Kudhva: For The Wild & CreativeSurvive
Written by Daniel Neilson // Photography by Cat Vinton
Along the coast and over the moors, through pastoral farmland and towards the sea – travelling towards Kudhva is an incredible journey no matter which direction you come from. Hidden within the round hills is an industrial heritage, deep quarries dug in the search for tin, copper, slate. Embedded within this landscape is a 45-acre abandoned quarry. This is the wild, creative, and adventurous Kudhva.
The site is wildly diverse, with an abandoned quarry, slate scree, deep green forest, grasslands, sand, rivulets, and waterfalls. There are two swimming lakes, one only discovered last year, climbing walls and climbing trees, and a moonscape on the highest point for miles in any direction. Local bikers are carving what will be Cornwall’s longest downhill singletrack.
And nestled within the woodland are four ‘Kudhvas’ – architectural hideouts, each standing on three legs high off the ground. Climbing the stairs and unfastening the capsule is to experience life among the treetops, with views across the ocean; an environment both warming and calming. A handful of Tentsile Tree Tents are also available across the site, floating above the land. There are two other buildings: the hidden Danish bar, constructed in weeks from sustainable British larch; and the reception area, where the kettle always seems to be on. All the new buildings here are temporary and low impact. The older ones, such as the Engine House, built in 1870, are protected. The steam engine was removed during the war to make ammunition. Today, weddings and concerts are held here.
And those views, over the Celtic Sea, and out to Gull Rock, which the locals liken to a gorilla’s head emerging out of the sea, are magnificent. It takes about half an hour to walk to the South West Coast Path, to the shattered cliffs and the curling surf.
Yet that is only a fraction of what Kudhva is all about. In an in-depth and engaging interview with Louise Middleton, we begin to untangle what makes Kudhva a place that has resonated so strongly with outdoor lovers, with musicians and chefs, with architects and photographers, with surfers and cyclists, ecologists and walkers, with dreamers. We talk about the genesis of the project, the experimental living small-scale architecture affords, and we talk about how businesses need the best buildings to make their best work. We talk about the rhythms of the seasons and the rhythms of human life, we talk about how time can slow and how an analogue life can positively affect mental health, even if it’s just for a couple of days. We talk about how being off grid increases eye contact. From high on the land, with a view over the Engine House and the sea, we crack a beer…
Did you have the idea before finding the land, or did you get the land first?
I was looking for land for about two years. I’ve had land before and done a fair bit of land management, and I wanted to put my money somewhere safe. Someone recently said ‘It’s not necessarily safe putting it in a quarry’, but I wanted some land by the sea. I surfed and loved the sea – pretty much like anyone else.
Then I saw this land from an aerial perspective and saw that it had two water sources. I knew from my previous experience that you need to find land with natural resources. I wanted it to be sustainable, 100 per cent off grid. It needed to have water, wood, and I’ve got the addition of slate.
This abandoned slate quarry was built in the 1800s and ran for 20 years as a functioning slate quarry before falling into disuse. The Engine House was just closed down, but the building remains.
When you finally got it in 2016, did you know exactly what you wanted to do with the land?
The land came first, and the land meant just holding some finance down. I know how vital really wild land is. It’s important to look after it, to keep things really wild and not to develop it. To live within it, understand it and to share it. At that point, I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I could only ever really do camping here, and from a design perspective, I really like working within restrictions. They’re really interesting. For planning, I could only do temporary structures and that defined what this would be. So I spent a year living up here with my sons in a T4 van, and I surfed and slowly got to know the land. I only managed to get to the reservoir last year. I saw it through the seasons, I wasn’t hasty – I didn’t want anyone else to define how I felt about this land.
So how did you make the leap from a campsite to creating the Kudhvas?
The next year, I commissioned a friend of mine called Ben Huggins. He wasn’t an architect then, but is now, with his company New British Design. He’s a genius. We come from the same place, the same cultural references. Nothing is a problem and he is utterly joyous to work with.
When I commissioned Ben, there was a feeling that this place was a really big playground. We went down to the waterfall; there was no access at the time. I remember the bushes being up high and feeling like I was 11 years old. That’s what nature does to you – you can play. Nature is the great fixer, and I love being outside – I’ve always lived outside. I’ve lived on boats, and I’ve lived in the mountains.
After exploring the site, we downloaded the maps from Plymouth archives from the 1700s. There were many iterations of industrial heritage on this site over the years. There were tracks across this land. The slate quarries are seen as ecologically dynamic landscapes. The word ‘dynamic’ in itself feels like the energy that surrounds this place and the people who come here. All the slate was being consistently moved to hit veins. We found ‘napping sheds’ – hastily built structures for workers to have a nap in. One is now a goat shed.
