When one roof is simply not enough, try a yurt: They're cheap, warm and romantic. Simon Hollington looks to the East for an answer to our housing problems

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GENGHIS KHAN never quite made it to Bibury in Gloucestershire, but his ghost would recognise an old friend, his mobile home. Gers or yurts, tents to you and I, are the world's most enduring and widespread dwellings. These soft buildings, dating back 2,000 years, are not only making a comeback in Mongolia, but are also gaining a foothold in the shires of Britain.

Hal Wynne-Jones, a former builder who runs a business selling yurts from Arlington Mill, Bibury, believes them to be a near-perfect form of cheap, low-impact housing. 'I kept thinking, why spend pounds 10,000 on building an extra bedroom when you can achieve the same comfort with a yurt?

'Our customers tend to be middle class with a bent for the alternative,' he says. 'I think we appeal to people who are fed up with complex planning laws and find it next to impossible to build an extra room.'

The yurt originated in northern China and the ger in Mesopotamia, meeting up in central Asia. Both have a symmetrical oak skeleton that is held together under tension without nails. The walls meet at a roof wheel - an open vent that acts as an 'eye' of the heavens. In summer it provides a draught and in winter acts as an outlet for smoke and heat from the central stove. During winter, two logs on a stove will provide enough heat for light dressing. 'Ask any Mongolian, because they really do have cold winters,' Mr Wynne-Jones says.

Potential uses for these sophisticated tents are many. Dartmoor and the Peak District tourist boards are considering using them as overnight hostels for summer walkers; in winter they could be removed and stored. Meanwhile, one local councillor in Stroud, Gloucestershire, hopes to build a yurt village. Elsewhere in Britain, they are being used as a staff room for a language school, hunting lodges, business annexes, extra bedrooms, summer homes and, if granted planning permission, a wine bar at Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

In Mongolia, the suburbs of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, are filled with yurt housing estates, which contrast with the ugly, Soviet- style housing blocks now being evacuated because of their impracticability - difficult to heat, the blocks also have a tendency to fall down in earthquakes.

Strong, spacious, warm in winter, cool in summer and moveable, yurts engender a feeling of well-being, freeing the soul from the shackles of a settled home, Mr Wynne- Jones believes. Originally, they were intended as works of folk art as well as shelters. The interiors of Mongolian yurts, for example, are covered in beautifully worked materials, often inlaid with silk and precious metals.

Mr Wynne-Jones had the idea for his business three years ago, after a friend sent him an engraving of Genghis Khan sitting in a yurt. Fascinated, he erected a crude replica over a long weekend. The speed of construction and comfortable draught-free dwelling so appealed to the builder that he, his wife and two children have lived there off and on since. Hooked on the canvas philosophy, the family went into yurt construction full time two years ago.

The tailored outside covers are stitched from flame- and water-proofed cotton duck canvas, but the secret ingredient of consistent comfort is a remarkable felt covering. Felt, a superb insulator against the biting cold of the Asian steppes, also keeps the inside of the tent cool in summer and dry during heavy rain. The lightweight frame and colourful tent bands and hangings can be folded within 20 minutes into a surprisingly small package.

Although they have no guy ropes, yurts are naturally stable. In hurricane-force winds, only one guy rope attached to the tent is necessary for security.

Mr Wynne-Jones says that because of their low environmental impact, yurts are ideal for tourist campsites. He also believes we should take another leaf out of the nomads' book: 'Sewage mixed with water and transported across country only to be separated again, is a ludicrous notion. The nomads dry sewage. This is in no way unpleasant and does not damage the environment.' Whether your average camper would want to embrace the nomadic philosophy to such an extent is doubtful, but this man at least is convinced yurt campsites will become popular as green tourism gains credence.

'I am amazed yurts have not caught on before, given their practicability compared with complex, damp tents and ugly metal- box caravans. Of course, life under canvas is not for everyone, but it does have its place,' he says. 'There is much talk of intelligent buildings, but what could be more intelligent than a yurt? They are flexible and beautiful. One night in a yurt and you will be won over; everybody is.'

Hal Wynne-Jones, Arlington Mill, Bibury, Gloucestershire, GL7 5NL. Prices range from pounds 550 to pounds 1,800.

(Photograph omitted)