A spring clean of the filing cabinet and I found this. Written by Dad in the early days, for one of the newspapers at the time, it summarises the unique story behind Log House Holidays when it started back in 1980. Since then we have been the home of many happy holidays in the Cotswolds. From eco friendly getaways to that special honeymoon – we have the perfect holiday for you. I hope you enjoy the below article as much as I did…
An Island of my Own
When Somerford Lakes was last a commercial operation I was a boy at school, learning maths, history and geography. I didn’t even know where Somerford Lakes was, so I certainly would never have dreamed of buying it. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. At the time it was nothing like the haven it is now. In the sixties, Somerford was a gravel quarry with machines churning the ground and lorries thundering all around. Not until the operation closed down in 1970 did tranquility descend on this particular neck of the Cotswold Hills, near the old town of Cirencester.
By then, though, I was on my way to Canada – a lumberjack for a while and then a silver miner in the Yukon. It was an odd, nomadic existence for a young man. But it was fun. I was out in the open air, battling with nature and earning a pretty penny in the bargain. When I had returned to England and found myself working in London as a tree surgeon, I could say that I was doing all right.
It was then that I started to look around to see if I could start a business of my own. My first idea was to open a fish farm, and I started to trail around England looking for a possible site. It must have been in the Spring of 1980 that I first spied Somerford Keynes. It was perfect: 120 acres of water and eleven small islands. As with all the lakes in the Cotswolds Water Park, Somerford Lakes had been created by gravel extraction, but deserted for a decade, it had become something of a nature reserve. Wildfowl and fish were in abundance, as were foxes and mink. There was no “For Sale” sign up, but a chat with the regulars at the local pub soon established that the site was available, and, almost before I knew what had happened, I had signed an agreement. Somerford Lakes was mine.
But I had given myself no easy task. Today, when people come to visit, they find it hard to believe quite what the place was like back in 1980. But saying it was a “Challenge” is putting it mildly. There were no access roads, no gas, no electricity and no mains water supply. Neither was there any top soil in which things could grow. But, worst of all, there was absolutely nowhere to live.
I solved this problem first. Starting off in a dilapidated old mobile home, sharing it with my dog Jake, I waited for the arrival of my first major purchase: a traditional log house, imported from Finland. When it arrived we loaded it onto a raft and ferried it across the lake. Building it was slow and painstaking, but it was worth it. The end result was fantastic. So good, in fact, that we would later become agents for the manufacturing company.
But there was no time to bask in the glory of my new home. There was still lots of other work to be done: bringing in tons and tons of earth, plants and trees and all sorts of other materials. The start of a massive campaign of landscaping, bridge building and road construction had begun. But, whilst I was in the middle of it all, I found myself faced with potential disaster. With all the undoubted beauty of my paradise retreat, it soon became clear that my original idea of beginning an intensive fish farm was a non starter. The finely balance water chemistry of the lakes would never be able to cope with the unnatural input of nutrients that intensive farming demands. I’d have to think of something else.
In fact, as it turned out, I didn’t really need to think at all. Already the idea was staring me in the face. Friends and their families who had visited were forever talking about the splendours of the place. They all saw its potential as a venue. Some of them even asked if they could use it for private parties. And then one of them suggested turning it into a theme park. The future was clear.
I didn’t want a theme park in any conventional sense of the word. The environment was far too delicate for that. In any case, I really didn’t want hordes of visitors tramping over my islands. But something more select, more special and more, if you like, exclusive was an entrancing prospect. With a little work, I thought, Somerford Lakes could become a unique English retreat and recreation area. It took some time explaining my ideas to the local council, and just as long to explain it to my bank manager. But eventually everyone agreed and Somerford Lakes began its transformation into a “hospitality venue”.
By now my family and I had worked out how our ideas for the scheme could be realised. We wanted to strike a balance between conservation and business, and so we set ourselves some ground rules. We didn’t want to disturb the wildfowl, so the idea of motorized boats was outlawed. Instead, we’d use electric launches. We also wanted to maintain the integrity of the location, so there would be nothing garish or brutal.
Roads were laid and services connected across the lake. We planted out over 35,000 trees, carefully choosing the species for their amenity value, with particular thought towards winter and autumn colour so as to create spectacular reflections in the years to come. We stocked the lakes with fish so farming, on an extensive basis, could begin. And we started the rudiments of landscaping design. The islands were slowly taking shape.
At the beginning, our thoughts were directed mainly towards our potential child visitors. We convinced ourselves that if you can entertain a group of five to seven year olds so that they wanted to come back again and again, then you had met and mastered your hardest market. But what would our “theme” be? Surrounded as we are by water, boats were an obvious choice, and we thought about maybe a Viking long ship or a “fantasy” boat. But, as a child, I had always loved pirate stories. Our final decision was really a foregone conclusion.
I began the construction of a half-sunken galleon and island fort, with the pirate’s Skull and Crossbones flag flying above. To add to the fun and mystery, the fort is only accessible through a secret tunnel, and, hidden in the undergrowth, there are ghoulish little touches: skeletons and clay heads mounted on long stakes. It is a real “Treasure Island” adventure.
We were really pleased with the result, and children adored it. But we now also had to apply ourselves to the rather more sophisticated demands of adults. These days the hunt is always on for something different and special in the field of corporate hospitality, and we knew we would have to work hard if we were going to succeed.
Our first priority was to create a landscaped area capable of accommodating several hundred guests. We decided on Friday Island as being ideal. Its natural contours gave us something to start with, and our imagination did the rest. The air of something special would be created immediately after the guests arrive. They would be ferried by Edwardian launch to the Woodland Pier. From there, a short walk through the softly lit woodland paths, following the sound of steel bands or cool jazz, would take them onto Friday Island. We planted out the entire island with exotic plants, which created an illusion of an island further afield than the Cotswold’s. And it worked.
Indeed, in many ways the reality turned out better than the dream. At night the whole area is flood-lit and the winding paths are illuminated with low-level candle torches, creating a mysterious and romantic ambiance. Combine this with a full moon on a balmy summer evening, with the resident nightingales singing in the background, and it really is something very special and totally unique. Located close to the shoreline is a Caribbean Bar in a Thatched Pavillion together with a barbecue, while further round the island is a giant chess set and a site for beach bonfires to warm the evening.
It took us twelve years to get things as they are now, and even today, though most of the hard work has finished, there are countless things left to do. With visitors – families, corporate clients, large companies, party planners – we keep trying to find something new and exciting that will make their stay memorable and unique. Hopefully we’re succeeding.
We’ve already staged a few “Old English Sporting” days, which have proved very popular, as have the pony and trap rides, the falconry displays and the archery contests. Weather permitting, a tethered hot air balloon allows guests the experience of seeing the stunning views over the whole of Somerford Lakes and across the Upper Thames Valley, and, for those who like the rugged life, they can then spend the nights out under canvas – complete with camp fires and fireside songs.
And we are learning new things all the time. The acoustic qualities of the water are tremendous, so we have now started putting on concerts – with the orchestras playing from rafts moored off the island. Corporate clients have shown that even the most formal receptions work well here, so soon there will be more of those. Firework displays are magnificent over the lakes, so we are now all getting ready for a spectacular November 5th. Before then we’ll be organising some great Halloween parties, and we’ve already started working on an extra special Christmas occasion.
When I began the endeavour, I know a lot of people thought I was eccentric, and perhaps they still do. But there are not many people who can boast that, to escape from the pressures of life, they can just row themselves across to their own island and walk barefoot in the sand. Indeed, perhaps I’m the only one.