In the winter, when nature has died back, you can begin to see walls. I haven’t walked everywhere on the site yet – I’m still exploring.
Was there an architectural ethos you wanted to adhere to?
Ben and I said we’d walk around the site and mark a cross where we thought a hideout could go. There were several spots, and we came out from our initial recce with ferns in our hair and dust all over. Then we did a phase-one ecology report and decided the main camp area should be on this willow woodland because it’s not as diverse as the rest of the site.
When we were designing it, we wanted structures we could take up and take down; they had to be temporary, and they had to feel exciting and exploratory in the landscape. We decided they had to be high in order to get the views and be in the elements. I wanted people to have that feeling of when you’ve climbed a mountain. I don’t want it to be really easy for people. So we decided to make some kind of cabin in the trees.
They needed to feel a little bit sketchy, luxurious but stripped back. They needed to be temporary, with the internal dimensions of a caravan, and they needed to be totally enveloped within nature so that occupants are also enveloped. The Kudhva have big windows and they’re very well made. We prototyped K1 and made it in a cowshed in Tintagel! I lived in that for a month, and then we did second iterations for K2, K3, and K4.
With the huge windows, people often wake up at 5.00am and realise it’s too early, so they go back to sleep. That second sleep is a really deep sleep, which means people feel really rested. During that second sleep you often have good ideas coming through because you’re in the beta state.
Even walking up the Kudhva steps, you open up – you open your heart up, you open your airways up, you look up – it’s really positive. That’s how temples were built! I made a commitment to get this piece of land, and if I’m going to create a campsite it’s going to be the best campsite we can do. What does that look like? It’s got to be exciting.
So what are the next projects?
This year we’re topping a field, and we’re thinking of growing on there. Big Al, the farmer up here, grew up in this area. Our land all faces south, which in terms of renewables is amazing. We have sun, wind, and hydro. In its industrial past this was a hydro site, in a way – the water was used for the steam engine. In terms of energy and renewables it’s a project for a lifetime and beyond.
We’re also looking at making tents, and at building a live/workspace. We ran an artist-in-residence last year, and I’m really interested in how nature affects us; living outside, drinking borehole water without fluoride in it, having nominal electrics around, zero Wi-Fi. How we become more analogue. You see the world in a different way when you start writing and not tapping on a phone or keyboard. You look up more when you’re here. In modern life we spend more and more time looking down. People come and stay here for two days and they feel as though they have been here for five.
Being from an arts background, I’m interested in how we make our best work. I know from being at Kudhva how architecture and nature can support you in that. And I think a lot of companies aren’t making their best work because they’re not in an environment that is inspiring and exciting. I’m particularly interested in inception projects because that’s where I come from.
The landscape is changing all the time with the seasons, so how does this affect the people who visit?
The site is known as a habitat mosaic and has five different habitats all sewn together. That’s really, really rare. We’ve got willow woodland, two water sources, and at the top we’ve got bare rock and screescapes, and there are heathlands, so we’ve got orchids and cotton grass. And look there – there’s a wild strawberry!
Every two weeks the ecology changes, and you notice that and you slow down, you get onto what’s known as bio time, which is crazy good for you.
And have you slowed down a bit over the years? Because you do move quite quickly!
At points! I do have total pure moments. I wanted to have a life with my children and I wanted to be around amazing people and get amazing experiences. I wanted them to be learning without learning. Just today they’ve watched stuff being cooked over a fire by an amazing chef. They’ve had their bikes serviced by Jack Stocker. For me it’s such a creative project, it’s endless, it’s limitless.
Do you find that daunting? Is it liberating? There’s so much potential that you can see and also that people who come here can see.
There are people who come who have the same mindset. You can’t tame a piece of land like this and there are layers and layers to projects – booking systems, PR, planning – and the people who use this land need to be independent. My role is to be curatory – selecting good people.
Do you have a plan for four more years, or is it organic?
It’s all based on finance and planning, looking after the site, understanding the ecology and how our world is changing alongside it. When COVID-19 set in I realised that I’m doing the right thing. This could be an example of really interesting small-scale architecture and healthy circular-economy living, which is exactly what we need. We’re clever enough as human beings to do that. That would be my wish. Build in the right way without the site being damaged.
There’s something quite different about meeting new people in this setup. There’s something experimental in it. It’s experimental architecture, and it’s experimental living, but done in a way that is inspiring. I get emails from people who have started projects again after staying here. Because they are fully off grid, people go to bed with their circadian rhythms. People talk, they look each other in the eye, and they start to make plans. And plans unleash ideas, ideas unleash creativity, and creativity unleashes excitement.