How Bulworthy Project Got Its Name
Why We Like To Do Business With Small Local, Independent, Businesses
Bulworthy Project is a sustainable woodland enterprise based on 12.5 acres of woodland in Rackenford, Devon where we live in a house that we built ourselves. We make charcoal, run courses and events and rent out a luxurious cabin that we built in the woods.
We first discussed the idea of buying a piece of land to live on and set up a business on when we were traveling around Europe in a campervan in 2001, but for both of us, the roots of the idea were formed many years before when as children we both spent a lot of time playing in the woods.
We wanted a place of our own where we could experiment with working and living in a way that was not only more sustainable environmentally, but also more sustainable for us and our wellbeing. We bought our little woodland in 2006 and moved into it, living in a caravan, in the spring of 2009. This gave us the opportunity to stop carrying a boss and a landlord and work for ourselves in a place of our own. Undoubtedly, the move into the woods was the best move we ever made.
Since then we have been on a roller-coaster of learning curves. We had no real land management experience and had to set up a business that would support us financially within 3 years in order to gain the planning permission that allows us to live here. When we gained planning permission, we then had to build a house. Our previous building experience consisted of building a shed and a barn, so a house was quite a step up. When the house was completed, we built a little cabin so that people could stay in the woods.
The result of this activity is that we now have a fantastic life in the woods and a multifaceted business consisting of selling charcoal, renting out the cabin and running courses and events. Something that we really like about this is that every aspect of the business is about people having a great time.
How Bulworthy Project Got Its Name
Bulworthy Project has been part of our lives since long before we moved into the woods. At first it was just an idea about buying a piece of land either in the UK or in Europe so that we could park our campervan and live a free and easy life. Back then it was just an embryo of an idea and didn’t have a name. As the idea developed, we started to refer to it as The Project. We still have a folder somewhere with “The Project” written on it. We liked and still like the fluidity that the word “project” brings to it. Our original ideas for how to make a living on the land were many and varied. We were aware that a lot depended on the what sort of land we ended up with and that we would try out ideas, of which some would work well and some wouldn’t. We wanted the flexibility to develop the project in this way. The word “project” implies that it is always a work in progress and we hope that it always will be.
Many years after The Project was originally conceived, after we had bought Hensons Wood and and owned it for a couple of years, we decided to move to Devon, first to a cottage and then (once we had sorted out a bit of infrastructure and a caravan), into the woods. For this to work, The Project needed to be outward facing. It’s all very well calling it “The Project” between ourselves, but we needed a name that would identify us. A name referring to our geographical location seemed like an obvious choice. We wanted to be free to change every other aspect of the business. If we had called ourselves “Devon Charcoal Project” we would have had to find a different name for any aspects of our business that didn’t involve charcoal. Hensons Wood is located in the parish of Rackenford, on the Knap of a hill known as Bulworthy Knap. We looked at options and really liked the word Bulworthy. We liked the sound and we liked the way it feels in your mouth when you say it. It looks good written down and although sometimes people put an extra “l” in it, generally people can spell it OK.
By putting those two words together we created and entity with a character of it’s own. We talk about it in third person and people use the third person when talking about it, to us. It sometimes has the ability to run away with itself and we have to reign it in. We didn’t have a clue what it would come to mean to people today or what it would be and we wouldn’t try guessing what it’ll become or mean to people in the future.
One of the aspects of our philosophy that has moulded Bulworthy Project is our belief in DIY culture. There are many reasons why specialisation is essential in many fields, for instance having a go at neurosurgery just based on Youtube videos probably isn’t a good idea. On the other hand there are many skills that you can pick up that will be useful and allow you to achieve things that would otherwise be impossible. We could not have afforded to pay people to build our house, or design it or get us planning permission to build it. Doing these things ourselves with no real previous experience not only allowed us to have a house, but also allowed us to develop skills that we can use in the future.
