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From Vietnam to Cornwall: Audley founder's latest travel project

Craig Burkinshaw’s journey towards creating Audley Travel may have started out with an advert in TTG to take tours around Vietnam 25 years ago, but now he’s working on something closer to home as he launches Three Mile Beach in Cornwall. 

Craig Burkinshaw and Joanne Le Bon are starting a business in Cornwall
Craig Burkinshaw and Joanne Le Bon are starting a business in Cornwall

Craig Burkinshaw strikes me as someone who has what my parents used to call “ants in his pants”; in this context, an irrepressible curiosity for the world and compulsion to keep busy and keep pushing himself.


He started Audley Travel just as I was getting into travel journalism, yet this is the first time our paths have ever crossed, albeit only via Zoom. Now, far from talking about the stresses of running an international tour operation, we speak at a stage when he is branching out into domestic tourism.


Having spent the best part of 25 years advocating that we head off to see the far-flung corners of the world in true Audley style (which, of course, he still likes doing himself), he and partner Joanne Le Bon are now launching Three Mile Beach, a collection of 15 beach houses in Gwythian on the north Cornwall coast.


It’s a far cry from the exotic days of his youth, including a year-long backpacking trip around the world following his graduation from the London School of Economics. He says he then got into the travel industry “by accident” rather than by any real career plan.


During a temp job stuffing envelopes at the Association of Anaesthetists, he was aptly bored, and got the idea he would lead tours in Vietnam just as the country was starting to open up. He got the show on the road by putting an advert in TTG to see if anyone wanted to join him.


“I did find people to come and do it, and just made it up as I went along for a few weeks, and I did a few of those tours, so was on the sharp end of doing things back then,” he says.

Bedroom at one of the Three Mile Beach houses
Bedroom at one of the Three Mile Beach houses

The rest is history. Alongside fellow LSE graduate John Brewer, he founded Asian Journeys, which later morphed into Audley, and eventually became a huge tailor-made business featuring around 90 countries – every one of which had a team of specialists focused solely on their passion for a place. Operating from a barn in Witney in Oxfordshire with offices in London and Boston, it attracted the eyes of private equity in the mid-2000s, and Burkinshaw started to make his operational exit from the business.


In 2013, he and Le Bon started creating a home for themselves in north Cornwall, a move that would gradually evolve into the idea of creating their first UK-based project.


Le Bon designed their own house and Burkinshaw says Three Mile Beach’s ones are now an advancement of her original ideas, with lots of light and an open, airy feeling, with plenty of outside space.


“We’ve tweaked the design on the houses: basically, they’re better than ours now!” says Burkinshaw. “But overall, I’d say the biggest difference is the size of the decks, which in some cases are as big as the houses and there’s loads of space to mess around in.”


Three Mile Beach’s story is one of fateful coincidence, one that would lure the couple into making an ever deeper commitment into the area. Having started to settle into life, Burkinshaw was about to play tennis with the man who built their house, when his playing partner mentioned land was coming up for sale, a very rare event in the area.


“The Hocking Trust [associated with one of the local wealthy mining families and landowners of old] were selling this land after about 130 years – they had planned to build something in the 1930s, but the war came along and they abandoned the plans.”


Just as he was mulling over the information, planning laws changed that would actually now facilitate a build project that would never previously have got permission. Then came the graft of more than two years spent buying the land and getting the relevant permissions for the ideas; six years on, and they are about to launch their dream project.


“To be honest it was an unusual situation, and just luck of the draw for us. That’s why we’ve got 17 plots right next to a beach – something virtually impossible to find, but we got the permission because they liked the kind of concept we wanted to create,” he says.

The couple have mixed in some of their favourite concepts from years of travelling
The couple have mixed in some of their favourite concepts from years of travelling

They are lucky enough to live on Cornwall’s biggest beach, Gwithian Towans, around four miles east of St Ives. But when they first moved there, it was never originally around a conscious plan to build a self-catering business.


The concept now is to provide friendly, homely living spaces with everything you need but removing some of the hassle that self-catering could usually have, such as having to get food in, cleaning up after yourself, finding equipment hire such as surfboards and wetsuits and knowing where to go – the couple are planning to ensure all this is taken care of.


“We have built it all around thinking what friends would want and need if they were coming here for a break,” he says. “For example, when you’re in a nice ski chalet, the last thing you want is to have to trek to a hire shop to be kitted out – it’s the same here for people who want to surf, we can have all that arranged and be here for you. We want people to hit the ground running and make it as easy as possible for people – as if they live here.”


Gwythian is known as for its access to that incredible, vast beach, and subsequently, for its fairly rustic “characterful” chalets, of which there are still a few about. It had been starting to look a little run down, but Burkinshaw says, it has now started to gently gentrify.


This was once the place where those from Redruth and surrounds who had made their money in copper mining came to spend their leisure time in shacks among the dunes; the area was once labelled the “richest square mile on Earth” in the 1800s because of its abundant metal deposits.

