The home page of Greg Stevenson’s holiday letting website, underthethatch.co.uk, shows an intriguing collection of self-catering properties: a converted train carriage, a Scandinavian-style log cabin, a gypsy caravan and several charming-looking thatched cottages. Most are relatively inexpensive, and they all seem to be in beautiful settings in the Welsh countryside. Yet whenever I’ve tried to book one for a weekend, his properties have always already been taken, months beforehand. Then late last summer, lady luck struck: the gypsy caravan in south-west Wales – Greg’s most popular let – had a cancellation. So before someone else snapped up the opportunity, I hired a car with a friend and drove the six hours from London to the village of Rhydlewis, Ceredigion, to spend the weekend ‘Under the Thatch’.
The gypsy caravan is certainly in a picturesque setting, just as the website promises. Tucked in front of a clump of aspen and poplar trees, the bright green caravan, ornately painted, stands in an acre of wildflower meadow beside the river Ceri, in a Site of Special Scientific Interest designed to protect the resident brown trout and otters. It’s the smallest accommodation I’ve ever seen, but as snug as they come. Up a few steps behind the caravan there’s a wooden cabin with all the essentials for self-catering, including a kitchenette, shower room and toilet, as well as a covered veranda with a table and a basket of fuel for a wood burner. Neither the caravan nor the cabin has thatched roofs, however.
‘Under the Thatch isn’t at all what it seems,’ Greg explains. ‘What customers see is a holiday cottage agency, but behind that – and the reason the company exists – is what we do to conserve historic buildings at risk. In some ways we’re like a smaller version of the Landmark Trust, only we’re working as a private business on a different scale. All of the profits from Under the Thatch go back into funding the building conservation work.’
Greg’s passion is renovating derelict cottages, mainly thatched cottages, though he also works on tin-roofed buildings. He began the business in 2001 by renovating a dilapidated part of his own house using earth and thatch – in the traditional way – which he then rented out as a holiday let. He thought it would be a good idea to let somewhere that was much more rustic, authentic and affordable than anything else on the market, and soon saw the potential.
‘It was full from day one, so we soon realised there was a huge demand for a historically interesting house,’ Greg says. ‘People were fascinated; they wanted to know more about the building, so it was paying for itself.’
At that time there were a lot of derelict buildings going for low prices in south west Wales, so Greg began buying up several other old buildings and renovating them with thatch and tin. In 2003, he bought his second, Troed Rhiw-Fallen – a derelict cottage that had been on the market for 15 years.
'The next-cheapest house in the village was a small terraced cottage that cost about £60,000. The cottage I wanted was a quarter of the price, yet no-one wanted to touch it. It was structurally unsound, but it was the most historically important building in the village, the oldest that had survived, the only one that really reflected the local tradition.’
Greg bought the derelict cottage for £15,000 and renovated it with support from Cadw (the Government heritage body in Wales). A small grant from the Welsh Tourist Board enabled him to build an extension in a corrugated Victorian style.
Greg’s renovations typically use only traditional materials. He uses lime instead of cement (his cottages are characteristically white lime-washed with yellow ochre); nor does he use modern gypsum plasters. Paints are natural oil-based, rather than modern synthetic, and, of course, he uses local thatched materials. Though his style of renovation is essentially environmentally friendly, Greg admits his green credentials came about by chance: ‘It hadn’t occurred to me before but the traditional methods also happen to be the most sustainable.’
Greg’s reputation as a restorer of derelict cottages grew, and he soon began consulting on other people’s properties, some of which he agreed to let as part of his Under the Thatch business, in addition to his thatched cottages. One of his most famous commissions was from actor and presenter Griff Rhys Jones, who asked Greg to renovate his cottage Trehilyn Uchaf, near the Strumble Head peninsula in Pembrokeshire, which became the subject of the BBC4 TV series A Pembrokeshire Farm. It is one of Greg’s most environmentally friendly conversions and is now let through Under the Thatch whenever Rhys Jones is not there. Heated by a wood-pellet central heating system (so no oil used), the cottage is insulated with Welsh sheep’s wool – rather than fibreglass – much of the wood has come from local sustainably managed woodland and the roof and floor slabs are from materials local to Wales.
As a result of the boom in the West Wales housing market, by 2005 the prohibitively high prices of old cottages, and a general shortage of traditional cottages surviving in original form, meant Greg began to diversify and look at other projects. He renovated the traditional Romany caravan and purchased a Scandinavian style holiday cabin, which he restored with a period 1970s interior. Since then he has taken on a converted railway carriage, more cabins, a 1940s Showman’s Wagon and a second gypsy caravan in the Black Mountains. The idea is that all the properties on his books are ‘architecturally significant, unusual or interesting, and a great place to spend a holiday’.
Greg now manages bookings for more than 30 properties in south-west Wales (just seven are thatched) and has plans to expand the business further. He has recently opened a ‘vegetarian cottage’ – Llwyn-Dryssi, near Llanllwni Mountain in West Wales. Guests are politely asked not to bring meat (or poultry/fish) – ‘to provide a genuinely meat free environment for dedicated vegetarians’. Greg also plans to open an off-grid barn conversion and more renovated thatched cottages.
