A Perfect Place in the Country
Review by Fiona Duncan, published 21st February 2001.
There are around 50,000 cottages available for holiday lets in this country. About half are sold direct by the owner, and the other half are in the hands of dozens of letting agents, each with a brochure and website describing the properties on their books.
In addition, many owners, whether on the books of an agent or not, have chosen to register their cottage with the relevant Tourist Board (English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish), and had it inspected and graded. This is a useful nod of official approval for the customer, ensuring welcome standardisation of equipment, although it should be remembered that there are plenty of excellent properties that are not part of the scheme, owners deeming it too expensive.
Letting agents fall into two categories: companies that handle properties nationwide and companies that cover a single area or region. Nationwide companies are mainly large and impersonal, the equivalent to package holiday operators, while the smaller, regional- based companies can offer a more tailor-made service. They are, however, concentrated in the popular holiday areas – the West Country, Lake District and so on, while nationwide brochures offer a broad range of locations. They tend to appeal to those without a fixed idea of where they want to go.
The major players are English Country Cottages, Country Cottages, Blakes (all owned by Thomson Travel Group), Hoseasons and UK and Emerald/Welcome Cottage Holidays. As with local companies, they employ their own inspectors to vet new cottages and keep up standards in existing ones, but unlike local ones their reservation staff can tell customers nothing – or very little - more about a property and its surroundings than is printed in the brochure. English Country Cottages, with over 3000 cottages (also covering Scotland and Wales), are easily the most upmarket (average high season price of a three-bedroom cottage: £480 per week) with a reputation for trustworthy descriptions and immaculate properties in a many locations.
Amongst the budget companies, UK and Emerald and Welcome Cottage Holidays, with over 3000 cottages divided between the two brochures (both prone to a rash of quotes and photographs of former Blue Peter presenter John Nokes) are notable for their websites, which reveal between five and seven extra photographs of each interior, their personal grading system, and their collection of customers’ comments (average price: £400 per week).
There are a couple of notable exceptions to the rule that letting agents offering properties across the board are anodyne. One is the excellent Landmark Trust, which rescues and restores historic buildings (not forgetting the up-and-coming Vivat Trust, with just six properties to date). The other is the National Trust, with a choice of some 350 NT-owned and managed properties, along with the National Trust for Scotland, with around 35. Despite the large area covered, booking staff are fairly knowledgeable about the properties, making regular visits. Cottages range from the humble - such as remote, gas-lit Longstone Cottage on the Isle of Wight (£567 per week in high season) - to the luxurious, and the quality of the interiors (the National Trust having had their say during conversion) is extremely high. You can choose to live in part of a historic building, such as Fountains Hall in Yorkshire, which has two very elegant apartments (both £602), or 14th-century Ightham Mote in Kent (£602); or you can take a property on an NT estate, such as the magical Water Tower on the Trelissick Estate in Cornwall (£578), or the Brewhouse which once provided ale for the estate of Chastleton, hidden in a corner of the Cotswolds (£817). Or there is the Lighthouse Keepers’ Cottage at the end of a dramatic drive down the cliffs at Foreland Point in Devon (£948), and, in Scotland, the Lighthouse Galloway (£400).
Not nationwide, but covering southern England as far as north as Shropshire is Hideaways, based in Dorset, with attractive cottages in counties such as Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Surrey.
Regional letting agents
As a general rule, it’s best to choose a personal, friendly, locally based agent who knows the area it serves really well, and knows its cottages inside out. “You can’t package our industry; matching clients with the right cottage requires far more personal input than the big operators can give,” says Simon Tregoning of Classic Cottages, based in Cornwall. The best produce brochures which are forthcoming about the company and how it operates, are not afraid to show both interior and exterior photographs of each property, and, above all, give detailed, informative descriptions without hyperbole (‘crackling open fire’; ‘really superb bedroom’; ‘utter perfection’). Their websites (which should be used as an adjunct - the brochure gives a much better overall feel for the company and the type of properties it offers) display more photographs, and show current availability. Brochures to be avoided marry tiny, bitty pictures of suspiciously grim-looking cottages with cliché-ridden descriptions extolling their virtues, but giving little hard information. If you feel unsure - avoid. Here is the pick of the regional operators.
In Cornwall alone some 14 agencies belong to the Cornwall Association of Holiday Home Agencies. Amongst those that stand out are Helpful Holidays who, though fairly large, produce a brochure with detailed descriptions, backed by staff who are friendly, knowledgeable and honest about the 450 West Country properties on their books. They publish a personal star rating for each property (as well as the ETB rating) based on ambience rather than facilities. Favourites include glamorous Beach House Quay, a former boathouse at East Portlemouth, with a variety of boats available (£4560); Break House (£1346) and Fixit Cottage (£758) at Kingsbridge, whose owners have recently added a dramatic indoor pool; simple wooden bungalows on unspoilt Gwithian Towans beach (£289-£505); and an exquisite and isolated Grade 1 listed medieval gentleman’s residence at Manaton, sleeping two, perfect for honeymooners (£450).
