A holiday retreat made out of straw

Who says straw can’t make for sturdy foundations? The Atkinson family has proved the material can be the cornerstone to success having been nominated for a national award for their ingenious use of the material to create a rural holiday retreat.

Carol Atkinson was inspired to build using straw whilst studying for a Masters degree.

Straw Bale Cottages at Brind, near Howden, isn’t your ordinary holiday home but it is its unusual qualities which see it nominated in the ‘Places to stay’ awards category of the 2014 Soil Association Organic Awards.

Carol Atkinson was inspired to build using straw while studying for a Masters degree at the Centre for Alternative Technology: “I wanted to put into practice the things I was learning and as we already had a farmhouse, we decided to build the straw cabin.”

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The two-person cabin was opened on the family’s farm in 2007, made from 96 full bales and 45 half bales, and two years later they added a straw bale cottage for up to five guests.

Carol said: “When we built the cabin we did about 50 per cent of the work ourselves and got contractors to do the rest. By the time we wanted to build the cottage, my son Sam was able to build it all himself.

“He was very interested in it and since then has started his own business putting up straw bale buildings. Over the years he has experimented and he has now built dwellings all over the country, from houses and holiday cottages to classrooms.”

The family uses normal small wheat straw bales from a neighbouring farm. Wheat straw is chosen for its strength and the bales are more tightly packed than usual but otherwise they’re your average, untreated straw bales which are built up and covered with a lime-based render for weatherproofing.

Their construction makes the structures economical to heat as the walls are around half-a-metre thick. An opening on the stairs of the cabin offers visitors a glimpse of the straw walls.

“We decided to do that so people can really see that it is made out of straw. We used an old clock from a charity shop and just took the face out,” Carol explained.

The emphasis is on local, natural, renewable or reclaimed materials throughout the cottage, with reclaimed timber floors and sheep wool insulation in the roof and floor.

To help guests enjoy their stay there are battery powered torches, bikes available for cycle rides, solar-powered showers and, in the cabin, a compost toilet.

There’s an honesty box to help provide a few basic essentials which visitors might have forgotten, such as milk and toothpaste.

All the products are organic, local or Fairtrade where possible, and Carol uses organic cleaning products when she cleans the properties between visitors and organic washing powder for the bed linen. All the sheets and towels are organic, kitchen and toilet rolls are all eco-friendly and even the paints on the walls are natural.

Visitors are encouraged to buy local produce and Carol will buy and deliver any groceries before arrival – she also collects commuters from the train station a mile away.

“The aim of the shopping service is to help visitors travel lightly but also to support other local businesses,” she said.

There are also organic fruit trees in the garden and an organic vegetable garden, which Carol uses to supply guests with fresh, home-grown produce all-year round.

“My job satisfaction is off the scale,” she said.

“I’ve created a natural environment to share with others and I continue to learn something new every day.”

Straw Bale Cottages is one of ten finalists in the ‘Places to stay’ category of the Soil Association’s awards. To vote for a winner, visit www.soilassociation.org/organicawards before the end of September. Winners will be announced on October 8.