Yurt Making, Herefordshire
22:32 08 February 2010
Hilary Engel talks to Fabian and Jeremy Daffern about the business of making yurts. Photographs by Lisa Saunders.
Jeremy and Fabian Daffern are two happy men. They have discovered something that is beautiful and desirable, which they can make with their own hands in an ancient barn in Herefordshire, and make a living.
It was at the Glastonbury Festival in 2004 that they first saw a yurt. It was love at first sight. "We stepped inside and thought: this is so peaceful," says Jeremy. "When you're inside a yurt it just feels so harmonious and calm. And it feels bigger inside than out, like a Tardis."
Yurts are an ancient form of tent: this is what nomads live in as they move around the steppes of central Asia. "A traditional Mongolian yurt would be made with felt," Fabian tells me, "because it needs to withstand the wind and extreme cold." It is round, with a wooden frame, and it stands on its own base, because to the nomads the earth is sacred, so they wouldn't pierce it in any way. There would be a central hearth, and a five-pointed star in the centre of the ceiling: a pentagon, representing love.
Jeremy is a cabinet maker by training. He used to specialise in gilding expensive furniture for dealers in the Cotswolds; but he also enjoyed backpacking in Asia.
Fabian's first career was in transporting racing cars around the world, and then for a while he worked in catering at outdoor events, specialising in cooking Asian food.
The brothers came back from Glastonbury and decided to make their own yurt. They got a fact sheet from the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth. They made a steam box to bend wood for the frame, using an old petrol barrel filled with water standing over a gas burner. Jeremy did the woodwork, and Fabian got a sewing machine and made the cover. It took them three months in their spare time to make this first one - which they are still using.
"Friends saw it and asked if we could make them one. And then friends of friends. It just carried on from there." And so The Roundhouse Yurts got started.
"We have all sorts of customers," says Fabian. "Some people use them to take on holiday. We've sold them to people who wanted to do yoga in them, or meditation. There's a sculptor who's doing up a house in Greece, who's going to live in a yurt instead of a caravan; and a wildlife photographer who's using one instead of a hide. We just had a call from a family who are celebrating their mother's 80th birthday, and they want one to have the party in, as a surprise."
Jeremy and Fabian not only make yurts, but they also hire them out; and they will come along and put it up for you on site. "It takes us about an hour and a half," says Fabian. If you look at their website you can see a film of them doing it.
The Dafferns are still developing their yurt design. "The last one you made is always the best," says Jeremy. For the wooden frame they use ash, much of it from the nearby Duchy of Cornwall woodlands. The cover is made from 100% cotton duck canvas, and there is a floor covering of jute. Wonderful smells greet you when you step into a yurt from all of these natural products, and the linseed and walnut oils used to treat the timber.
The smallest size they make is ten feet in diameter, and the biggest, which they have supplied for a wedding reception for 70 or 80 people, is 32. The favourite size for a family of four is 16 feet in diameter, and the price for this ranges between 4000 and 6000 "with all the trimmings".
The top-of-the-range yurts have round-topped doors made with oak from Willie Bullough's sawmills at Whitney, and hand-made fastenings from Devon. The doors are made up by Julian Morgan, a joiner who conveniently works in the next barn along from the Dafferns at Knockerhouse Farm, at Callow. "We were making the yurts at home to begin with," says Fabian. "I had the sewing machine on the dining room table. But we came here one day to use a barn to erect a yurt in, and the owner asked us if we needed a workshop. It's a perfect space for us."
If you are going to live in your yurt you can get a woodburner to set in the centre, with a chimney that goes out through the roof. "You can have oil lamps, and lots of sheepskins on the floor, and with the fire going in the woodburner it's so cosy," says Jeremy. "It's a million miles from a normal tent: we call them nylon nightmares."
Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 9AZ, 01654 702400 www.cat.org.uk