Going Under the Thatch in Wales

Trehilyn UchafLooking through the visitors’ book at a stunning Welsh farmhouse in the hills overlooking Fishguard Harbour, words like ‘bliss’, ‘peaceful’, ‘stylish’ and, of course, ‘eco’ jump off the page.  What strikes me as strange, however, is that apart from me, none of these happy holiday makers is Irish. And yet, Rosslare is only two hours away on the express ferry from Fishguard. For 35 ash cloud safe Euros (plus 8 euros to take your bike) you can walk off the gangplank and straight onto the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, with its 300kms of secret coves and infinitesimal seascapes. Stena Line also does very good combined sail and rail deals (stenaline.ie), with a station at the port for onward travel.

This 1830’s farmhouse, called Trehilyn Uchaf (meaning Upper Heulyn’s Town), has been restored with care and expertise, retaining original qualities, as well as sustaining it into the future with renewable energy, reed bed waste system, sheepswool insulation, and many other natural attributes. Because restoration and sustainability is what Under the Thatch is all about, a Welsh company set up to do just that, and the source of our weekend’s escape. It is also about quality and quirkiness and has won sustainability awards, thanks to the passion of it’s owner, architectural historian Greg Stevenson, who not only likes to see such buildings being used, but used all year round. Thus, he keeps prices affordable so they are always in demand, and remote villages benefit from tourism for more than two months of the year. Such as Fishguard, where he has a few gorgeous places to stay, some walkable from the ferry.

Trehilyn Uchaf itself is pure eye candy for the urban dweller who dreams of a rural retreat. Falling down with Farrow and Ballness, a bathroom that is bigger than my flat, antique furniture, it’s a fusion of classic and contemporary done without a bother. It is also a walkers’ dream. We walk overland to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, starting at Carregwasted Point, and follow the Path for about 9k.It’s a great place for spotting bottle nosed dolphins too, although a bit early in the year for us, sadly. Later in the season you can do ‘Strumble Watches’ for marine life with Seatrust. A couple of pints and great chips at Goodwick’s Rose and Crown pub at the end of the walk, we collapse onto the Strumble Shuttle bus, which takes us back to the farm.

We have no need for our car, getting supplies at the supermarket twenty minutes’ walk from the port, and then a 7k taxi ride to the farm.  Later in the weekend, we head off on a walking trail over the fields to Fishguard, with its variety of small shops for local produce. If you do want to bring a car, there are three other converted buildings on this farm, including an eco-chic converted mill. The whole farm sleeps nineteen people, great for a big getaway, and only one party needs bring a car.

You could extend your stay and take a train or bus to one of Under the Thatch’s other quirky offerings, such as a railway carriage in Cardigan, a romany caravan in Llangrannog, or a shepherd’s hut in the foothills of the Black Mountains. Ironically, Stevenson’s favourite thatched one is in Ireland, a cottage with vintage caravan, called Geaglum, in Fermanagh, also on the website.

Green and gorgeous, these breaks are just across the water, accessible by public transport, sustainability at their core and, most importantly,  in locations where the wilderness, and often the wind, will not only blow off the cobwebs, but blow you away too.

Chilling on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

This article was first published in The Irish Times.


Fastnet ferry from Swansea, Wales to Cork, Ireland

Fastnet ferry coming into Cork Credit: Fastnet Ferries

I was one of ten foot passengers on Fastnet Line’s new Swansea to Cork ferry three weeks ago. And three of those were my family members. Then a volcano erupted and, with it, thousands of travel plans. On our return journey we were among five hundred foot passengers, most of them wearing suits. The ferry staff were in shock, but patient, smiling, and helpful throughout.

As fellow passengers swapped ‘get me home’ stories, many were astounded at us travelling on the ferry by choice, rather than by circumstance. But I am used to that reaction now, as I reduced flying to a minimum a while back. But now everyone was getting a taster session, and experiencing a little of what it is to be a ‘green’ and ‘slow’ traveller.

Reactions were mixed, with the suits marching up and down ship corridors, as if to create a mass mantra of ‘faster, faster’. The ‘go with the flow’ types went on deck to enjoy the views of Cobh and Cork’s fine coastline, played cards with their kids, relaxed with a pint, or took out maps to see where the journey was taking them. A Clonakilty man, who had been meaning to try out the new ferry, told me that he probably would never have got round to it. He, like many I chatted with, loved his cabin, with its comfy beds, crisp white sheets, telly, and bathroom, and said he wished his kids had been there to share it with him. He was already contemplating later holiday plans to Devon and Cornwall, unaware until now how accessible they are.

There is no doubt that this period of flight-free reflection has been a positive experience for many. We have all heard stories of people embracing the ‘adventure’, and coming together to help each other get home. The website which I contribute to, www.greentraveller.com, has had a ten fold increase in traffic during the last week, with people needing urgent information on how to cross Europe overland, something we specialise in. It has been a great opportunity for us to show people the alternatives, providing all the information they need in a one-stop shop. The only downside is that many are not experiencing the real thing, with ferries and trains having to cope with exceptional circumstances. When we arrived into Swansea, for example, the suits sulked about the lack of taxis, or about the station bus waiting for all

Sleeping sound on the waves

passengers to disembark before heading to the station. Faster, faster, faster, they still chanted.

The slower the better has always been my chant when travelling. But it will take more than one cloud of ash to start a genuine sea change, I’m afraid. One woman, for example, a self-professed ‘package person’,  booked trains and ferry back to UK from Marrakech when her flight was cancelled, but chickened out at the last minute, as the idea of two and a half days travel was just too terrifying. She gave her tickets to charity and waited for the next flight, beginning May. Another person I know couldn’t get back to work in London a few days into the crisis as she was ‘stuck’ in Ireland. And yet, on that very day, every single ferry company had availability. Are the Irish still in such denial that there is sea space, and not just polluted air space between the land masses?

However, like most people, I have enjoyed the cleaner blue skies, the slower pace, and grateful that I wasn’t dependent on a flight for an emergency situation. It has been fun sharing overland travel experiences via our website with people who hadn’t contemplated it before. If there is to be one silver lining to this cloud in the long term, I hope the powers that be wake up to a much needed, and long demanded by many, improvement in the infrastructure around ferry ports and trains.  Such as regular buses to ports, bike spaces on trains, car hire at ferry ports, gangplanks for foot passengers as well as easy, centralised access to transport information online. And perhaps those people who always laugh when I suggest a tunnel under the sea between Ireland and UK might just start thinking about the possibilities. Or is that still blue skies thinking?