…From festival love affair to fully fledged campsite
It wobbled, it swung a little, it gave a few muffled, alarming creaks and then, gloriously, it magically rose up and lodged itself right into place.
The first tentative time we raised the roof wheel on the first yurt that Stan built, there was great relief and jubilation as it stayed up when we let it go!
Raising the wheel – or ‘crown’ – is a precarious and nerve-wracking process. It’s a minimum two-person job:
Me, five foot nothing, standing on tiptoes inside the yurt frame, holding high the back of the wheel rim, arms stretched up. (The wheel is held in place at the front by two roof poles tied to the wall frame). Stan, not much taller but admittedly stronger than me, stands on the outside, pokes a rafter pole into the correct hole in the wheel, then pushes it upwards to lift the wheel up into the sky, relieving my shaking arms. That pole is then tied in place. Once that third pole is hoisted, the whole thing should stand strong(ish) while we slot in and secure the rest of the poles.
Nowadays, on the campsite, we’re old hands but we still steel ourselves with a solid “Right. We ready?” and check each other with slight trepidation across its circumference as the wheel wobbles slowly up.
But that first bold move came 16 years ago, before anyone around these parts had heard of a yurt. (Anyone other than official UK ‘glamping’ pioneers Kevin and Claire Bird, who now run the Greener Camping Club to which we’re affiliated, although we didn’t know them back then).
Fifteen years before that, cabinet-maker Stan, not known for following convention, jumped the fence at Glastonbury and first set his eyes on a yurt.
Amid all the other fabled festival experiences he had that year, the feeling of being inside that yurt was the one that stayed with him.
He remembers: “That circular space, with a hearth in the middle, it was just like being cocooned; it was so mesmerising and cosy. I loved the feeling it gave me.”
He was hooked. Stan was fascinated with the timber structure and wanted to find out how they were made.
Some years later, good fortune brought a yurt-building course to Stackpole. Stan signed up and soon afterwards he had a go at building his first yurt.
“I read a lot and did loads of research, and that was at a time when – although there was an internet, I didn’t know how to use it – and there was no YouTube so no ‘how-to’ videos. It was all books and word of mouth,” Stan recalls.
It was 2005 and we were planning our wedding the following year. At that time, we did a lot of camping and we thought we’d be comfier on longer trips in a yurt. We decided to try to get it finished in time for our camping honeymoon in Ireland.
Stan was working full time so he built the yurt on evenings and weekends. It took about 3 months. I suspect the therapeutic process helped take his mind off his impending life sentence!
“Up until then, I’d used power tools in all my woodwork projects,” he says. “But building that first yurt I wanted to purely use traditional green woodworking tools. It was really peaceful and calming because there was no noise from machinery, just the sound of blade against wood.”
That first yurt – like all the others Stan has made, including the one on the campsite – was a bentwood yurt. This type of yurt is more traditionally used in European countries because rainwater rolls easily down the curves.
In Mongolia, where yurts are thought to have originated and where rain is a rarity, the traditional nomadic homestead is called a Ger. The roof poles of a ger are straight because there’s no need for curves to channel rainwater.
Back here in Pembrokeshire, Stan fashioned his own steamer to soften the poles so he could bend them into the curves needed to form the iconic domed roof shape.
Each of the poles was cleft from ash trunks, then shaped with a draw knife, before being loaded into the steamer. They were then slotted onto his homemade ‘former’ to dry out and take on the curve. The roof wheel itself also required a ‘former’, which Stan made from an old cable drum wheel. You bend the steamed wood around it and clamp it in place until it dries into the required shape.
A mention here for Stan’s long-suffering mum, who kindly agreed to make the canvas cover…and vowed afterwards never to make another!
Our little (10ft) yurt’s inaugural voyage, across the Irish sea from Pembroke Dock, was pretty plain sailing and we loved our nomadic week, staying in several fantastic campsites and carrying our little home with us from place to place.
It was during our honeymoon that we first discussed how cool it would be to have a yurt campsite one day. (It wasn’t referred to as ‘glamping’ in those days).
It was also on this trip that we uncovered a startling truth. When you have lights on in your white canvas yurt at night-time, anyone passing by is privy to a delightful puppet show of whatever you may be doing inside it! (This is one of the reasons why the canvas on our campsite yurts are khaki coloured!)
As life took us down various unexpected paths, it was more than 10 years before we came back to the idea of a campsite.
By then, glamping was a buzz word and far fewer people said “A what?!” when we mentioned yurts!
In the intervening years Stan had built a few on commission but lacked the time to take it on as a ‘proper’ job.
He had built an 18ft yurt, with a plan to hire it out around Pembrokeshire, but again life had other ideas. Then, in 2016 when we were looking to move from nearby Merrion, the opportunity to buy this campsite and house revealed itself. The place had been empty for several years and when we saw the blank green canvas of a field we knew the time had come. The 18ft yurt had found a new home, and so had we.
Sadly, getting the house into a liveable state and the campsite as we wanted it meant Stan had to forfeit the building of the second yurt. Fortunately, we found a wonderful guy up on the English border, who built yurts very similar to Stan’s.
Stan says: “Although yurts are quite commonplace now, people are still always fascinated by the process of how it is put together. They really are a marvel of engineering, they’re portable, lightweight but incredibly robust and strong which is why they are still being used on the Mongolian Steppe to this day by Nomadic herding tribes.
“Laura always says she wishes the frame was on the outside so that everyone could appreciate what a thing of beauty and work of art the framework is.
“When you are in one of the yurts, with the wood burning stove going on a not so nice day, it’s just a lovely, cosy space to be in. Somehow, they make you feel creative.”
Fast forward to what will (hopefully!) be our fourth full season on the campsite and we’ve now added a luxury glamping pod and two safari tents to our accommodation on site. But if anyone asks us which we like best, the answer will always be ‘our yurt.’
Will Stan make another? He’s not sure. But there’s a slim chance our original little puppet show yurt will make a comeback… After all, it would be nice to be the ones enjoying the glamping holiday again some day.
Etiquette for a Mongolian Ger (traditional yurt)
- Anyone stopping outside is invited in to dine
- A sheep is killed for the feast
- It is impolite to knock at the door, one should walk straight in – to knock is to question the host’s hospitality
- Remove your hat before entering
- Leave all weapons outside
- Do not point your feet at the hearth
- To stand on the threshold is considered the greatest insult, equivalent to stepping on the host’s neck!
- Do not whistle
- Move around the ger in a clockwise direction
- Do not step over anyone
- Do not write in red pen
Taken from The Complete Yurt Handbook by Paul King