Extras such as a pizza oven can be added for outdoor living
Extras such as a pizza oven can be added for outdoor living

He draws parallels to the “bach” concept (pronounced batch) in New Zealand, a small, often modest holiday home at the beach, in the woods, or by a lake – deliberately quite simple and back to nature. And with New Zealand being a place the pair have spent a lot of time in, it makes sense this would also provide some inspiration for Three Mile Beach.


“I went on my own in the 1990s on one trip and drove around New Zealand in an old Morris Marina in my backpacking days,” says Burkinshaw. “We go around in a camper van now for quite a few weeks at a time, mixing it up with parking outside and staying in luxury hotels and eating in nice restaurants! It’s good to mix things up a bit – one minute you’re having beans on toast in the middle of nowhere and then you’re eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant the next. Contrast is everything.”


Three Mile Beach seems a hugely personal project for them, and one that promises to take guests to the heart of what makes this corner of the country so special by sharing everything from lesser-known coves, to insider access to galleries, or just knowing when the local cricket match is on. After I spoke with him, Burkinshaw’s next task was proofreading a book he’s creating for guests at Three Mile, covering all their in-the-know tips and ideas for making the most of the area.


“We will update and reprint every few months and send it to people who’ve booked. Again, we want everyone to feel like they’re coming to stay at a friend’s place and that they have all the best information and tips – what we’re putting in here is way more comprehensive than you would normally get, certainly more than the kind of dog-eared leaflets you associate with UK self-catering places sometimes, I guess.”


The two-, three- and four-bedroom houses are relaxed, stylish and calming, with all the luxuries you need, from huge comfortable Camerich sofas, to sophisticated Bulthaup kitchens, and warming log burners and wrap-around terraces complete with sunken cedar hot tubs, barrel saunas, and barbecues.


Little expense has been spared in creating the homes by the sea and along with artworks sourced with the help of Le Bon’s friend and photographer, curator, art consultant Felix (who also happens to be Barbara Hepworth’s granddaughter), there are finds from the pair’s far-flung travels around the globe dotted around.


Testing the danceability of the tables has been among the many things Le Bon has done to build Three Mile, again with the mindset of “what would me and my friends like from a place”?


“It’s been hard to make any compromises,” adds Le Bon, “as I can only really do things from the heart. I always think what would people love, what would I like and go with that. For example, people may have said why not leave the houses white on the outside, as you’re by the seaside and that’s what people do – but I felt they should be brightly coloured and we’re really pleased with them now.”


“When we travel, I always shy away from the mainstream five-star hotels, and I can’t stand beige and anything uniform – Audley was always known for its quirky character, home-from-home places, so from many years of critiquing, I guess we know what we love and that’s the essence of what we’re doing here,” says Le Bon. “India is my favourite place so there are ideas from there, and COMO Cocoa Island in the Maldives is my favourite hotel, as I love the barefoot luxury there. I love Kasbah Tamadot too, for its vibrant colours and quirkiness.”


There will also be custom-made art pieces, such as ex-pro surfboards hand-painted by Felix. Meanwhile, four yurts will also be popping up later in the summer. Guests can get supplies from the local farm shop, and if people don’t fancy cooking, Three Mile Beach has struck a deal with private local chefs to pop in and make a meal or two, there will also be a street food truck, and plenty of tips on where to eat out locally.


Obviously, all domestic tourism eyes are either on 12 April for self-catering accommodation such as this to open, or 17 May for hotels – the couple are ploughing on with the finishing touches and hope to be comfortably ready for mid-May, and are already fully booked for May half-term.


“We lost around 10 weeks of work during lockdown last year on the build, so that threw our schedule out, so it’s been a bit tight, but I feel 10 out of 10 for how it’s all come so far,” Burkinshaw says. “It has been like a big Grand Designs project – and I’ve watched enough episodes of that show to know it’s always a nightmare, but I still managed to significantly underestimate how difficult it is!”


So how does this compare to running a multi-million pound business? “It may sound cheesy, but I always started logically by asking basically ‘what does the customer want’ at the centre of it, what would they love and what could I viably provide and that’s the same here,” he muses. “Now the great thing is we’re doing our own thing again, able to create what we want. We’ve really looked at sourcing some great things from people we know, and finding locals to work on bespoke pieces for the houses.”


“Everyone will be craving all this outside space and wants to be able to spend time with friends and family, so it’s perfect timing for us to have this ready,” adds Le Bon.


And the couple will certainly always remember the impact of the first ever lockdown in the UK, as on 23 March 2020, as it was Burkinshaw’s 50th birthday. This time last year they were overseas trying to figure out how to get friends and family back home from a big party. And while this year they may be firmly rooted on terra firma in the UK, the couple will be celebrating the birth of something new: an accommodation project all of their own.


• Prices at Three Mile Beach start from £1,150 per week in low season for a three-bedroom house (up to 6-7 guests) including welcome hamper and from £3,100 in high season,

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