How to Set Up a Nature Centre

Catherine Middleditch
Saturday, 10th May 2014

Catherine and Doug share how they created the High Nature Centre, from planning permission and funding through to community bonding, workshops, camping and creating biodiversity.

In 2009, Permaculturists Doug Lane and Cat Middleditch began working on a 2 hectare (5 acre) smallholding called Wayfield Nurseries located on a coastal plateau in East Portlemouth, South Devon. At the time, the site was owned by forward thinkers Alan and Jonquil Stapleton, who supported both commercial and community initiatives on the land. 

Five years later, Doug and Cat, now the owners of the land, are diversifying and developing the smallholding into a vibrant Nature Centre, offering yurt camping, low cost business start-up space, arts and crafts activities, and tourist information about the local area. The couple have also been given permission to construct an 18m (59ft) diameter roundhouse to be used as a central hub. The yurt camp opened to the public last year and this year the couple plan to open the centre to day visitors. Permaculture design, perseverance and hard graft have been the key to their success so far.

We try to maintain a healthy balance between looking after the land, caring for our visitors and workers, and making sure that there is enough energy coming in to the business to sustain and develop it.

The most important lesson learnt so far has to be the ability to maintain a healthy ecology of the self. Taking care of your own well-being can be easy to overlook when you’re under stress and faced with what seems to be a never ending amount of work. Finding ways to keep your mental, emotional and physical health in check has proved to be essential for us. We eat good quality food and get plenty of exercise and rest. We manage our energy levels around the diverse range of jobs and the ever changing weather patterns. Having a flexible and diverse timetable is one of the advantages of running the centre; it helps to keep our holistic health in balance. Jobs can range from shovelling tonnes of manure to doing PR and accounts all in the same day.

Another important lesson learnt has been finding the right people to work with. Social dynamics can make or break a project, so it’s essential that you can trust and work well with the people you are setting up your business with.

Doug and I lived and worked together for four years before purchasing the land in 2012, so were fully aware of our strengths, weaknesses and compatibility before we made the commitment to set up High Nature. Although we share the same ethics, aspirations and goals, our knowledge, skills and abilities are quite different and we often occupy different niches.

Community Engagement

Integrating into a new small community has its challenges, especially if you are making the leap from the big smoke to a little rural English village. At times it felt like we’d crash landed into an odd mixture of The Archers, Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh. Doug and I are sociable people, so it didn’t take long for us to make friends and get to know people in the area. Our fantastic local pub, The Pigs Nose Inn, definitely played an integral role in this process!

Initially we engaged the local community by offering the opportunity to grow food on the land. A group of us then set up a community egg initiative by introducing chickens and ducks. We also decided to hold a little festival with live music, local food, apple pressing, coastal walks and skill swapping. This is now an annual event. We have recently opened the workshop spaces for arts and crafts. So far we’ve had people felt making, greenwood working, restoring furniture, upholstery and pottery. We are planning to introduce more crafts this year and offering drop in summer sessions and short courses to the public.

Funding - Private & Public

Funding is very important and can occasionally be overlooked by wanting to explore the dream of living off the land. Our project has received private and public funding. The public funding for the business came through DEFRA (via the South Devon Coastal Local Action Group) and through The Food Standards Agency (FSA) via the South Devon Community Supported Farming Group.

The DEFRA funding was aimed at small businesses wanting to diversify from agriculture to tourism, so we fitted the criteria perfectly. This injection of capital enhanced our business by providing an educational reference library, arts and crafts hand tools, inflatable kayaks, life jackets, and food processing and juicing equipment. It also part funded locally crafted wood burners and oak framed beds for the yurts. The FSA funding enabled us to set up High Nature bee hives. 

It may be surprising to hear that 50% of the initial private investment went on purchasing the land, and the other 50% on setting up the yurt camp. It’s worth considering the full cost of setting up your livelihood before purchasing land, as without that capital investment you could find yourself in financial difficulties very quickly. Doug and I are also self-employed and still currently earn money outside High Nature Centre as the business is predominantly seasonal at present.

