This couple are living the glamping dream in Uttoxeter
Written by The Newsroom on June 2, 2019
“With hindsight, it was a terribly irresponsible thing to do!” laughs Ali Harrison as she reflects on her and her husband Darren’s decision to walk away from two well-paid careers in Manchester to fund their dream.
“I still wake up in the middle of the night worrying that this business is now supporting us, our mortgage and our two children but it seems to be going okay!”
Ali is remarkably humble about the glamping business she and Darren set up seven years ago.
From just one bell tent that they intended to rent out for children’s parties, the couple now have 60 bell tents and two permanent glamping sites near Uttoxeter.
The story of Tinkers Bells begins nearly a decade ago, when Darren was working as a graphic designer and completing his final project for his university degree, Burton Live reports.
Ali, then a fashion buyer in Manchester, flying all around the world to exotic destinations, helped him to brainstorm a business for which he could design logos and company branding.
“I had always wanted to run my own business but I didn’t know what.
“Fashion buying was a great career but I never really loved it like my friends did,” said Ali. “The hours were long and anti-social, I was often away at the weekends and where my friends really enjoyed the luxurious hotels we were put up in, that was never consolation enough for me that I was away from Darren so much.”
Ali’s dad died suddenly after breaking his hip and developing pneumonia, and she said that gave her ‘an epiphany’.
” Dad had battled cancer and come through it, so his death from pneumonia was totally unexpected,” she recalled. “But suddenly I had never seen clearer in my life, I knew it was time to change.”
Within weeks she had handed her notice in at work – only for it to be rejected.
“My boss didn’t believe I really wanted to leave because she thought it was just grief, so she told me to hold onto it for a week,” said Ali.
“A week later I took it back – I was deadly serious!”
Ali, Darren and their Bassett hound left Manchester and moved in with her mum, Lynne, for 16 months while Tinkers Bells started to take shape.
“We’d hired giant Carter tents for our wedding, which are like teepees, and our friends just camped around.
It was brilliant,” said Ali. “That’s what gave us the idea for Tinkers Bells, and we bought our first bell tent.”
The couple still needed an income while they built up the business and both started cleaning offices at JCB in the evenings.
“I can’t rate that job highly enough,” she said. “People can sometimes look down on cleaners but it was the best job ever.
Every evening from five until 10, Darren and I would go and clean offices.
“We’d work on the business during the day and clean in the evening and because we often worked together, we’d discuss our plans for the business while we cleaned.
“We kept the cleaning jobs for a long time and it was down to the cleaning that we got our mortgage because it’s so hard to get a mortgage if you are self employed.
“I’ll be forever grateful to JCB for the help they gave us while we were setting up the business.”
The couple quickly realised one tent to hire out for parties was not going to earn them enough to live on.
“Glamping was quite new then and more and more people were coming to us wanting to book five or ten tents for an event.
“We bought more tents and the business just kept on growing , with us putting up tents and setting up events in the day and cleaning by night,” said Ali.
The business now has two separate parts; Tinker Bells bell tent hire, where you can hire anything from a simple tent with just beds in right up to a fully fitted tent for weddings, with a proper double bed, mattress and all mod cons, and Hen Camp, two exclusive use glamping venues near Uttoxeter with firepits and barbecue areas for between 10 and 24 people.
“With Tinkers Bells we can provide the full camping experience without the hassle – something I’ve really appreciated since we had our two boys, Jude and Sid,” said Ali.
“Once you’ve got all your own stuff in the car with kids, there’s definitely no room for camping gear and that’s where we come in!
“Families can enjoy a camping holiday without all the stress. Everything is provided for them, set up and taken down so there aren’t wet tents to dry either!”
The couple also provide a glamping service for festivals where people can book them and have their site set up on arrival.
“Darren and I have always gone to festivals – we actually met at one! – and there is so much choice these days.
“It’s not just the traditional music festivals like Glastonbury, Leeds and Reading, now there really is a festival for any interest because it’s become a way of life.
“And festivals are so much more family friendly now so lots of people really appreciate being able to book us to sort out their camping so all they have to worry about is themselves and the kids,” said Ali.
For the last two and a half years, Ali and Darren have both worked full time for the business , seeing it go from strength to strength.
“This year we’ve opened our second permanent glamping site,” said Ali.
“The business works to both our strengths – I’m very organised so I’ve gravitated towards the admin side while Darren is very logical and remembers everything so we never get to a site and discover we haven’t got the slats to the double bed!
“Every day is different, and every year is different and we’ve met lots of really interesting people along the way. It’s hard work, but we love it.”
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