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Under the Thatch cottages, Wales

Reviews Local travel
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Posted by Richard Hammond at 10:29 on Saturday 03 November 2007

> For contact details, availability and booking, see greentraveller's full listing of Under the Thatch's Gypsy Caravan in West Wales.

Under the Thatch's Romany Caravan is one of its most popular lets. Photo: Richard HammondUnder the Thatch's Romany Caravan is one of its most popular lets. Photo: Richard Hammond

Greg Stevenson is something of a local celebrity in Wales. An architectural historian by training, the fifth series of his S4C TV show Y Ty Cymreig (The Welsh House) is currently being filmed; he is author of the first coffee-table book on Welsh interiors (Welsh Homes); owner of Under the Thatch, a collection of Welsh holiday cottages. Oh, and he drives a sugar pink Land Rover which runs on vegetable oil. Even his dog, Minti, is famous, after a starring role in 102 Dalmatians.

It's no surprise, then, to discover that Under the Thatch is not your average holiday let business. As well as traditional thatched cottages, Greg also offers Scandinavian-style cabins complete with 70s interiors, a converted train carriage and, most popular of all, a Gypsy caravan in south-west Ceredigion which I booked for a couple of nights back in August...

I wasn't at all confident that the photos of a lane and a gate provided with the directions to the caravan would be much help - they could have been anywhere. In fact, we would never have found the site late one Friday night without them. After fumbling with the gate for what seemed like an age, we finally made it into the rain-soaked field and found the caravan parked next to a river and sheltered by trees. Little steps led to a hand-painted door that opened like the boot of a toy truck to reveal the snuggest holiday home I've ever seen. Inside, it's barely 6ft by 6ft. There's a small wood stove, several minuscule cupboards, and a double bed on a raised platform. This is definitely a trip for loved up couples. An argument in this confined space would not be good.

The snug interior of the Gypsy CaravanThe snug interior of the Gypsy CaravanThe caravan is a "bow-top", with a roof like a barrel. To be precise, it's a Romany caravan or "vargo", built in 1924 and last used by travellers in the 70s. After years of sitting abandoned, it was restored by a local craftsman and then Greg bought it in 2004 and had it pulled by a horse to its final resting place near the river Ceri. It was only in the morning that I fully appreciated why this place is so popular. Although the caravan scores high on novelty points, it's the setting that's the real winner. Tucked away in the corner of a wild-flower meadow next to the river where brown trout and otter are protected as part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it's secluded and ridiculously picturesque.

Yards from the caravan, there's a circle of log seats around an open fire where you can sit looking out over the green field listening to the leaves whistling in the woods and the river running by. And at the top of the meadow there is a wooden cabin with a covered veranda where we could spread out our belongings, and where there were all the essentials for self-catering, including an oven and fridge, and a separate shower room and toilet.Like all Under the Thatch's properties, the caravan is run as a low impact, eco-friendly concern - there are compost and recycling facilities and local wood for the fire. The cottages were restored using lime rather than cement, oil-based paint and sheep's wool insulation; some have solar panels, others reed-bed sewage systems, wood-chip boilers and recycled furnishings.

The caravan is in an idyllic setting by a stream in a private meadow. Photo: Richard HammondThe caravan is in an idyllic setting by a stream in a private meadow. Photo: Richard HammondBut while the commitment to the environment is impressive, it's not the main reason I voted for Under the Thatch in this year's Guardian and Observer Ethical Travel Award. What sets it apart is how it benefits local communities - by bringing derelict buildings back into life and letting them out so the rural economy can benefit from the subsequent spin-off income generated by visitors buying local goods.

Unlike many holiday homes, Greg's properties are let all year round - chiefly because he reduces the price of any that aren't selling to encourage people to book. The cheapest rate on late availability accommodation is a bargain £39 per night. As a result, occupancy is over 90%, which means, as Greg says, the properties "contribute to the local economy rather than to its decline". The local economy near the village of Rhydlewis certainly benefits from guests staying at the Romany caravan. Down the lane from the site, a traditional smokery sells smoked salmon, trout, mackerel, bacon and cheeses, and it's only a 10-minute drive to several beaches where there are shops and cafes.

On a Saturday afternoon, we went to the nearest beach at Llangrannog Bay - home to the largest pod of bottle-nosed dolphins in Europe - where we walked along the headland to Cilborth beach, a deserted sandy cove. The sea was still warm enough to swim in, and after a dip we walked back along the coastal path for a pint in the Pentre Arms and watched the sun set over the bay. That evening, we ate dinner by the wood burner on the veranda, then fell asleep listening to the sound of the gurgling river.

Richard Hammond was on the judging panel of the Guardian/Observer Ethical Travel award.

Getting there: There isn't a particularly close railway station, but Carmarthen is some miles to the south. The following taxi companies operate from Carmarthen: Gilligan (01267 223200), Steves (01267 233846) and Spikes (01267 236405).

Booking: For contact details, see the full listing for Under the Thatch's Gypsy Caravan in West Wales

See this one-minute YouTube video of the Romany Caravan and interview (in Welsh, with English subtitles) with Greg Stevenson:

 

> For contact details, availability and booking, see greentraveller's full listing of Under the Thatch's Gypsy Caravan in West Wales.

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