Keeping afloat financially continues to be one of the hardest challenges for us, as the business is still very much in its infancy. If like us, you are starting out with agricultural land, you will need permission for a change of use. Planning is a tough process but don’t let this hold you back folks! Every application is different, so a blueprint for success is not something anyone can provide. There are however, steps that can be taken that could increase your chances of getting permission for your project. You could pay a private planning advisor, which can be expensive but very useful, as they will know everything about permitted development rights, your local development framework, national policies, and any potential loop holes. We took a different approach.

Firstly, we got to know our neighbours and local community, and tried to engage them and get them involved. 

Secondly, we got to know our district councillor. For us, this was essential as being in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) meant that our application was a departure from policy, so the decision went directly to the District Council Planning Committee. The fact that Doug and I had already lived and worked in the village for at least five years before we bought the land was definitely a major factor in our successful application. Social integration both locally and further afield provided us with the necessary letters of support to tip the scales in our favour.

Thirdly, it is important to develop a realistic business plan incorporating social and environmental benefits, and then get support from the various statutory organisations like the AONB and The Environment Agency. We also had to provide a Sustainable Drainage System Plan, a Transport Management Plan, an Ecology Survey and an Archaeological Survey to prove that there wasn’t anything of ecological or archaeological significance on the development site. A year later, good design, local support, perseverance and a passionate three minute talk to the District Planning Committee gained us our 10 year temporary permission.

Business Planning

The concept of setting up High Nature Centre came about by us wanting to set up a multi-functional diverse business, but with a central focus. We wanted to incorporate our shared interests in permaculture, food growing, arts and crafts, ecology and conservation, so we decided a nature centre would encompass all of this and much more.

We explored the different ways we could potentially generate an income from the land using permaculture design tools and techniques, and it was clear that our site and location provided us with the perfect platform to set up an educational eco-tourism business. Being in a tourist hot spot has enabled us to tap into the popular glamping market, which has provided an immediate return on our investment. Integrating the arts and crafts activities is proving to be a fantastic combination. The provision and promotion of rural arts and crafts activities such as greenwood working, willow weaving, felt making, scything and hedge laying are an integral part of our whole plan to kick start an alternative rural industry in an area dominated by the service industry and conventional farming. Our overall aim for the roundhouse once completed, is to create a central space where crafts people, workers, volunteers, visitors and locals can come together to socialise, exchange skills and ideas, and sell their work. 


Another part of the business plan is to encourage people to reconnect with nature by exploring the surrounding landscape. We are located just above the National Trust Heritage Coast, with some jaw dropping beaches and walks, including a beautiful woodland walk containing some ancient small leaved lime trees. The plan is to offer guided nature, marine and foraging trails to visiting schools and tourists.

Biodiversity and Site Design

Our overall aim is to preserve and enhance the biodiversity of the land. So far we have achieved this by planting over 2,000 native hedgerow trees, sowing over 30 different species of wild flowers, planting perennial crops and herbs both in and outside of the polytunnels, and allowing certain areas of the land to grow wild. We are in the process of implementing a wetland system to manage all the grey water and surface runoff water on the site. This will introduce an important fresh water ecosystem aimed at attracting amphibians, dragonflies and aquatic life.

We are also attempting to manage the land more sustainably by reducing the use of fossil fuels, moving away from machines, and instead scything and using animals for grazing. We also hope to experiment with agroforestry in an attempt to implement a coastal food forest throughout the site. 

Visit the Centre

There are a number of ways to visit High Nature Centre. Book a yurt and come for a holiday, or contact us and arrange a guided tour.

Cat and Doug are also taking on volunteers and workers between April and October. This year, they are looking for two multi-skilled people to join their core team to help run and develop the centre.

They are also looking for experienced people to join the Roundhouse Design and Construction Team. The design phase starts in May 2014, and construction is due to begin in Spring 2015.

For more details see: www.high-nature.co.uk, or email: [email protected]

Catherine Middleditch is Creative Director at The High Nature Centre. Cat also offers permaculture design consultations, pre-planning advice and also works as a freelance Graphic Designer.

Further resources

How to get planning permission on non-developmental land

Ecological co-op wins planning permission appeal

Why small is successful - how to get planning permission for your small land based enterprise

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