Camp Out West | Building a dream lifestyle in the Welsh countryside

Words by Will Pocklington

April 04, 2024

Far more than an ambitious DIY project, here’s an adventure with freedom, discovery and a want to disconnect from the norm at its heart…

What would you do with three acres of derelict land and £500 in the bank? Not so long ago, Jon and Emilie James were in exactly that position, having sold everything to leave behind the norm and follow a shared dream. 

 “We found ourselves hankering after a slower paced, more sustainable way of life,” explained Emilie as we sat down with the husband-and-wife team to discuss the new homestead they’re building in Llanelli, West Wales. Chickens clucked and crowed not far away and Maggie, the couple’s pointer, was tucked up in a tight ball on her bed.

Over the past few years, the James’ patch of countryside has undergone quite the transformation. Yes, there’s still much to do, but the progress made so far alludes to an unshakeable vision for Camp Out West, the exciting off-grid project that has captured the imaginations of hundreds of thousands of people around the world...

When we visited the site, we were surrounded by evidence of their ongoing journey. It left a little to the imagination, but it was exciting. Roof trusses leant against an old tree, and the foundations for a building stood ready for the next steps. “We’re going to try and get our first glamping cabin finished in the next few months,” explained Jon. “At the moment we’re nearly ready to put the roof on. Hopefully we’ll soon be able share this space with other people.”

It was early summer 2022 when the pair could first call the old caravan park their own. They’d been looking for land to buy for a while. “We wanted a clean slate – a simpler lifestyle and somewhere to build our ideal home,” said Jon, who admits that when the overgrown, rubbish-filled tangle first appeared on the market, he wasn’t immediately taken by it. “It took Emilie a whole year to persuade me that it was a good idea,” he laughed. 

The site was previously used by workers from the adjacent colliery that closed in the late 80s. “My Grandad worked down the mine,” Jon added, pointing to the ground. “It’s quite strange to think that I had a family member who spent so much time directly below where we’re now sitting.” 

Despite its condition – think rotting caravans, abandoned cars, banks of brambles, and untamed overgrowth – the James’ always knew what they wanted to do with the land. “We don’t have a big budget, and the aim is to live within our means and be mortgage-free by the time we’re 35, so we’ve treated it as a work in progress,” explained Emilie. “It’s given us a chance to slowly but surely do things our own way.” 

You could say they’ve started even further back than ‘from scratch’. Their first task, after renovating a 20-year-old mobile home which they now use as a base, was to clear the site of three rubbish-filled static caravans that had been unoccupied for nearly four decades. It was a big job which consumed much of their first year and involved several skips full of materials that couldn’t be re-used or recycled. Angle-grinding, sawing, strimming and hammering became the status quo. 

Many exciting and hard-earned milestones have featured along the way, too. They include the discovery of a water supply and a tarmac road, building an outdoor shower that runs hot, and finally relieving Camp Out West of its last piece of rubbish. Meanwhile, simple joys like walking Maggie on the nearby beach, collecting eggs from their chickens every morning and tending to an expanding vegetable plot as they strive for self-sufficiency, have set the tone for, as Emilie describes it, a stripped-back way of living.

But none of that would have been possible without Jon and Emilie’s shared vision and a commitment that has seen them transform the site while working full-time as professional photographers. In fact, they attribute much of what they’ve achieved to a fusion of skills picked up during their creative careers. “We’re not builders and we don’t have the skills to build a traditional house,” said Jon. “But we’ve each had jobs over the years that I think have equipped us quite well to take on a project of this magnitude.” 

Both agree, too, that they couldn’t imagine embarking on the journey with anyone else. “If Jon and I weren’t together, I don’t think either of us would be doing this,” Emilie reckoned.

Resourcefulness and a consistent tenacity to see bold ideas through – regardless of the mud and rain – have clearly been pivotal. Jon downplays his practical nature just as Emilie is modest about her imaginative flair, but the reality shines through in the hugely popular YouTube videos that have documented their inspiring journey so far. 

Where will that journey lead to next? Well, the plan is to offer others the chance to experience their new paradise, away from the madding crowd. Maybe – just maybe – they too will catch a whiff of the sense of freedom that Jon and Emilie now immerse themselves in every day. 

As we made to leave, Jon headed back to the woodshed to carry on chopping firewood. “This will be used for the wood-fired hot tubs and saunas,” he smiled, gesturing to the neatly stacked log pile. “We really hope that our guests, like us, can see that even with just the bare essentials, you can still live the best kind of life.”