….make someone stay in a horse trailer?

The Pod Part III

Today is late April and the we are 1 month in to our first proper season. HMRC have been informed, I have registered self employed – now the croft has a chance of being a business not a hobby.

Typical of this time of year, by 9.45am we have already had a spring sunrise, summer dawn, autumnal school run, and now rather predictably the snow has just started to fall. The bed sheets with a picture of a galloping horse, and extra blankets are drying all over the house ready for the next guests. We have now added in a movable fire pit and BBQ; we are just keeping the extras free and the price at Hostel rate and flat across the year. It helps us work out different aspects of the market better if we know that choices haven’t been made around pricing.

So has it been successful?

Yes. Yes it has.

In fact I am blown away by how successful it is – not as much as The Great Dane, he’s genuinely impressed with me right now and I am basking in the “know it all glow” it allows me.

My target for bookings was to have it available from end of March until end of October. We had opened it at the end of last year for about 5 or 6 weeks and we had someone in it every weekend, even though we’d done zero marketing and it was completely out of season. We just bunged it on a couple of OTA’s and went for it.
This led me to believe that I should aim to have it let at least one night per weekend in our first season. Then I got cold feet and opted for 25 nights in our first season, 75 in our second as I hoped by then I would have the time to really push the marketing, and finally by the time we were in year 3 I hoped to top out and maintain with 100 nights a year.
I didn’t have a lot to base these targets on in terms of expectations or market research. Since I last worked in this sector there had been incredible changes, like the internet – that wasn’t a thing back then let alone Glamping. No one would pay you to stay in a horse trailer the last time I let out or dealt with self catering. The Great Dane had no conviction that anyone ever would.

It appears that I was probably way out with those targets. One month in and yesterday was the first time that we didn’t have someone staying in it, meaning we have blown the first years target out of the water in the first month. In fact we are not far off our second years target already, so I am confident we can meet our year 3 target in this season.

However the true mark of success is how people enjoy it, and so far it has been only 5 star reviews. The real proof being with guests reporting it’s the best place they have stayed, and saying they want to return next year. Long term stays are being enjoyed as much as one night “experience” stays. Hardcore campers are enjoying a shower bag under a sky roof, and absolutely everyone is getting a lot out of cutting up wood and having fun with the stove and the fire pit.

On a totally personal level it has done more than that though – it has given us hope.

I said in my other posts this was about finding a way to live where we love with enough time left over to love it. However since I last posted about the pod our personal situation changed a lot. In October I woke at 4.30am in agony in my hips, and from there progressed a winter of troubling symptoms, a loss of mobility, no real answers from the NHS so far, terrifyingly the loss of two jobs and finally becoming registered as disabled.
Our position changed from wanting to live where we love to wanting to keep any kind of roof over our heads. We looked at moving but nothing that was available was going to make us better off. We were going to end up with less space and a larger mortgage.
I couldn’t afford to keep my beloved Muscle Man on the road, and I had to give up breeding our gorgeous cobs because I could no longer handle the youngstock.
My lowest point was when my eldest daughter had to leave school to care for me. We went into a freefall of bewildered panic, and I couldn’t understand what was happening far less how to fix it.

In all honesty I had lost my enthusiasm for everything – I didn’t know if I would do any of my hobbies (rock climbing, riding and mushing) ever again and with 10 dogs and 10 horses to care for that was going to be a problem. I had bred the dogs, or owned them for 14yrs, I had bred the horses and some I had rescued from abuse or neglect and I had a one off bond with them. Being so specialist in terms of their needs there was nowhere for them to go except a large hole in the ground and I couldn’t consider that as an option. I couldn’t see the answer, I couldn’t see where the money for their feed was coming from, where the help with their care was coming from. I knew every penny would count in 2017 and if the pod could make enough to pay the bill for the feed they’d eaten over winter I would have one less stress.

We started to get ready for the opening, and hauled the mattress out of the hallway. We’d stored it there in its bag to stop it going damp and mouldy over winter in the empty pod. However it was up against the glass pane by the unused front door and condensation had run down and pooled on the top of the bag, eventually making its way inside. As my daughter went to take it from the bag I saw it was soaking wet and very mouldy. In a panic I started looking for a replacement – we had only a couple of weeks until opening and I knew deliveries to the North can take that long on large items. One company sold a cheap replacement but it wouldn’t deliver for less than £70, another guaranteed to be in your home in 5 days for £15 but it was twice the price. To have peace of mind I had it in time I went for the expensive one, which actually arrived 17 days later, just 2hrs before our first guest checked in. Our first guest was staying 5 days, and the weather was rough – I anticipated a poor review…..

