Eight and a half years ago, Karen Loo and her family escaped the pseudo-rural countryside of Oxfordshire for the coastal tranquillity of Northern Pembrokeshire. Motivated by the imminent arrival of her eldest child, Karen ditched the traffic jams, commute and conventional comfort of life in the South East. Instead she chose to spend her maternity leave and three gruelling years in a remote corner of Wales transforming a run-down farm, all in pursuit of freedom from the rat-race and an idyllic upbringing for her children.
Today, whilst Karen’s children roam the countryside, build dens out in the fields and run in the waves of ‘their’ beach, guests can enjoy a distilled version of this Arcadian idyll from the understated luxury of the five carefully converted barn holiday cottages. Mirroring the Loo family’s footsteps, albeit only for a long weekend, we also headed west from Oxfordshire to beautiful Pembrokeshire this autumn in search of some of Asheston’s restorative power.
Set on a hill-side above a secluded valley with sweeping rural views, the traditional stone profile of Asheston Eco Barns merges seamlessly into the surrounding Pembrokeshire landscape. Providing guests with a relaxing family-friendly self-catering experience in attractive and very comfortable accommodation, the Eco Barns come with an impressive five star rating, an emphasis on environmental sustainability and commendable support for small local businesses.
Inside the theme is rural chic. Exposed beams, stone floors, hand-picked antique furnishings and a wood burning stove – every feature you could wish for in an authentic countryside retreat has been picked out with painstaking attention to detail.
An indulgent hamper welcomes you to your holiday accommodation, complete with wine, local cheese and other tempting treats and we wasted no time in making the most of our goodies after our long journey. Super-comfy beds, a walk-in wet room bathroom, a secluded BBQ terrace and little details such as i-Pod docks all provide understated luxury in the cottages. Everywhere windows are cut into the thick walls, framing the beautiful views by day and converting the interior into a warm, cosy hide-away on wild and windy winter evenings with a flick of their sumptuous curtains. Provision of local maps and leaflets, a thorough visitor guide with thoughtful recommendations for your stay, the possibility to order local produce prior to your arrival – everything has been meticulously thought out.
With her own role as a mother no doubt close in mind, Karen Loo has not forgotten Asheston Eco Barns’ younger guests nor their tired parents. Good quality toys are provided inside the properties, with a large selection of board-games and puzzles to keep little people entertained, whilst the diminutive TV seemed to me a reminder of the chance for a focus on quality family time. The Cow Shed came well-stocked with age-appropriate toys and books for Roo and baby with the brilliant Aquadoodle mat being their firm favourite! Cots, stair-gates and highchairs are all provided, safety features such as window guards have been fitted in childrens’ rooms and even monitors and baby baths are available on request.
Outside, children have use of an adventure playground, complete with pirate ship (Roo’s favourite) and zip wire, all in view of the cottages and their parents’ watchful eyes. Once the harvest is in, families are welcome to roam the surrounding fields and wildlife enthusiasts can visit the nearby badger sets or watch the bats swoop through the summer skies at dusk. Those, like us, who are fortunate to enjoy the comforts of The Cowshed have the added bonus of a balcony adjoining the master bedroom which is perfect for stargazing in Pembrokeshire’s clear, night skies.
Beneath Asheston Eco Barn’s traditional façade, almost imperceptible to an uninformed visitor, teems all manner of 21st century technology. The Eco-Barns are heated by ground source heat pumps which filter into the underfloor heating system. Hot water is provided by discreetly placed solar panels and in the event of an uncharitable lack of Welsh sunshine, the geothermal systems take up the extra strain. A wind-turbine makes the most of the wilder weather, generating enough power to sustain the heat pumps as well as contributing significantly to the additional power requirements of the eco-barns. Rain water is harvested for garden use and for flushing toilets and even the bio-digesting sewage system is designed to lower Asheston Eco-Barns environmental impact. Smaller details such as low-energy bulbs, energy efficient appliances and eco-friendly cleaning products come as standard.
For Karen and her family, the environmentally friendly features of the Eco-Barns were initially introduced as much from practical and financial motivations as to promote green tourism. Such idyllic settings don’t come without their drawbacks and in the case of Asheston Eco Barns, access to those utilities most of us take for granted was one of them. The introduction of at least some alternative technologies was inevitable and once they had opened the door to sustainable technology, they discovered a myriad of ways of further reducing their footprint on the lovely Pembrokeshire environment around them.
In my mind, Eco-tourism often conjures up images of back-to-basic accommodation with limited hot water and sparse furnishings as a fair return for spectacular scenery and outdoor adventure. Asheston Eco Barns, with their concept of eco-luxe and a spectacular setting, have resolutely turned this misconception on its head. The family’s environmental efforts were publicly recognised when Asheston Eco Barns won the ‘Best Sustainable Tourism’ category in the Pembrokeshire Tourism Awards in 2011 and was commended nationally the year before.
The Loo Family’s green efforts at Asheston Eco Barns mirror the wider undercurrent of environmental awareness in the region. Beneath its traditional cloaks of woollen mills, agriculture and Welsh tradition, Pembrokeshire is surprisingly advanced in its green agenda. Nearby St. Davids, famed for its historic cathedral and links to Wales’ patron saint, is attempting to make modern history in its efforts to become the World’s first carbon-neutral city. The Eco-Centre in the Pembrokeshire town of Newport is another beacon of sustainable living. No doubt inspired by its beautiful countryside, beaches and pristine coastline, Pembrokeshire has become a magnet for the creative, artistic and pioneers of alternative living.
Asheston Eco Barns are perfectly placed to give the visitor a taste of this very special Northern Pembrokeshire landscape. Just a short distance from the cottages, guests can enjoy the vast expanse of Newgale Beach, potter about the arty shops of former pirate hang-out Solva, experience some of the best wildlife encounters in the UK (we have seen both Puffins and seal pups during our Pembrokeshire visits) and explore miles and miles of beautiful footpaths. Riding, coasteering, surfing, kite-flying, cycling – this is a perfect spot for blowing away the cobwebs and to remind yourself of the restorative powers of an outdoor life and simple pleasures.
Our three day stay, crammed with exploring, walking and surfing, felt both a lifetime away and far too short. It is little wonder that the most commonly recurring word in the guest book was ‘relaxing’ and I am sure we for one will be joining the growing numbers of repeat visitors to this little haven of tranquillity.
A three night stay at Asheston Eco Barns in October is in the region of £324 – you can find full details of availability and prices on the Asheston Eco Barns website.
Asheston Eco Barns Gallery
We enjoyed a three night complimentary stay in The Cowshed as part of this review but all words and opinions are my own, as is my wholehearted recommendation of Asheston Eco Barns and Northern Pembrokeshire as a fantastic place for a fun and relaxing family holiday.
* It’s foxglove season and when those fabulous towers of pink start crowding the hedgerows it always makes me think of beautiful Pembrokeshire. I’m reliving our fab visit to Asheston Eco Barns with this week’s Monday Escapes Linky.