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Travel and retreats: Town and country

by
30 January 2015

Searching for ethical holidays, Joe Speed heads for a country cottage in Shropshire, while Malcolm Doney chooses a city hotel

Comfy: Buckshead Eco-cottage in Shropshire

Comfy: Buckshead Eco-cottage in Shropshire

COUNTRY

WHEN renting a holiday cottage, what do you need apart from a roof and a view? Central heating? Broadband for a furtive squint at email when there's no mobile signal, let alone a landline?

When my wife and I settled on a stay at Buckshead Eco-cottage, on a working organic farm close to Offa's Dyke path, in the Clun Valley, Shropshire, such criteria were abandoned. The villages in the area were described by A. E. Housman as the "quietest places under the sun". Today, the cottage is still remote, and also rather daunting: no mains power, no broadband, and the nearest supermarket is a 25-minute drive (east towards Ludlow, or west into Wales).

Trevor and Sue Wheeler, who managed Buckshead at the time of visiting, encourage visitors not just to enjoy the lush countryside, livestock, and wildlife, including the once near-extinct red kite looming overhead, but to consider their use of natural resources. They installed a wind turbine for electricity, and solar panels to heat water from a spring. A tap in the kitchen provides the same water, filtered for safe drinking.

Part of the experience of staying here is to monitor the cottage's power reserves. I did so obsessively, checking the digital display on a panel under the stairs, and weighing up whether or not it was time to cheat. By cheating, I mean firing up a diesel-fuelled generator, which I did for two brief periods a day. My excuse: the turbine did not turn once during a sun-kissed week, which meant that, while we always had hot water, we did not generate any power.

The cottage does not need much to tick over. Downstairs, there are few lights (but enough to read by at night), and a wood-burning stove delivers great warmth; so we were never cold. There is a gas cooker and a fridge, but it soon strikes you how you can get by without always turning everything on, and not feel deprived of the comforts that you take for granted. That's the point, Mr Wheeler tells us: this is "a thinking house".

The Clun Valley is ideal territory for walkers, and Buckshead is well equipped with Ordnance Survey maps and booklets about walking routes. We preferred to sit out and enjoy the sun, butterflies, bird-life, fresh air, and our books, but the occasional walk was rewarding, especially through fields of his beef Shorthorn cattle after encouraging words from Trevor, who insisted I would make it home safely.

We also enjoyed chops from sheep not quite approaching mutton age (all his livestock enjoy longer lives than is typical), which were the lambiest-tasting ever; and a memorable, beef joint from one of his Highland cattle, which graze on the Rhos Fiddle nature reserve, a ten-minute walk to the top of the valley (where, for the truly desperate, there is at least a patchy mobile-phone signal).

So, could it still be said to be the quietest place under the sun? Yes. Except when I fired up the diesel generator, or a buzzard cried out, its high-pitched call breaking the hush.


Travel details

Buckshead eco-cottage, which sleeps four, is at Brynmawr Farm, Newcastle, Craven Arms, Shropshire SY7 8QU. The cost is from £260-£395 per week, depending on the time of year. Shorter breaks are available. New managers are Trevor's sister, Julie Button, and her husband, Nick. Tel: 01905 339544 or 07551 936440. www.buckshead-ecocottage.co.uk


CITY

WALK into TheWesley - just a short trundle with a suitcase from Euston Station - and you'll find most of the things that you would expect from a four-star hotel and conference centre: the bedrooms are comfortable, the meeting facilities are excellent, there is a decent bar, and the food is very good indeed. But there's something else, too. . .

I was invited to a reception here by a very "right-on" organisation, and, in going, discovered "London's first ethical hotel", as it calls itself. Thankfully, ethics can also taste good: that evening, I ate some of the most delectable canapés I've ever had. So I keenly booked myself in to see what it felt like to spend an ethical night here, too.

TheWesley hides, almost anonymously, on a back street that runs parallel with the Euston Road, in a 1930s building that was once a metalwork factory. It still stylishly reflects its industrial origins. It is a no-fuss sort of place. You would not go there for a romantic weekend, but if you're in town for business, for the shows, or the sights, it is hard to beat.

It is just off the city centre, which makes the price more reasonable, but it is still only a couple of Tube stops away from more museums, theatres, and A-list tourist sites than you could shake a stick at. Or, for the refined, it is just a stroll to Bloomsbury, or a hop to Hampstead.

My wife and I spent a very comfy night in an elegant, spacious bedroom; but first we had some choosy guests to entertain. In the restaurant, we discovered that TheWesley's ethical approach includes sourcing regional, seasonal, and (wherever possible) organic ingredients. So far, so good.

But it's what is done with the raw materials that matters. It matters especially to the head chef, Gentian Ndreu. The menu is straightforward, but our dishes were beautifully cooked. Between us, we sampled sea-fresh razor clams with salty chorizo; tender, seared scallops; aged long-horn steaks, crusty from the grill but pink and tender within; and - the big hit - a huge-flavoured lamb shank with truffle mash that melted like ice cream in the mouth. The Rioja was smooth as velvet; the Sauvignon Blanc as gooseberry-ish as it should be. We smiled as we pushed our plates away.

TheWesley's happy confluence of ethics and sensuality comes - wait for it - from its Methodist roots; hence its name. Its origins go back to 1950, when a Methodist missionary in the Far East, Hilda Porter, returned to London to find boarding houses with signs that warned: "No Irish, no blacks, no dogs." With hospitality in mind, she launched a Methodist hostel for penniless overseas students, which was to find its final home in Euston.

Some 60 years and 10,000 students later, James Barr (as manager) and the Revd John Nyota (as chaplain) arrived to discover that the centre was losing money, and that many of the resident students were not the needy cases for which the hostel had been set up. They decided that the best way to support students was to generate funds. "We were working on the principles of Methodism's founder, John Wesley," Mr Nyota says. "He said: 'Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.'"

Out went the students; in came the builders. In 2009, with the support of a commercial loan of £2.5 million, and the backing of the Methodist Church, the process of transformation began.

TheWesley now has 100 bedrooms, 13 meeting and reception rooms, and generates profits of about £500,000 a year, which go back to the Methodist Church, earmarked for its work with students. But TheWesley is more than a profit centre. Mr Barr, now Business Development Director, says: "Corporate social responsibility is not an afterthought: it's our motivating force."

Now, all TheWesley needs to elevate it fully beyond Free Church temperance is a proper, comfortable lounge, and a little styling. Some art on the walls, perhaps? Nevertheless, it works very well as it is. Especially the breakfast. The poached eggs and thyme-roasted tomatoes set me up for the rest of the day.


Travel details

A stay at TheWesley, 81-103 Euston Street, London NW1 2EZ, in a standard double room, starts from £119, including a full English breakfast. Special packages include complimentary stays for children (maximum two under-sixes), and a romance package including Prosecco and strawberries and cream on arrival, Continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out. Phone: 020 7380 0001. www.thewesley.co.uk

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