Thankfully she loved it, and I felt like I could exhale a deep sigh of relief. From then on the bookings came thick and fast and The Great Dane and I began to worry less and smile more.
We realised that this daft wee idea I had last year, and the last bit of cash and mobility I had, had been very well used. This pod was going to get us out of some very tough times, and if we could make another we’d be able to actually make this croft work and stop worrying about losing our home – a place we love. Thanks to this pod, and the fact I am not able to reliably work elsewhere any longer, I finally have the time to enjoy it.

We have started work on the next pod, which is a horse lorry this time. It’s going to accommodate up to 5 people and will be on grid so if some of those people are kids you can look after them easily with electric showers and gas hobs, running water and an electric stove you don’t have to cut wood for. Now we have to start branding, websites, paper based advertising and so on. After all those years running all those businesses and working all those crazy jobs with crazy hours it looks like we might finally have got it right.

Thanks to all our guests so far for their lovely reviews – If we keep getting guests like this we’re going to be blessed.
Big thanks to friends, family, children and partner who sponsored this event with their enormous hearts.

………..try to build a house? Even a tiny house?

Well let me tell you I have built houses before – it’s just they were about 3ft square and for dogs, or rabbits (but never both together. That could be alarming :/).

I can bodge – what crofter can’t? It’s our national sport. The crofter is the original Ecowarrior with his “make do and mend” attitude and hoarding born out of budget problems. I can take a broken fence and make it stand up again. I can hand saw until my shoulders spasm, I can hammer with surprising accuracy and strength, I know nothing about engines other than the various noises of an ill one, I can design, and I quite enjoy painting and varnishing. I have no experience of metal work beyond second year craft and design, however, and looking at the rusting mass of my very old horse trailer I feel I am going to need to learn a lot about that.

THE BACKGROUND

When looking at what has brought me to this project I think we have to consider both mine, AND the trailers history.
The trailer belongs to the halcyon days of running an outdoor activity centre that included pony trekking and a riding school. It is an enormous green tank of a thing. Recently refurbished when I bought it back in 2005 , it was ancient then, originally from Laurie Trailers of Falkirk, I think the make is a Bradley. In fact it appears to be older than me if the last number on the chassis number is the year it was made?
With a double floor and space to take two Clydesdale horses at once, it never did – partially because the two Clydesdales I owned were a very sickly ex broodmare who should not ever have another foal, and a particularly deadly stallion who I dreaded trying to do the deed in the back of the box, resulting in at least one death. That and the fact the box alone weighed roughly a ton and with a couple of tons of horse in it too no one had a vehicle (at that time) that could tow that physically or legally. In fact after towing it empty or with a small load had killed a few 4×4’s and saloons it became known as “the car killer”.
One day my father decided to use it to take something into the woods and dragged it mercilessly over terrain it should never have gone through, and broke one of the axels. For whatever reason – it may have been the many fond memories I had of times out and about with horses in it, or the crofter in me – I never parted with it. A number of years ago, probably about seven, I parked it down in one of the paddocks with wooden blocks to hold up the rear of it and I used it for training perfect trailer loading with the horses and storage. There it sat with the ramp down like a gaping mouth staring up to the riding school shocked at it’s abandonment, while god knows what Highland wildlife took turns living underneath it. Until yesterday that is……

My history is just as arduous;
After the great days of the activity centre which were cut short by some serious riding falls about a year earlier, gradually reducing my mobility to zilch, I spent the following seven years looking for a way to make a living.
Initially I decided to do something obvious – use the skills and assets I had procured over the 5 years with the activity centre to do horse rehabilitation. I’d been doing this as a hobby/sideline all along. Now I’d try and make it pay. Sadly I got nowhere with that as my back made me so completely unreliable and further injuries were quite common even when you did your best work. So then I went into a string of around seven or eight other businesses, many at the same time, decided by my necessity to work from home due to a terrifying lack of childcare in the vicinity. Sometimes I was at extremes of role juggling from a full allocation of childminding 12hrs a day, as well as trying to care for the 40 odd animals on the croft, be a self employed manager in a company owned by Lord Sugar (somewhere I have a photo of me photo bombing his Lordship – one of my finest unplanned achievements, but I couldn’t find it to include it), and work a seven hour shift in the local bar at night, six days a week.

As you can imagine, this was EXHAUSTING. It was too much, and wasn’t even making me money. I dropped everything that did not justify itself financially once I had reviewed my accounts for the past half of the financial year. Shockingly the most profitable thing I had on the go, that was reliable, and with a predictable income, was the bar job. Until last month that is, when I turned up to find the receivers of bankruptcy were in the building and I was redundant there and then. With a bit of quick thinking and fighting we had the place reopened a few days later but we are not out of the woods yet…….

