The rain was falling steadily as four of us made our way along a gravel path past a young orchard and a magnificent wood yard into the garden of Thrift Cottage outside Datchworth. The house is named after the previous occupant of the plot – Anne Thrift – who created a beautiful garden here while living in an old railway carriage, and the owners’ attitude to life. The Somervilles believe it is possible to consume fewer of the earth’s resources and create less waste by careful and considerate design and still have a beautiful living space and comfortable way of life. From the evidence of our visit this is certainly proving to be true.
Thrift Cottage is a self-build home. It was started in 2001 by Lydia following a time living in New Zealand where she encountered a Kiwi phenomenon – the bach. This is a small, modest structure often created from waste or recycled materials that functions as a beach house or holiday home. They are built by women and men and this can-do attitude to creating a living space inspired Lydia to attempt a similar exercise in the UK. Having found her plot she lived there for a year in a bow top caravan observing the patterns of the sun, the prevailing winds, the frost pockets, the way water drains on the site and thinking about what she wanted her home to provide.
Lydia had started to build her house herself when she met Robert who, rather usefully, is a building designer and an eminently practical man. Together they worked until 2007 creating a sensitive small-scale house that incorporates locally sourced timber (some from their own plot), breathable walls, high levels of insulation through the use of sheep’s wool flyings (the bits that fly off when wool is turned into carpets) and Warmcel (created from waste paper), a turf roof, dry compost toilet, grey water recycling through a bramble patch, a wood burning stove and Rayburn, solar hot water heating and a recently installed PV array on the woodshed roof. This list is impressive but it can’t convey the beautiful ‘feel’ of the house, the way it blends into the landscape and how its thoughtful simplicity embodies a real sense of spiritual rather than material wealth…
This sensitively designed and built home contributes positively to local wildlife. The turf roof provides an unusual habitat for insects. Three inches of subsoil taken from the foundations provides the growing medium for sedums and hardy iris which create a colourful and drought resistant roofing material. Water that runs off the roof is carried down pipes into the pond, which was originally created by Mrs Thrift. Here grass carp live which keep the weed under control and leave space for newts and frogs. Water lilies, bog bean, marsh marigolds and flag iris are abundant with purple loosestrife, meadowsweet and ragged robin inhabiting the pond edges.
Part of the plot was previously intensively farmed agricultural land, but over seven years the Somervilles have restored the health and biodiversity of the land so that it is now home to a wealth of insect and mammal species. Barn owls, kestrels and red kites feed on mice and voles living in the meadow. On one day last summer they counted 23 species of butterfly. Geese and sheep help cut the grass. The family are now building a traditional timber framed store in the yard on staddlestones to store apples, feed and other produce with plans for a traditional barn nearby. They have a polytunnel and kitchen garden cultivated without the use of chemicals. Overall the two and a half acre small holding has become an amazing haven for wildlife.
We all agreed that this was an inspiring visit, particularly because this was all achieved on a small budget. Careful consideration, a respect for the natural environment, a belief in the importance of reducing their ecological footprint and a practical talent for getting on with it has resulted in a delightful family home that enables the Somervilles to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’. We are very grateful to them for sharing their experience with us.