Most, though not all of his properties, are run using environmentally friendly technologies: some have solar panels, others have reed-bed sewage systems, wood-chip boilers and recycled furnishings. Greg says he is also keen to encourage guests to come by public transport; some are within walking distance of train stations, and Greg offers a collection service for several properties. Yet he is cautious about over-hyping his environmental credentials.
‘We call ourselves a sustainable business, and although we are probably more environmentally conscious than most, the real reason we’re sustainable is in a social way.’
Unlike most holiday homes, Greg’s properties are let all year round, and where he judges any may not be occupied he drops their price until they are. He’d rather properties were used by visitors paying just above cost price than not being used at all. And with that comes a bargain or two: it’s not unusual for Greg to rent out a property for as little as £35 a night.
It’s a policy that Greg introduced to counter the second-home culture. ‘The average occupancy in Wales for self-catering cottages is around 35 per cent, which is shocking considering this means these places are basically empty for most of the year. Some of the prices being charged are shocking too. It’s those high prices forcing people on to cheap flights and cheap package tours abroad, which is causing huge environmental damage.
‘Sadly, in Pembrokeshire there are villages whereby nobody lives – they’re ghost villages. Every single house is a second home or holiday cottage which is empty, and that’s why all the local facilities close in the winter.’
Greg’s enlightened flexible pricing scheme is certainly working – occupancy across the board is more than 90 per cent – and consequently, Greg says, his properties ‘contribute to the local economy rather than to its decline’. Though his business grew initially by word of mouth throughout south-west Wales, its reputation has now spread far and wide. Under the Thatch has won a Wales Sustainability Award and last year won the Guardian and Observer’s Ethical Travel Award.
Back at the gypsy caravan it is obvious self-catering guests that can bring genuine benefits to the local economy – as long as they shop locally. The village of Rhydlewis benefits not only from guests staying at the caravan, but also at Ty’r Gôôf (The Blacksmith’s Cottage) – a small thatched cottage for two that Greg has also brought back into the community. Guests can buy smoked salmon, trout, mackerel, bacon and local cheeses from a small traditional smokery, while the Rhydlewis village shop is a 10-minute walk away. On our final afternoon, we visited a local pub by Llangrannog Bay, a short drive away, and in the evening ate dinner outside the cabin in a cocoon of comfort, a world from anywhere, listening to the sounds of the river and the forest. I wasn’t surprised to be told subsequently by Greg that the caravan is occupied by guests every day of the year. Lucky them, and lucky Rhydlewis.
See www.underthethatch.co.uk for more information and reservations
Richard Hammond is the editor of Green Places to Stay (Alastair Sawday Publishing) and runs www.greentraveller.co.uk.
• www.ecoescape.org A directory of green places to stay and visit in the UK.
• www.naturaldiscovery.co.uk A website that promotes a range of places to stay in the UK that are committed to environmental improvement.
• www.green-business.co.uk The website of the Green Tourism Business Scheme, the UK’s leading certification scheme, which rates tourism-related businesses, such as hotels, travel companies and conference venues, on their green credentials.
• www.blueflag.org The website of the Blue Flag eco-label, which identifies environmentally sound beaches and marinas. There are 144 Blue Flag-certified beaches in the UK
. • www.sustrans.org.uk The UK’s leading sustainable transport charity co-ordinates the National Cycle Network, which provides more than 8,000 miles of signed cycle routes in the UK.
• www.greentraveller.co.uk ‘The first place to look for green holidays and for discussions on environmental issues.’ The Sunday Times, 2007.
Green holidays in the UK
• Ecocabin, Shropshire:
A wooden lodge in the Shropshire Hills built out of wood, wool, reeds, lime and clay. There is solar power and a wood-pellet stove to heat the living room, you can order a delivery of local organic food and hire bikes can be delivered by www.wheelywonderfulcycling.co.uk. See www.ecocabin.co.uk or call 01547 530183. Take the train to Craven Arms, from where you can arrange to be collected by the owner.
• Langdon Beck, North Pennines The YHA’s greenest hostel. A wind turbine and photo voltaic panels generate more than 60 per cent of the 31-bed hostel’s power, and solar thermals heat the water. Sheep’s wool and recycled newspapers provide the insulation, and rainwater is harvested from the roof. See www.yha.org.uk or call 01629 592708. Take the train to Darlington, Arriva 75/76 bus to Middleton-in Teesdale then Upper Teesdale bus link 73.
• Southwaite Green, Cumbria
Four eco-cottages near Cockermouth in the Lake District. The rooms have been laid with slate and oak floors, with an underfloor heating system drawing on ground heat. The sheets and towels are made from organic cotton and many of the furnishings are made by local craftsmen using sustainable timber. See www.cumbrian-cottages. co.uk or call 01228 599960. Ten per cent of profits go to supporting sustainable development projects in developing countries. Take the train from London to Penrith then the X4/X5 bus service to Cockermouth, from where the owner can collect, by arrangement.
• Strattons, Swaffham, Norfolk
A wonderfully colourful boutique hotel that proves that being green doesn’t mean you have to compromise on style. According to the owner, only two per cent of the hotel’s waste goes to landfill; the rest is recycled or reused. The restaurant has also won several food awards – all is local, seasonal and organic (where possible). There’s also a 10 per cent discount if you arrive by public transport. See www.strattonshotel.com or call 01760 723845. Take the train to King’s Lynn then the local X-1 bus from Peterborough, which stops right outside the door.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008