Peter We’re sitting in, of all things, what appears to be an alien spaceship.
Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter Last week we were glamping with our two dogs in rural paradise in Somerset, in the west of England, in the grounds of Marston Park. This is a 17th-century stately home just a few miles from the riverside town of Frome, which these days has developed a bit of a bohemian atmosphere, attracting artists, writers and artisans to its quaint Georgian streets.
Felice Glamping, for people who don’t know the word, is glamorous camping where you can stay in nature, but without the basic hardships that usually accompany a night in a tent. As we’re about to discover, you don’t even have to be in a tent at all. We were here in a heat wave so hot that we couldn’t go inside our tent until it was dark, but then we camped in great comfort in this beautiful lakeside setting. Today, we’re back to talk to Michael Fenna, also known as Fenna, the brains behind this glamping project. We caught up with him in the strangest of buildings on the far side of the lake from the tents.
Peter Oh, we should mention that heavy showers share the sunshine here today. So forgive us if there’s some noise of rain in the background, but, hey, that’s unpredictable England in summer. Fenna we’re sitting in, of all things, what appears to be an alien spaceship makes a change, I guess, from the cramped space inside a basic bivouac.
Fenna That’s a good way to describe it. So we are sat in a Futuro house. So this is an original piece of architecture from 1968, and it is one of just a handful that exist anywhere in the world. So there were under 100 made and this is believed to be one of 68 and a half left in existence. To try and describe what I’m looking at…it looks a bit like a Concorde first class lounge conceived in a sci-fi film from the 60s.
Peter I think that’s very true. For my generation, certainly, there’s that image of the first UFO hunting that went on. It just looks so futuristic even now, doesn’t it?
Fenna Yes, it really does. An astonishing piece; we’re very lucky to have it here for this year.
Peter So how come this beautiful spaceship is parked on the side of a wonderful lake in the middle of Somerset? How possibly do you have a spaceship here? Why is it here?
Fenna So here at Marston Park we are very interested in the relationship between art and audience. We have a lot of people that come down here to break out of the city and create. We have a lot of musicians and writers and sculptors and painters come and stay, and all of our accommodation is set up as stay-work creative spaces. So they will come with desks and easels and artist paints and those sorts of things…and acoustic guitars.
Then on the other side, we have more of our sort of fun side where we have a lot of exhibitions and performances. This Futuro house here is really the first in what will be a long line of collaborations with artists and architects and ingenious folk from all over the world. So this is really the first sort of installation or piece of art in what will be a long journey of odd and interesting things that happen here.
Felice How many people can stay in Futuro house?
Fenna So the Futuro house is available to stay in. There are two sort of sleeping areas which have one very big and one smaller sort of double bed. So it comfortably sleeps four. But the armchair style things which you see around you, also will pull out into single beds. So we sort of think it’s comfiest for four, but could could be up to eight at a real squeeze, and it’s also a space that’s used for things. So anything from intimate film screenings to tiny gigs to visual projection installations and drinks parties and all that sort of stuff as well.
Peter Futuro House is not the whole of it, you also have some 30 glamping tents set around the lake and beautiful, beautiful setting. Tell us about those?
Fenna Yes, that’s exactly right. So one side of the lake we have 30 of these camping tents, which we call Canvas Studios and Canvas Suites, and they’re all south facing so you get these beautiful, beautiful views out across the water. And, yes, they’re fairly rustic – sort of rustic, natural feel but with some interesting bespoke touches. We’re very lucky to work with some great interior designers here.
Felice We found the bed was very comfortable.
Felice …and there was plenty of room for our two dogs as well.
Fenna Fantastic. Yes, we are really dog friendly; they are extremely welcome.
Peter This is not camping like you think of camping. This is camping with a double bed with Egyptian cotton sheets and bedside tables and power to plug in your phone or whatever. It’s not exactly roughing it, isn’t it?
Felice It isn’t. There are nice seating areas outside as well, and you can make a fire. Each tent comes with one, I think?
