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Inside the new Rhondda glamping pods on the site of a…
There’s no doubt that the south Wales valleys have some of the most stunning walking routes and scenery and the past decade or so has seen them bloom from the colliery scars, an industry which at one time made the area its most famous and lucrative.
Nowadays, a new appreciation of the area has come hand-in-hand with brand new tourism attractions like Zip World Tower as well as days of pandemic lockdown – the latter of which gave us time to explore our home landscape like never before.
One of the newest developments in Rhondda’s chapter, as part of the wider Welsh tourism story, is a brand new glamping pod site in Blaenrhondda.
Read more: Rhondda Tunnel could become Europe’s longest underground cycle lane
Fernhill Valley Farm has four cosy, cute and comfy glamping pods on what was the site of the Fernhill Colliery, hence the name, and what was a short-lived Wild West theme park which is part of Rhondda’s recent folklore. You can read more about that here.
Its location right at the top of the Rhondda Fawr, tucked between the looming Rhigos and Pen Pych mountains, isn’t quite remote but is a good leap from the end-of-the valley village of Blaenrhondda. The scenery and silence, however, is unrivalled.
The site is now owned by the Batten family and dad Andy with sons Gavin and Lee have been working on developing the area since they bought it at auction in 2017.
Alongside the four initial pods, which opened for visitors back in October, the trio are hoping to add more pods and five pitches for touring caravans.
Since October they have been steadily rented out to those wishing to get away from the hustle and bustle. Walkers and nature lovers can stargaze in front of a fire at night or cwtch up with all the mod cons after a day of exploring the stunning waterfall and forests or even taking the zip line at the new Zip World Tower just over the Rhigos.
Andy, Gavin and Lee have worked together for a decade renovating properties for their Transform a Home business and Andy, with wife Christine, a former school cook, live on the property and are now running a farm at the site with visitors waking up to the sight of sheep, cows and donkeys in the fields nearby.
Though there’s still a lot of work being done up at Fernhill, the three spoke to WalesOnline about taking that chance to build a glamping site in Blaenrhondda.
“We were buying houses renovating them and then renting them out and this land came up in auction,” said Gavin, 38.
“We’ve always been in the market looking for property or land so when this came up we bought it, knowing that we could do something with it. We didn’t really have a plan for the land, but then we took a walk around and saw all the waterfalls at the back and places to walk, and I thought this part of the Rhondda was completely different to the bit we live in, where you’ve got the rows of houses and the town, so that’s where the tourism part came from it. Then we went to the council to discuss plans and they asked us to develop a master plan. We put something together, which was half houses and then half tourism. And they seem to like the idea.
“So then we just pushed on to the glamping pods. It was a gamble but we’ve taken people around the site and they are blown away by the scenery.”
At first they were going to build one glamping pod for visitors, but it became clear that it was just as much work to build one as it was to build four. Luckily for those who want to book for a weekend, the four were built and opened in October 2021, with most weekends being fully booked.
“We’ve had people from Kent, Manchester, and a lot of people from abroad staying in the UK, visiting here,” Gavin added. “We didn’t know what to expect when we started taking bookings, we stayed up here too and we were nervous what people would think. But the comments have been really good. They’ve all said about the views, the proximity to the walks around here Pen Pych and the waterfalls and up to Pen y Fan. And at the start, as soon as we knew Zip World was coming, that gave us the confidence to push on with the tourism side here.”
With positive reactions from visitors appreciating the surroundings of Fernhill, what has the local feedback been – local walkers who use the valley regularly for their strolls.
“Most people think it’s great,” said Gavin, who gave up his job as a quantity surveyor two years ago to get the Fernhill project up and running with his dad and brother.
“You’ll get the odd person who’ll say ‘glamping in Blaenrhondda what’s that all about?’ but they’ve probably not been and walked up here to the waterfalls, they just haven’t seen that element. But most people they think it’s brilliant, especially when the Zip World came on the radar and the Rhondda Tunnel, too. People can start to see that we can sell tourism up here.”
Lee, a carpenter and plumber as well as a renovator with his dad, added: “Other people can see the value of the place too, those in the know are starting to come here and develop properties for tourism, too.”
There’s another element to Fernhill too, which brings Andy full circle – he says he’s currently living the dream of having a farm and in the near future he’ll start work on building a farmhouse on the site. The carpenter was a regular at the site 40-odd years ago, and worked on the Western World park, which closed down just weeks after opening.
“They [people who ran the park] came down from Birmingham and they wanted all local labour and they paid in cash, which was a good thing in the ’80s,” Andy said.
“So from Penygraig up to here, all building the buildings. And yeah, when they came down to pay us, they’d bring a shotgun, the drovers would come down all the gear on, bring the cattle and they bring the cash down, with a guard and would pay everyone.”
Despite having bookings, Andy said, the owners didn’t get the place ready on time. “It started going pear-shaped then and they couldn’t catch up,” he added. “They owed a lot of money to the building merchants, so it went bankrupt.”
But Fernhill’s mixed fortunes of the past don’t dictate what will happen in the future on the site. With bookings being taken fast and more attractions and activities nearby, the glamping site is another string to the Rhondda’s bow, run by a local family.
Gavin said: “I never thought we’d be running tourist accommodation.” And Lee added: “Almost everything we’ve gone into we’ve known hardly anything about, but we’re always learning and we just have a go. It’s all you can do.”
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