might find some of the quirkier aspects of staying in the town a little alarming!
All photographs copyright Old Oaks Touring Park. Text copyright Vicki Steward.
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