Fenna Yes. So we have fire pits outside and then wood burning stoves inside to make sure people are nice and toasty. So, yes, we’ve been delighted with the feedback we’ve had from people who have come to stay.
Peter How long you’ve been running this for now?
Fenna We opened just at the start of May, so we’re quite new really – we’re just a few months in. It’s been a real whirlwind. We’ve had people coming to stay – that side of things has been extremely popular – and we’ve also opened the site up to membership, to people in the local area. So given what a rubbish time everybody’s had over the last year, we decided just to make membership free for this year, so we have over 10,000 people now already that have signed up and regularly come and visit the site.
Peter If you come visit, you can you can eat here?
Fenna Yes. So one of the lovely things actually is we’ve had an incredibly wide range of people come through to do different things. Some people come for dinner. We have a really exciting head chef called Gareth Oakes who announces the menu on the day; it’s hyper-seasonal and it’s all street food – everything from Korean bao buns to Indian fire feasts cooked over hot coals, and everything in between.
We then have a different range of people that tend to come a bit later for drinking. We regularly have DJs on until the end of the evening and live music performances. We have gallery space – we have a constantly evolving exhibition of of artists and then a big range of other ‘happenings’ – everything from various types of yoga and meditation to willow weaving courses.
There’s a wine and life drawing class on a Friday, which is particularly popular with the ladies around here, and children’s music workshops in the woodland. So it’s been beautiful seeing such a huge spread of people come and enjoy the space over the last couple of months.
Felice Well, we found out about it from a local who suggested that we became members, which was great because membership costs zero. What is it likely to cost next year?
Fenna Honestly, we have absolutely no idea. We sort of wanted to get going and it just felt like the right thing to do at the time. We’re beginning to have the conversations – it will either be not very much and people pay for classes and things as they go, or it’ll be a bit more and there’ll be a lot more included. We’re just discussing with people what we think is going to make sense.
Felice It’s also a great place to just bring your dogs to take them for a walk.
Fenna Yes, absolutely. There’s a strong dog walking contingent who are eating phenomenal amounts of cake. We have a lovely local lady called Emily who lives just in one of the villages nearby who is up until about midnight most evenings, churning out vast quantities of lemon drizzle and Victoria sponge and brownies. So the dog walkers are really putting in some sterling work on cake consumption.
Felice How many acres are there at Marston Park?
Fenna So the core of the site is 76 acres. That’s about 50 acres of woodland and about 25 of the lake, but there’s also beautiful public footpaths around the park and nearby. So you can easily walk for a few hours around and about and do some big loops.
Felice Are there set trails that you can follow?
Fenna Exactly. So there’s trails along the lake and through the woodland, which were opening up as we go. Then there’s also the walks in the parkland.
Peter I should mention that it’s amazingly lit by night. You’ve got these wonderful sodium lights all over the place. How do you do that? I mean, it seems to be the whole place is lit up, but gently lit up with nothing garish about it.
Fenna Yes, we’ve tried to light the paths and just the essential ones to ensure that it’s safe for people to get around. But we’ve gone for a very warm light, low-powered bulbs, which are generally quite low down and which makes the lighting a lot less intrusive and it’s also better for the wildlife here as well, and creates kind of less disturbance.
Peter Yes, there’s a lot of wildlife. There’s a lot of ducks and geese and just about everything.
Fenna The site has really been very untouched for the last 100 or so years, so it’s a real piece of wild England. There are otters in the lake, there’s a mink running around. There are these huge freshwater swan mussels, which I don’t know if you’ve seen – some of them are the size of both of your hands put together, they’re absolutely enormous. Bats, birds…it used to be one of the biggest herons’ nests in the county of Somerset. There’s actually all sorts here squirrelled away. Deer come regularly to drink from the lake.
Peter Marston Park I think originally was the seat of the Earls of Cork. Is that right?
Fenna That’s correct, yes.
Peter Then what happened to it after that? It’s had a kind of chequered history as a stately home, a beautiful stately home built I think in the 17th century.
