The Good Life

PUBLISHED: 13:16 05 May 2009 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

Inside and out Rowan's house is an ecologist's dream.

Inside and out Rowan's house is an ecologist's dream.

Rowan McOnegal's dream of a rural idyll has turned into reality. Now her eco-friendly home, built in the countryside near Ledbury using local timber and craftsmanship and heated by wood and sunshine, has become a base for workshops based on her sk...

Rowan McOnegal's dream of a rural idyll has turned into reality. Now her eco-friendly home, built in the countryside near Ledbury using local timber and craftsmanship and heated by wood and sunshine, has become a base for workshops based on her skills as a stained glass artist and herbalist. She tells the story of her very Good Life

When my husband Pete and I drove the Land Rover and trailer loaded with oaks crucks up the snowy track to builder Mike Whitfield's Garway workshop in the winter of 2005, it seemed our vision of an eco-built, oak framed, virtually zero-energy home was still a long way off.

But compared to the 20 years we had spent cherishing our dream of finding a rural smallholding of our own in order to grow herbs and vegetables and try to be as self sufficient as we could, it turned out that the build itself was relatively quick, thanks to the expertise and craftsmanship of Mike and his team.

The actual construction only took just over a year. Self sufficiency may remain a dream, but we have managed to build a beautiful, practical, energy efficient house that is heated purely by solar energy and a wood burner.

We used locally grown oak that Pete felled himself (thinnings from traditionally managed woodlands) for the main oak frame, and used some recycled materials (the reclaimed roof tiles, the foundations containing concrete which was crushed on site from the demolition of an old barn, and the insulation in the walls which is recycled newspaper). All the timber used in the build is FSC approved. Rainwater is harvested and used in the garden.

We were fortunate that we found a building plot fairly near where we had already been living and working for 10 years, at Putley, and also like-minded builder Mike Whitfield and architect Jim Rann. By the time we moved out of our cottage and into a mobile home on the site with our two girls (then aged eight and 13) and our rather large dog, we had everything pretty much thought out and this helped the build go smoothly. Pete, who has worked in woodland and conservation management for over 25 years, has a wide range of practical skills, so had been able to do some of the site preparation and I decided to take a temporary break from my work as a medical herbalist in order to focus on the house build.

This was a welcome move for me, having been a professional photographer for 10 years, followed by nearly 20 years of herbal practice, and raising two children, I needed a breathing space and the house build was a great opportunity for this.

I had also been running a picture library of my own botanical photos - McOnegal Botanical, a specialist source of over 6000 images of medicinal, horticultural and wild plants supplying pictures to teaching institutions, publishers and companies such as Neal's Yard and The Herb Society for 20 years. However for some years I had been feeling increasingly drawn back towards more artistic work and had been learning about making stained glass, initially with Nicky Hopwood at Hereford Art College in 1998.

I felt this art form perfectly combines my love of image making using drawing, painting, colour and changing light, and I was intrigued by the way a piece of glass can influence and transform the atmosphere of a space. Being actively involved in designing and building a house really enhanced this awareness.

Feeling pulled in too many directions, I decided to follow my heart, and give up my herbal practice to concentrate full time on making stained glass.

I had originally trained as a painter at Bath Academy of Art, so it felt great to be able to get back to painting when I was commissioned to complete a mural at Breast Cancer Haven, where I had been working previously as a herbalist. This affirmed for me how much I loved and missed painting.

It wasn't until we had finished the house that I was able to get my workshop up and running, and in 2008 I was able to open for Hereford Art Week. I was greatly encouraged by the success of this open week, and now have a website, show my work at galleries and exhibitions as well as do commissions.

Now the house is finished and the garden taking shape I have decided to continue to use my experience as a herbalist to teach a few weekend Hedgerow Medicine courses from home. I have been teaching these courses for many years, and they have evolved over this time as a grassroots herbal medicine, as interest in natural, wholesome medicine has gained popularity again.

I use a practical, hands-on approach aimed at increasing knowledge and confidence in using herbs for healing and self help - we go out into the herb garden and learn about the basics of herbal medicine, and the identification, harvesting, storing, and making of remedies such as syrups, creams, ointments and teas.

People come away with at least three remedies we have made using herbs we have harvested, and the confidence to make more at home for their own use. I now run the courses as a member of the popular Herefordshire based 'Creative Breaks' group.

I find this perfectly combines the ethos of being in harmony with the environment, using the natural world sensitively and sustainably, and at the same time nurturing ourselves and our sense of belonging in the world.

It also enables me to share the plants I've grown. I feel I will always need to have a herb garden. After all, this is the origin of the garden - to have one's medicine on the doorstep. Luckily for me I have my stained glass workshop on my doorstep too.

* Rowan will be opening her house and workshop as part of Hereford Art Week Open Studios in September 2009. You can also see her work at Parkfields Gallery (Ross), Twenty Twenty (Much Wenlock), The Fold at the Foalyard, Bransford and at the RHS Malvern Spring and Autumn Shows (with the Worcester Guild of Designer Craftsmen).

Information about her stained glass can be found at: and
Visitors to her workshop are welcome (please ring first). She always has pieces available to purchase 'off the shelf' and is very happy to make commissioned pieces either to hang in windows or to fit specific doors, fanlights, windows or other spaces.

Information about her Hedgerow Medicine courses and picture library McOnegal Botanical at: courses and

Her next Hedgerow Medicine course is on the weekend of May 2 and 3.

Rowan McOnegal
Castle Orchard
01531 670075

Peter Johnson Conservation Consultancy, for practical conservation advice, can be contacted on 01531 670075

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