High summer in the north-west nook of Ireland and guess what? It was raining. Seriously wet Atlantic rain that persisted through the night and bounced rhythmically off the corrugated roof of our traditional Donegal stone cottage. You’d think it would be like trying to sleep inside a tin can. But the 200-year-old building had recently been renovated and the roof was impressively insulated; the downpours sounded almost muted, like a jazz drummer playing with brushes.
The next day we awoke to a day that could not have been more of a contrast: flat calm, sunshine sharp, sprinklings of high cloud. We walked outside to a scene that electrified the senses: the distinctive smell of seaweed drying in the inlet below; a wondrous vista out to a long bay that looked like it was lit from within. The only sound was a distant tractor on the single-track lane.
It’s for elemental experiences like these that people venture to this part of Ireland. An often “forgotten county”, it is better-known for its Irish language-speaking areas and, less positively, inhospitable weather and long history of deprivation and depopulation. Yet it has some of the most surprising and spectacular places to visit in the whole country. Its very isolation is the point, and its strongest draw.
Close to our holiday cottage – near Lettermacaward in west Donegal – is Dooey Beach, a sweeping 3km strand that even in July had hardly a footprint on it; an excellently waymarked yet almost deserted scenic cycle loop that made a perfect three-hour peninsula walk; and just across the bay, on a back road that hugged the headland south of Maghery, a glorious coastal drive that could have been the model for the much-marketed Wild Atlantic Way.
Further afield, Donegal also boasts precipitous Slieve League, at 600 metres some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe and almost three times taller than the far more celebrated Cliffs of Moher; evocative Glenveagh national park, with its baronial castle and luxuriant gardens within beautifully barren uplands; and the Glencolmcille folk museum, a cluster of thatched cottages set up 50 years ago by a dynamic local priest, providing a vivid picture of community life and history.
The area is also known for handwoven textiles – interested visitors should head to Studio Donegal in Kilcar for traditional tweeds and contemporary designs.
It’s because of the cottage’s particular position and potential that its owner, Greg Stevenson, had his eye on the unoccupied building for several years. “I’d passed it many times and thought the cottage looked grey and really sad – but also that I’d love to do it up,” he says, smiling. Stevenson is the owner of Under the Thatch, a company that rescues, restores and renovates historic buildings then lets them as holiday homes – and he does not shy away from a challenge.
The six-month renovation entailed removing cement render inside and out, knocking down an internal wall, adding a lean-to extension and mezzanine loft, installing new windows and refurnishing throughout.
With its untreated pinewood boards and abundance of Ikea furniture and accessories, the building seems more like a Scandinavian cabin than a draughty Irish cottage. Yet the property feels personal, too. It is decorated with some of Stevenson’s collection of curios – Catholic religious images, a large Lithuanian wooden bowl, a hand-painted Danish grandfather clock – and named Miki’s Cottage after Stevenson’s 17-month-old son.
The building also has seven acres of land, a narrow strip that stretches from a hillside forest down to a small sandy beach. “A cottage with its own beach: that was another dream come true,” says 43-year-old Stevenson.
Under the Thatch has been trading in imaginative holiday lets since Stevenson set up the company in 2001, at first around where he was living in the Aeron Valley in Ceredigion, west Wales. Stevenson was born in Warwickshire but studied and lectured in archaeology at the University of Wales, Lampeter. His passion has always been for vernacular buildings and architectural history; he has also become a fluent Welsh speaker.
Sensitive to the second-home issue in Wales, and committed to running a travel company that is sustainable and responsible, Stevenson has resolved to only take on properties that have been abandoned, left derelict or considered beyond local use – and to price them in a way that means they are rented all year round. By sometimes letting cottages for just above cost and as low as £35 a night, adapting the price to the number of guests, and not charging a premium in summer, he says he has achieved occupancy rates of up to 95%, twice that of other agencies in Wales.
Higher occupancy means higher profits and allows Stevenson to realise his central ambition of bringing life back to a building – and potentially to its local community. This process has continued in Donegal, where Stevenson says the problem of vacant second homes is non-existent; most Donegal families want modern houses and bungalows and there is enough land and planning permission to accommodate them.
Since Under the Thatch’s early years, Stevenson has diversified – in Wales he took on a converted train carriage and a series of gypsy caravans, and he has overseen renovation projects ranging from flats in the historic centre of Krakow to cave houses in Andalucía – and taken on an increasing number of “quirky and unusual” cottages and houses, many of which he has worked on, as an agent. Stevenson now owns 14 properties, with five for six more launching this year, and acts for another 100 or more across Europe.
He has also expanded into new builds, recently launching “CroPod”, a two-person retreat built into a hillside in the grounds of an existing cottage he lets in the remote mountains of south-west Donegal; a shipping container cantilevered over a pond is due to launch later this year. This weekend bookings will go live for a shepherd’s hut called Lakeside Luna, and a restored thatch cottage, Traighenna Bay, both near Miki’s Cottage. In total there will be nine Donegal properties in the collection. Having moved to Ireland in 2008, he is now as much a champion of Donegal as he was for west Wales – especially of its outdoors (as Stevenson writes in the cottage’s visitor notes: “My top tip is to get out in any weather”).
One afternoon we went kayaking in nearby Dungloe Bay with Hugh Boyle and Brian Roche from Maghery Coastal Adventures (adults €15, children €10 for two hours), a not-for-profit community initiative that organises activities for locals and visitors. The wind was up and the water choppy, but we had great fun kayaking over to the shoreline ruins of a 12th-century church and the only stone circle in west Donegal.
“Instant access to wilderness,” said Brian, as we paddled out across the secluded bay, the wide Atlantic to our left, the remote cloud-capped peak of Mount Errigal inland to our right. His words sum up Donegal – and Miki’s Cottage itself.
• Accommodation was provided by Under the Thatch (0844 5005 101, underthethatch.co.uk); Miki’s Cottage sleeps four (two adults and two children) and costs from £500 a week. For information on Donegal, see govisitdonegal.com