Fenna Exactly. And then it’s been like a lot of these sorts of places in England. It’s somewhat that’s changing a lot. I think quite often people think of the classic English estates as static things that came out of nowhere and then that was it. The reality is that they were much more a development and a reflection of their owners and what was going on at that time.
So the house was extended significantly with various wings around the 1850. There was a lot of work done. So the lake that we’re near was created, the lake was hand-dug by the Irish workforce who were building the train lines to Penzance as a weekend job. So in the week they were building the train lines and the weekend for more a relaxing thing, they hand-dug a 25-acre lake. Then there were also a lot of the other lodges and buildings put in around the estate at a similar time.
Peter And we’re not talking about a small lake are we?
Fenna So the lake is 25 acres, so yes, it’s a big body of water. Originally it would have been about three metres deep, but over the last 100, 150 years it’s very gradually silted up. So it’s actually quite shallow at the moment. We have a very long-term plan here to try and restore the whole estate to its former design.
Felice Does anyone live in the house?
Fenna So the house is in private ownership and there are residents there, but not all of the time.
Peter Do you have regular events at weekends? You had an Ibiza event the other day…
Fenna We have quite a rich schedule here. Last weekend we did a collaboration with a hotel called Pikes in Ibiza, which is one of the classic rock-and-roll institutions on the island. It was a phenomenal three days; we had a lot of the team from there come out, and fantastic performances as well.
Peter So if people can’t go to Ibiza from here, Ibiza can come to them?
Fenna That’s the idea. So that was great – some really fantastic art and wellbeing classes, it was a very eclectic weekend.
Felice Where did the wellbeing classes take place?
Fenna So some of them are…it depends on the size…some are off in the woodlands. We have a structure called The Glade in the trees and The Hideout further down, which has lake views – we find that’s particularly good for yoga. We’re very lucky here that we’ve got a lot of space to play with, so we quite often try things out in different places.
Peter It looks like the lake would be great wild swimming, but it’s just a bit shallow.
Fenna It is. As part of our restoration, we plan on digging it out and reinstating it to its original depth of three metres. But at the moment it’s just too shallow. Instead, we have created a small, wild plunge pool, which is just opening as we speak.
Felice Oh yes, we saw that being built when we were here last week and it looked very tempting because it was very hot last week.
Peter You know, you really needed some water to go into rather than just look at.
Fenna Exactly. So we think that would be quite popular. And we have a wood-fired hot tub nearby so that you can do the hot-cold thing, which has lots of health benefits.
Peter Right at the far end of the lake, we saw two pretty large swans – that’s the only way I can describe them.
Fenna Yes, they they were recent a recent addition. We have these beautiful swan pedalos, which are a bit of a homage to the swans that we do have on site and they came as part of the Pike’s weekend – last weekend was when they arrived.
Peter And you’ve been out on those yourself?
Fenna I have. They’re delightfully comfortable, quite quick as well, actually you know, under full peddle you can get around pretty fast in them.
Felice Do you have any other boats on the lake?
Fenna At the moment it’s just those two, but we do have some other things in the pipeline.
Felice What? Rowing boats?
Fenna Yes, exactly…more sort of traditional English on their way.
Peter Fishing? It would be wonderful fishing. No fishing at the moment?
Fenna No, no fishing at the moment. There has been fishing historically here, and as you have seen with the way the tents are positioned and with people coming, it’s just a bit hard to fit everything in at once.
Peter It just seems overall a really chilled-out place.
Felice It’s a little bit of heaven, actually, near Frome in Somerset.
Fenna Yes, it certainly is.
Felice And you can come here just for breakfast if you want, or just for lunch?
Fenna Yes, exactly.
Felice There’s always food and drink served all day?
Fenna There’s breakfast and breakfast, lunch and dinner at sort of peak times when we have guests staying and then mostly dinner is our main offering.
Peter And you have a tented area where you can eat and drink and listen to music.
Fenna Exactly, and it has proved really popular. When the weather’s not so good and there is rain, it’s actually very pleasant to be able to sit out and still enjoy an English view, but without getting soaked.