It’s daunting at times. When we first started down the path of getting ourselves planning permission, knowing that we couldn’t afford any legal help or representation, we didn’t know if we’d be successful or not. If we’d failed at the whole thing to save a few hundred quid on advice, our decision to go it alone might not look so smart. It’s a decision however that has paid off more than we could have believed. We learnt about planning law and knew our case better than we ever could have if someone else had been dealing with it. This meant that we could answer difficult questions about our situation when interviewed by the planners knowing what the implications in planning law were. It also meant that we built up a relationship with the planners which has helped us in further planning applications. We wrote an article about our approach to the planning process that you can view here.
When it came to applying for permanent residential planning permission, we had to have a design for a house. We had played with floor plans for years, partly as a way of reminding ourselves that we wouldn’t be living in a touring caravan for the rest of our lives to fend off the cabin fever that caravan living can give you in the winter. Although you can still see the influence of these floor plans in the final design of our house, there’s a long way to go from one to the other. We did have an offer of help from an architect, who generously offered his services for free, but his vision and ours didn’t match and we decided to do it on our own. This was fine all except for the drawings for the planning application. Neither of us can draw to any great level of accuracy, so we swapped some charcoal for a set of drawings, based on our own less skilled drawings. By the time we built the cabin we had done a few drawings for building control and built up confidence a bit, so with some graph paper and some tracing paper, we did our own drawings. They’re not great, but they’re good enough and didn’t cost us anything. We knew that there wouldn’t be any objection to us building the cabin, so we weren’t concerned about being turned down because of poor quality drawings. Worst case scenario, we would have had to submit better drawings.
Actually building the house is one of the most daunting tasks either of us have ever faced. We didn’t know if we had the money to buy the materials, we knew that we didn’t have enough to pay people to build it for us and had seen half built houses when we were looking for land, where people had run out of money or steam or both. One of the problems was that we had no way of quantifying the job in hand. It could have taken us 6 months or 6 years for all we knew. We had no idea of how long any of the tasks involved would take or how many tasks there were. If we tried writing down everything that needed to be done, it would have taken up loads of useful time and fried our poor little brains, so we didn’t. After all, how do you eat an elephant? A little bit at a time.
This is the approach that we took. Take it one stage at a time, Google what you are going to do, then move on to the next stage. Your mind wanders off to later stages of the process and you need to have some idea of what you’re doing in order to get materials on site in time, but mainly you are concentrating on the job in hand. Because, putting stuff to paper is not really what we’re good at, almost nothing was drawn or written down. This would drive a lot of people mad, but it worked for us.
We skipped the first stage though. We were too daunted by the whole project and we overestimated the difficulty of doing the groundworks. We thought that if we got professionals in to do that, we’d have a better chance by starting with a proper flat base. We couldn’t afford any but the cheapest groundworks crew and didn’t end up with a flat base. Looking back, we should have hired in a digger driver and done the rest ourselves, but this was the start of the build and we hadn’t yet built up confidence. As we went through each job after that, we built up skills, experience and a can-do attitude which made each job seem less daunting than the last even as the exhaustion built up. At every stage, someone would say “I know that you’ve done the rest of it yourselves, but you really should get the experts in for this”. There are some jobs where an expert would have definitely had a better result, but a lot of it just takes longer if you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. For legal reasons, we had to get an electrician and a plumber, but the rest was pretty much just down to us and our friends who also don’t know how to build a house.
A slightly different DIY project is devonglamping.uk. After building the house, we built our cabin to rent out. We then had to advertise it. This means giving money to facebook, google or a glamping directory. We try to avoid giving money to multinational corporations, so the first two are out. Some of the glamping directories are actually relatively ethical businesses, but we don’t like giving our money away and would much prefer to put it into our project. Our DIY approach to dealing with this was to start our own glamping directory. It was to be a free directory promoting glamping accommodation in Devon. As we don’t charge for listings, we can list all the glamping accommodation in Devon making it the best place to look if you want to go glamping in Devon. This was a task that we completely underestimated. Originally, we thought that it would take a couple of weeks to get the website together. We emailed everyone who had a glamping site in Devon, asked them to give us a few details so that we could build a free listing for them, explained that the listings would always be free and waited. Either, people were suspicious of this “free” directory, or they just thought it would never come to anything. Certainly they weren’t emailing us back with their details. We phoned some of them and got a few listings. Then we made up plain listings. These don’t have any photos because we can’t use their photos without permission and only have a short description and the details that we could glean from their websites. Through a lot more contacting people and more hours of working on it over the course of about 6 months than we’d like to think about, we have a glamping directory that has us at the top. We still use other glamping directories, but this definitely helps us to promote the cabin and it’s been an interesting project.
