January 21 2013
John O’Groats, which ranks – alongside Land’s End – as one of the two most famous spots on the British coast, is being recreated. In fact, you could drop the “re” and say it is being created: the construction planned for the most northerly settlement on the UK mainland amounts to the founding of a place that didn’t previously exist.
In a twist on Brigadoon, the fantastical Scottish village that reappeared every 100 years, the new, far more gleaming village of John O’Groats is to materialise on a site where little has happened since a hotel was built nearly 140 years ago. But before elaborating on the John O’Groats reinvention, there is another extraordinary tale to be told.
The company building the village is Natural Retreats, a relatively new outfit that offers self-catering holidays in environmentally friendly lodges of superior quality. The story of its rise has the metaphorical G-force of a moon shot. It also adds a further subtext to the ongoing dilemma in experiential travel and conservation: how to introduce discerning people into the world’s wildest places without simultaneously ruining what they have come to see.
In 2000 the company’s founder, Matthew Spence, was marketing Coca-Cola. The family farm in the Swale Valley, just outside Richmond, North Yorkshire, was struggling; his mother wanted to find another way of making a living. Spence suggested creating some holiday accommodation. It took two years to get planning permission and “all my money and credit cards” to build 18 chalets. They opened fully in 2006. “It was a real swing with my eyes shut,” Spence says.
The swing connected. Natural Retreats today has 13 sites in the UK, Ireland, Lanzarote and the US. The properties differ considerably from the original, purpose-built lodges in Yorkshire. On the Llyn Peninsula in Wales, eight sleek cottages have been converted from old farm buildings built of stone as rugged as the crags from which it was cut. At Playa Blanca, a resort with protected beaches on the southern tip of Lanzarote, Natural Retreats has erected a series of four-bedroom villas, each with a private infinity pool heated through the winter. And in Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, there are log cabins built by frontiersmen in the 19th century retrofitted with all the modern conveniences.
Though Spence is British, in a sense it was in the US that Natural Retreats started. When he was seven, his parents took him to Yellowstone National Park. For Spence, it was a transformative experience. “It’s the reason I’m doing what I do today,” he says.
A few years earlier, another child made the first of several trips there that were to leave an equally profound mark on him. Mark Rockefeller, a scion of the legendary family, met Spence two years ago. Spence was looking for sites in the US; Rockefeller had one. South Fork Lodge, on a bend in the Snake River in southern Idaho, is but a mountain pass away from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It has 10 spacious suites in two large log cabins whose walls bulge with Douglas fir timbers. They are unambiguously, if luxuriously, western. Possessing home comforts such as wood fires, they look out across the river to an island that in autumn blazes yellow with cottonwood trees. Beyond are the pewter-coloured peaks of the Big Hole Mountains. It is vast country.
The Snake, it is said, has the best dry fly fishing in the US. South Fork Lodge has access to 127 miles of it. I floated down the river in a 16ft drift boat – just me and Dan Hurzeler, my guide, who used oars to ease us about the current. There were white-tailed deer on the bank, bald eagles in the sky, puce-leaved willows at the waterside and, in Snake River Canyon, towering cliffs of ashen basalt rearing out of stands of juniper, cedar and spruce. In the water there were – according to a recent survey by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game – up to 4,000 trout per mile: cutthroat (which are native to the river), brown and rainbow.
Rockefeller traced a similar route in the early 1990s. “It had everything I was looking for,” he told me of his first view of the land. He bought a 4,000-acre ranch for his family’s use in 1991 and, a few years later, South Fork Lodge as a business. What he also did was to place all the riverfront land “in easement” – a legally binding agreement that ensures it can never be developed, despite remaining in private hands. As a member of a family that has been involved in the establishment of around 20 conservation areas, including two national parks (Acadia and Grand Teton), his action was unsurprising. Hearteningly, many of his neighbours were inspired to follow suit.
Natural Retreats now has a controlling interest in South Fork, as I was told when I met Rockefeller and Spence in the library on the 56th floor of the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan (which has a whole bookcase devoted to “Conservation and Parks”). Rockefeller explains: “One of the things that resonated was the value Natural Retreats placed on wanting to connect people with nature and the natural world. That was something that was very important to me and my uncle Laurance, who was a hero and mentor of mine.”
He and Spence are passionate in their support of national parks. “They are an incredible resource, they’re so valuable,” says Rockefeller, “but it’s the ability to experience them that remains something of a challenge. There are some wonderful lodges within the parks, but what Natural Retreats is doing to help facilitate and create access is desperately needed.”
Both agree that national parks must do more to capture the imagination of young people. In Rockefeller’s words: “It’s going to be so important to find ways to connect the next generation to these places, so they value them and don’t take them for granted.” Spence adds: “The danger will be that they don’t change. National parks are competing with every other brand, every other product out there. One of our biggest missions as a company is to make sure those childhood memories that Rockefeller and I had can be experienced by families today. And the only way to achieve that is by accommodation – getting people to stay in parks overnight.”
The immediate key for Natural Retreats was to be at the entrance of a national park or “area of outstanding natural beauty”. Spence envisages having up to 40 sites in the US and would ideally like to be inside the parks as well. To this end he has begun lobbying Washington to change the way accommodation concessions are awarded. “Yellowstone is a monopoly. There is only one operator in the whole park, so they’re not incentivised, and most of the accommodation is not relevant – no WiFi or mobile phones.”