I am sad it’s not worked out at the bar and not just because the small village will go dry without a pub, and there’s going to be a hulking great building derelict in the center of the village, but because the only place that’s employing people at night when I have free childcare will be gone. I had enjoyed aspects of that job a lot – it was straight forward, and none of the paperwork or bank balances were mine to keep me awake at night for once (I have an absolute phobia of opening mail, and a weird love-hate relationship with paperwork). However that’s changed now that we are fighting to keep the place going, and ultimately the decisions on how to do that are not mine. I do find it difficult not being in control – it was the most worrying part of returning to employment from self employment; not being my own boss, not making the buck stopping rules and decisions, but that was also exactly what I was enjoying getting away from. Weird how your fears can be your friends eventually.

Anyway, I have decided that I have to once again make the most of my assets and any skills I can learn to find a way of making money in future. I have the croft, I have this trailer, and I have roughly worked out that I can just about afford the £1000 I want to make the budget for getting it done. I’m not even convinced that budget is realistic, and I’m certain it contains no contingency. Also I can’t afford to get the money then start the project, because if I do the season will be over. I also don’t know if I can get it going before I may lose my job, and even if I do I can’t see it replacing my income in full or at all beyond mid August.

I have to say that 8 or 9 businesses in seven years has been a task, but a task that’s given me so many new skills – online marketing, social media skills, confidence, contacts and a real feeling for what’s worth doing. I really want this one to work because it’s fun, and cute – it’s a house in a horse trailer, how awesome is that if you’re daft about equines?!!
It’s not going to make a fortune, but if I can get it up and running for this summer I am hoping it can pay me back – which is the same as paying for the next venture. Everything I have done in the past seven years has given me the skills, knowledge and contacts to get this underway, and I believe this trailer is the vehicle to the next phase – none of it is the perfect answer, but it’s all part of the journey.

Yesterday I took the first step. Me and The Great Dane (my Fiance, a human one, don’t worry. ) went through much agony with a dodgy jockey wheel, and embedded tree trunks, water filled tyres, and a dysfunctional farm jack to get the trailer hitched onto the back of my faithful old Landy, Muscle Man. I dragged it through some pretty trenchy mud up onto the yard and took a proper look at what I might need to do with it. Stripping it right down is the only way to be really certain of what it will need. (P.S. shortly after this Muscle Man broke down – might be a coincidence, because he is a Land Rover and that’s what Land Rovers do. Especially 20 year old ones).
The Great Dane has made it plain that whilst he is happy to give advice and help where he feels he has time or is qualified to do so, this is not HIS project. And that’s fine. He has his own projects. I don’t think the way to a healthy relationship is to consume the other persons free time with what you want or have to do. Although mucking about getting it out of the field yesterday was a lot of fun, even the bickering part was tongue in cheek (my never ending self improvement has not yet reached the realm of perfect communication or dealing well with frustration).
I loved looking at the old wagon, remembering the very many furry butts I used to see through the back door (or, in the case of the Clydie mare who had sweet itch as one of her many issues, actually hanging out over the back of it looking for a scratch). I remembered the adventures, and parts of the country it had been to like when I went to the Isle of Lewis to buy a rare Eriskay and my gear box went on a big hill and I nearly crashed killing me, the horse, a very young eldest daughter and my best dog ever, or the time I used it to take seven horses home from a local show while I had a broken pelvis from falling off going over the practice jump, or turning it in a passing place at the most Northern tip of Skye – it is longer than normal box and the pick up was 18ft long( If I have a super power it is definitely driving and reversing with trailers on, almost un-natural if I say so myself). I remembered how, after all the nurturing I gave her, that Clydie mare was such a devoted friend of mine she’d follow me anywhere – even into the trailer without any halter or lead rope; the sense of love and devotion I would have standing in there stroking her beautiful face and giant snuffly nose, as someone put the back ramp up and we’d go off in seek of better grazing for her each time she inexplicably lost condition. She was called Offers Lady May so it seems fitting that we start this project in the month of her name.

And now it’s time for someone else to experience love and devotion in the trailer! Once she’s all transformed and reborn she’ll be going into a circle of hard standing atop the hill in my Caledonian Pine wood and be rented out for a nominal fee. I aim to have her ready for mid July if I can.
Plans include a composting toilet, a decked outdoor food prep and dining area, a wood burner on a door; that’s right – a door, a stable door entrance, a Perspex window with recycled plastic bottle “stained glass” and pallet furniture, and horse related fittings. I’ll try and detail the whole thing so other people without a clue can see where to get started once they find a relic to relove.