There’s an interesting thought process behind deciding when a job is worth getting someone else to do due to their superior skills, experience and equipment. Our approach suits our personalities and our situation, it clearly wouldn’t be right for everyone. We need specialists who are prepared to devote their lives to pursuing expertise in one area and advancing that area of expertise. We’re just not those people. We’re much more interested in having a go at lots of different things and learning new skills. We feel that in the UK, we tend too much on the side of getting someone else to do stuff. We find that our personal tendency to err more on the side of doing it ourselves, has got us into a few pickles, but it’s also given us experiences that have changed the way we think and made us more capable in many ways than we were before we embarked on our little project.
Why We Like To Do Business With Small Local, Independent, Businesses
Like most businesses, Bulworthy Project has relationships with a number of other businesses. Wherever possible we try to make sure that these businesses are small, independent and preferably local. There are a number of reasons for this. We’d like to explain a few of them.
Keeping Money in the Local Economy
As one report on local shopping stated “Money is like blood. It needs to keep moving around to keep the economy going”. Spending money locally with independent businesses means that a higher percentage of the money stays in the local economy and gets spent again locally. Studies show this to be as much as 70% more.
Knowing the Product
If you buy food from a supermarket it may have any of a number of reassuring labels telling you about how the farm that it is from is run in an ethical way. None of these can beat going to the farm, getting to know the farmer and asking questions for yourself. Some of the labels are more revealing than others, but if you are on the farm, you get both of these sources of information. If they are organic certified, you will know, but you will also be able to see the practices for yourself. You also pick up other information on products. People have expertise in the products that they produce. They are often more than happy to share this expertise.
Buying direct reduces the need for packaging and obviously reduces the environmental costs of transport. Supermarkets package goods so that they can survive often long periods of transport and then being handled in the store. The packaging must then always display the product perfectly. This often means multiple layers of packaging. It means that where a paper bag may be perfectly fine, products are packaged in polystyrene and clingfilm. On the transport side, where supermarkets “efficient” systems work well for monetary efficiency based on economies of scale, they are not efficient on transport. One supermarket which agreed to stock local produce when pushed to do so by a documentary maker was found to be transporting the produce 120 miles to and from it’s distribution centre in order to get it a few miles from the producer to the store.
Mutual Support and Promotion
We don’t have the advertising budget of a large corporation and nor do the small businesses that we work with. We can however promote each other. This works extremely well on social media and face to face. Word of mouth is a fantastic marketing tool. We can genuinely talk up each others products and services and the authenticity of that is something that corporations cannot buy. It is also something that is not available when you work with corporations.
Balance of Power
There is a story about a food producer who was trying to get his product into a supermarket. They were discussing terms and when he questioned what the supermarket was offering, they hung up on him. When he phoned back, they made it clear that this was to show him who was in charge. They could make or break his business and he meant nothing to them other than an interesting new line. He decided not to do business with them and we think that he made the right choice. When the supermarkets carry your product, they will squeeze you in every way possible, knowing that the scale of their orders means that your financial security is in the balance if you don’t go along with it. Corporations expect to do business with small enterprises using their own pro forma contracts without negotiation beyond “Take it or leave it”. Small businesses can negotiate with each other on an equal basis.
Doing Business with an Individual not a Bureaucracy
“The computer says no.” is not something that you get with small businesses. You also don’t get stuck on “That’s not my department.” when you’re talking to the owner of the business. You can negotiate any deal that you want so long as it works for both parties. They understand when something goes wrong and will work through situations with you to find a solution. Our preferred situation is doing business between us as individuals and other individuals, where no one hides behind systems and we are all people doing a deal.
Doing Business with Friends
We’ve been in business for a number of years and some of the people who started out as business associates are now good friends. We have built up valuable relationships. It is true that you may be able to build a relationship with an individual who works at a big business, but it’s different from the way it works with a business owner who you trade with. We understand each other and we look out for each other.