In a disused slate quarry on Cornwall’s north coast, we follow a rough track along a high ridge of old spoil heaps, picking our way through thickets of gorse, heather, wild honeysuckle and ripe blackberry. Beyond the layers of shale that fall away from the ridge, we can see the Atlantic, the skull-like shape of Gull Rock by Trebarwith Strand and, in the distance, the Mouls, a dot of an island off Polzeath’s Pentire Point.
Behind us is the tall chimney of a restored engine house, built in the 1870s to house a compound beam engine that used to pump water out of the slate pits. The slate quarries of Delabole have dressed the towns and villages of north Cornwall for centuries. This one – three miles inland from Tintagel Castle – didn’t last long. Within 20 years the engine fell silent, leaving nature to take over. Until recently, the only species that ventured up here were buzzards, badgers and walkers. But the former Prince of Wales quarry has just made a career change.
Designer Louise Middleton (she makes leather belts) bought the 43-acre quarry two years ago, renamed it Kudhva (meaning “hideout” in Cornish) and opened it in July as a close-to-nature retreat, big on wild swimming, foraging, campfire cooking and, as Louise puts it, “roughing it”.
We meet her at Kudhva’s barn-like reception building – thrown together with scaffolding poles and corrugated iron – and along with a large brindled hound called Winter (who looks really scary but isn’t) she shows us to our very own Kudhva, an “architectural hideout” designed by Louise and her furniture-maker friend Ben Huggins.
If a giant slate tip seems an odd place to spend the night, then the accommodation is suitably weird. An asymmetric cabin on eight-foot legs, it looks like something HG Wells might have dreamed up.
There are four of these strange creatures lurking in the quarry’s woodland, all built from larch, glass and galvanised steel. Kudhva One (K1) has the best views (from the deck, you can see all the way across Port Quin bay to the Mouls). K4 is the hardest to reach and the most private. K2 is the closest to the communal toilets, the solar showers and the reception – where you can make tea, sit on a hay bale, or charge your phone. We drink Cornish gin out of metal cups at a rough and ready woodland bar, and eye up the neighbours: a loved-up couple celebrating their engagement; and another couple sitting quietly under a tree. As the kudhvas are all doubles, they mostly come in pairs.
We climb a ladder to reach K2’s steel platform. A heavy wooden door leads into a simple space furnished with bench seating, a torch and a candle. From a triangular window, we look at the tops of willow trees above a forest floor bright with ferns. So far so good, but climbing into bed entails ascending another, much smaller, ladder before sliding, with some effort, into a low bunk-like space, which my husband, of average height, fits into with only a couple of centimetres to spare. I am almost grazing my nose against the sloping ceiling. When it rains, and boy does it rain, I feel very close to nature.
According to Louise, the Kudhva experience is meant to be challenging, although at least we have a proper bed (Futon-style mattress, pillows, sheets, a light duvet). The budget option is to hang out in one of six Tentsile tree tents: a cross between a tent and a hammock, slung between tree trunks a few feet above ground. Hard-core wild campers can choose to hang their tree tent in a vast quarry cave by Kudhva’s own waterfall.
Kudhva recommends several local cafes and restaurants for eating out but does offer an organic cook-it-yourself breakfast hamper providing enough food for two breakfasts for two people (including locally sourced bacon, sausages, homemade sourdough, homemade butter, freshly ground coffee, organic milk, field mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes and fresh eggs)at a rather pricey £40.
The Kudhva concept may not be entirely for me (I’m no longer so keen on limbering up and down ladders and trudging to the loos in wellies at night) but the location is hard to beat. We are a mile from Trebarwith Strand, a surf-and-sand beach reached by descending slippery rock steps. The Mill House Inn restaurant is even closer: it does brilliant Sunday lunches for around £10 (I would happily pay a tenner just for the cauliflower-cheese side dish, let alone the tender roast lamb).
On the doorstep is Tintagel with its Arthurian castle, the beach and cliff walks at Port Gaverne, the salty, slate-roofed villages of Port Isaac and Boscastle and bleak but beautiful Davidstow Moor, once an RAF station, where broken wartime runways melt into the backdrop of Bodmin Moor granite and the twin summits of Rough Tor. Kudhva’s next door neighbour is Delabole Slate – possibly the oldest working slate quarry in the world (tours are available in summer).
Back at Kudhva, you can swim in a quarry-pit lake, soak in a wood-fired hot tub under the stars, cook over a fire-pit (each Kudhva has one) or take the Kud Truck to one of the area’s “secret” surf beaches. Louise also has plans for pop-up workshops, food events and music nights. If you’ll pardon the pun, this slate quarry rocks.
• The trip was provided by Kudhva: hideouts £114 a night, tensile tree tents £57.60 a night (both sleep two and must be booked for two nights’ minimum), open until 30 October, 21 December-5 January, and reopen in spring 2018
More unusual camping options
Camp Kátur offers an array of off-grid camping options, including transparent domes sleeping 2-4 with woodland views.
• From £38 a night, hostunusual.com
For those with a head for heights, and cash to splash, cliff camping near Swanage might appeal. You abseil down a cliff face to a portaledge and cosy down for the night above the waves.
• £400 for two, cliff-camping.com
In a meadow in the Cambrian Mountains, near Aberystwyth, Ty Barcud is a circular cedar-clad pod, with countryside beyond the glass doors.
• From £80 a night, coolcamping.com
The Bird Box, a romantic wooden hideaway near Okehampton, overlooks a forest and river, with outdoor hot tub.
• From £95 a night, canopyandstars.co.uk