For the pioneers of America’s National Park Service, the aim was to attract visitors; popularity was an important lever to prise money from Washington. Controversially they built roads and lodges, and encouraged railway companies to run trains into the heart of protected areas. Today, globally, the connection between commerce and conservation is of course more sensitive and subtler. At the very least, accommodation should have the lightest ecological touch. Often, it must offer considerable luxury as well. Western Australia’s Naturebank programme saw its first project, the Bungle Bungles Safari Camp, open in the World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park last June. Under Naturebank’s strict controls, private developers are now competing to provide beds inside other state parks.
In Africa, and more latterly India, the park/lodge relationship goes to the point of symbiosis. Norman Carr Safaris in Zambia was nearly 50 years ahead of anyone in involving traditional landowners in tourism. Since 1950, when its first camp was set up in conjunction with one of the regional paramount chiefs, the partnership principle has underwritten all its bush camps in and around South Luangwa National Park. It is now standard practice through almost the whole of safari Africa.
In India, the apathy of communities around tiger reserves sometimes threatened the species’ survival. Not only did villagers have no stake in the parks, they considered tigers to be cattle-killing pests. The 1920s-style Sher Bagh Tented Camp in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan was among the first to emulate an African model: 70 per cent of its staff are locals. Taj Safaris’ supremely comfortable lodges at the four major tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh are exemplary in the way they have used tourism to fund welfare and education, as well as benefit local economies – and protect prized natural resources.
The issues perceived by Spence in the US are somewhat different. He wants to upgrade the standards of lodges around the national parks to far more luxurious levels, to attract a different sort of visitor; but he also wants to make them more relevant to conservation, in particular by creating programmes and providing unique access to imbue a younger generation with his fervour for the wilderness.
In the meantime, in the UK, he has John O’Groats to revitalise along these same lines. So far, 23 lodges have been erected, their fronts turned wide-eyed towards the sea. Clad in larch wood and, like old crofters’ cottages, roofed with grass, from the outside they nevertheless look a bit like a park of large sheds (partly a by-product of rigorous adherence to eco-standards; planned further landscaping will help). Inside, though, light and spacious living areas have stone chimney breasts, coppery light shades and pale timber furniture. Each has a high-spec kitchen and a lounge, where an L-shaped sofa confronts a flatscreen TV, DVD player, wood-burning stove and small library – acknowledgement that Scotland’s climate is not always conducive to days outdoors. (Though Natural Retreats does have a central concierge service, possibly unique in UK self catering, that advises on and arranges activities.)
Each lodge front is a huge floor-to-ceiling window some 10m long, with big sliding panes that open on to a deck and views of the coast. Behind the living room are two double bedrooms and a good-sized family bathroom, and a larger master bedroom with a small shower room en suite. Duvets are goosedown, linen is Egyptian cotton and the decorative fabrics are handmade Scottish Anta tweeds. The overall effect – unfussy, sleek design splashed with bright fabrics – is of a beach house in a Scandinavian thriller.
Ecological concerns are also paramount. Waste disposal, energy saving and rainwater collection reduce the cottages’ environmental impact, and many materials are recycled. Except for the electrical appliances, everything is made in Britain, much of it in Scotland.
It is a crucial part of the Natural Retreats formula that its lodges should be immersed in bravura landscape. This is why the otherwise improbable John O’Groats won it over; the coast here is as dramatic as any in the UK. Aboard the company’s 12-seat RIB, I went bucking into the Pentland Firth, the narrow sluice of water separating Caithness and Orkney, famous for its fearsome tides. We circled the island of Stroma before lingering at the Duncansby Stacks, pillars of rock layered in plates of rosy sandstone . We saw grey seals and porpoises, gannets and fulmars. In summer there are puffins and sometimes minke whales and orcas.
So far the Natural Retreats project has cost about £7m, 30 per cent of which came from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the investment arm of the Highland Council. As well as the self-catering cottages, it has opened an “outfitters”, a term used in its American sense of an agency either renting or selling activities, clothing and equipment. It occupies a 14th-century whitewashed stone cottage – in 1496 the home of Dutch ferryman Jan de Groote, from whom John O’Groats derives its name.
The cottage is the oldest building, but not the most striking. That title goes to the turreted Victorian hotel on the seafront – slate roofed, whitewashed and bristling with gabled windows. It was derelict when Natural Retreats arrived. “Ninety nine people out of a hundred would have said, ‘Bulldoze it’,” declares Bruce Mackay, onsite project manager of GLM Edinburgh, which was in charge of its restoration. Now it will reopen in June as the Inn at John O’Groats by Natural Retreats, with 16 self-catering apartments. Half will be in the hotel and half in a modern extension painted in vivid Nordic colours – red, yellow, blue and green. It was too early at the time of my visit to tell what the suites will look like, but if the arresting exterior is any indication, they will be truly impressive.
This dramatic renovation is symbolic of everything else Natural Retreats has planned. Contemporary architecture in dazzling colours is only the start of it. Schemes for some of the old, drab, pebble-dashed buildings may include a glistening boutique whisky distillery, brewery, shops and, eventually, primary school and homes for a population of about 1,000. “We want people to live there. This is not a resort, this is a living village,” says Spence.
For visitors, it will be an experience unmatched in Britain. Spence has expanded his company, with Rockefeller’s help, to reinvent the way some of the most beautiful and precious natural places in the US, UK and, eventually, points beyond are perceived and experienced – and, ultimately, how they are protected. It’s no small ambition. This is one instance where “retreat” isn’t likely to be read as a failure to advance.