Peter So what’s your story Fenna? How did you possibly get involved in this?
Fenna So I was living in Peckham, in South London in a converted school with my dog, Alfie, who’s a dachshund, and he became very friendly with another dog called Poppy. Therefore I met Poppy’s owner, who is now a very good friend of mine called Charlie. So my background is as a music producer and a DJ, and Charlie’s background is in opening bars and restaurants, and we became friends and then over a beer in a trendy ale shop in Peckham, I said to him that I’d had this idea for something I’d wanted to do for quite a long time and I’d been looking at different sites.
And he said, ‘Oh, that’s funny. I want to do a similar thing and as it happens, my family has some land and you should come and have a look.’
So I came down, expecting a shabby field at the back of the house and was met with this incredible place. So we partnered up and have been working together for the last five years. Most of our time has been designing and understanding the landscape. We have a planning application at the moment to restore some of the old buildings – there’s a beautiful boathouse, an original Victorian boathouse on the lake’s edge, which we plan to restore and re-thatch. That’ll be somewhere that people can row a boat inside and go up for a private dinner or a little exhibition or performance. Then there’s a lovely keeper’s cottage out in the woods, which, again, we’re planning on restoring as somewhere people would come and stay.
Apart from that, there’s a lot of woodland management which needs to be got on top of and the lake needs de-silting. And there’s also some very contemporary pieces of architecture we’re hoping to put in as well. There will be additional accommodation and a main hub with restaurant and bar and spa and that kind of stuff in it.
Peter A bit like the thing we’re sitting in now?
Fenna So the Futuro house is owned by an artist called Craig Barnes, and I first met him through the Futuro house when it was on the roof of Central St Martin’s in London. It was something you could book a ticket to go inside and experience. I was just absolutely knocked out. You know, it was at the time when we were beginning, about five years ago, at the time when we were beginning to make our plans down here. And it instantly just felt like something that had to come here. So it’s been a long time coming, but it’s great to finally see it here and be sat here inside it talking to you today. It’s been one of those five-year plans which has finally come together.
Felice What are your plans for the future here?
Fenna The long-term plan is to restore the estate and at some of these other elements. This year, we are looking at some really exciting sculpture trails and things through the woodlands – we think it will make a really lovely addition. And having got on top a lot of the initial infrastructure and set-up here, we’re beginning to turn our attention to the art schedule for next year and we’re discussing things like a literary festival. You know, there’s been a lot of interest from people in the wellbeing industry to come and host retreats and things which we’ve done a little bit of.
Felice How are you going to keep it down to earth and fun and not too expensive and designer-y? Are you going to manage to do that, do you think?
Peter I should explain that Frome is a pretty unusual kind of town in Somerset. It’s quite small; it’s got a population of around 20,000 and it’s become a really artistic community…for those who know London, it’s a little bit like Dalston was maybe 10, 15 years ago.
Felice So going back to my question, how will you keep this from becoming a designer, five-star place that people can’t afford to come to?
Fenna I think the spirit of the place that you’ve just described in terms of where we are geographically…so there’s Frome to the north and Bruton to the south and we’re quite near Glastonbury…and I think that we’re very keen for the place to be accessible. We try and price things accordingly. So we consider that our stays – particularly earlier in the week when a lot of professional creatives are looking to work on projects – are really quite reasonable. We’re seeing that it creates an interesting alternative for people to use as a workspace. So we have everyone in mind and we’re trying to ensure that it is and will remain an accessible place to come.
Felice If people want to find out more or book a night, or more, how do they do that?
Fenna So if you’d like to find out more, book a stay with us, you can either do that online on our website, which is MarstonPark.co.uk or pick up the phone to a human which is often people’s preference – our number’s on the website. Or you can of course drop us an email to [email protected]
Felice Fenna, thank you so much for appearing on our podcast.
Fenna You’re very welcome. Thank you for coming and bringing your wonderful dogs as well, and hope to see you guys again soon.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]
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