Classic Cottages, based in Cornwall, but also covering the West Country, win on presentation: their stylish brochure is backed up by a sophisticated, user-friendly website where you will find up to six more photographs of each property. Highlights include Molly’s Cottage in a hamlet near Lyme Regis with an enchanting cottage garden (£642); Polwrath Granary near Liskeard, a converted barn with kitchen and living room on the first floor and a heated indoor pool (£1188); and Maenporth, in an elevated, secluded position above the beach near Falmouth (£1998).
Two very similar companies vie with each other for the best cottages. Norfolk Country Cottages and Norfolk Country Cousins both stick to illustrations by local artists in their brochures (“for uniformity”), but display photographs of the properties on their websites. Norfolk Country Cousins are strong on personal touches: tea trays and flowers, fruit, wine or a home-made cake await all new guests. Cottages whose owners are absent are visited before each new let by a ‘guardian angel’ to make sure all is well. Consider a pink-washed cottage by the River Bure at Coltishall from Norfolk Country Cottages (£503), or, perfect for families, a stylish cottage with large garden at Docking (£639).
Several small companies each serve different parts of Wales. For a complete list, take a look at the self-catering page of the Wales Tourist Board website (www.visitwales.com). Menai Holiday Cottages, covering Anglesey, Snowdonia and the Llyn Peninsula, has some fine properties (although annoyingly it relies on illustrations rather than photographs in both brochure and website), as does Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages. The brochure of Quality Cottages, with properties across Wales, is worth studying if only for its impressive collection of gaudy three-piece suites.
The Lakeland Cottage Company has restricted its numbers to only 40 handpicked properties, mostly concentrated in the Southern Lakes. “We prefer to stay small, and to offer as personal a service as possible”, says owner John Serginson. “The brochure and website are only the first point of contact; we know the properties intimately and will answer any questions about them over the phone.” The company (whose stylish brochure, strong on photographs, reflects Serginson’s past career in advertising) offers unusual extras to its tenants: meals cooked by a chef in situ or delivered ready prepared (including picnics and packed lunches); babysitting; archery; fishing; rough shooting; badger watching and guided walks. Properties include cosy, romantic Rose Cottage (£390) and Crag House Cottage (£350), both in the village of Bouth, whose pub, the White Hart, is one of the best in the region; newly acquired Tinkler Beck Farm on Lake Coniston, in the grounds of an estate with many literary associations (£800); and Nook End Farm, above Ambleside, decorated in charmingly eclectic style, with many antiques, including a wardrobe once owned by Beatrice Potter (£900).
With 30 years in the business, Jill Bristow knows what her customers want, reflected in the 200 or so properties on the books of Ecosse Unique: detached, mostly traditional (“I don’t rule out modern if its good”), close to water, great views. Properties such as Dail Sithein on Loch Tay (£550), Kilmun, sleeping 12, on the shores of Loch Awe (£1350) and Aldcharmaig on Loch Tummel (£380) are fine examples. Having sold her previous company and watched the Thomson group swallow it up, she is convinced of the benefit of hands-on agents like herself.
The trick in Ireland is to avoid the rash of modern purpose-built holiday properties that have disfigured so much of the coastline. This is achieved by Shamrock Cottages, run by Matthew Boyd for the past 19 years. The 250 cottages on their books are mainly remote, secluded and old. They include a converted signal box (£254), and a delightful stone cottage overlooking the Kenmare River (£396), both in Kerry; and a recently converted cottage on uninhabited Mason Island in Galway, reached only by the owner’s curragh, and visited with provisions every two days or so, weather permitting (£315).
Many owners of holiday cottages prefer not to use agencies, which take around 20 per cent in commission for each let. Their advertisements can be found in a wide variety of publications, from the Church Times and the RSPB’s Birds magazine to national newspapers. More readily available from newsagents are The Lady and The Spectator. The latter is where the discerning gentleman advertises for discerning occupants for his rural retreat or estate cottage; while The Lady offers a wide variety of accommodation - the very location you are searching for might be included in its crowded columns.
Another source is Stilwell’s Independent Holiday Cottages, an annual publication available in bookshops and online (www.stilwell.co.uk). Some of the advertisements you see have been placed by owners – often of farms or estates – who have converted a handful of cottages on their land specifically for holiday lets. These are often a good bet – professionally managed by on-site owners who know their properties and their area inside out. They often offer extra facilities such as swimming pool, tennis court, games room and catering. Some of the most sophisticated are included in the brochure and website of Premier Cottages Direct (a marketing group, not an agency; you book directly with the owner). Tempting places include the nine romantic hideaways, sleeping from two to nine, that nestle around romantic Owlpen Manor in a wild and secret Gloucestershire valley (£310-£780 per couple per week). There is a restaurant, and babysitting, maid service and laundry are available. And no expense has been spared in the luxury conversion of Bruern Stable Cottages in the Cotswolds (£591-£1458), nor of the stables at Combermere Abbey in Shropshire (£560-£960). Or consider a simple but stylish cottage in the grounds of Cawdor Castle in Scotland (£577-£763).
What to look out for
When selecting a cottage, make location the priority. It’s the key to success. A log fire works wonders too. Make sure you see pictures of the cottage interior, not just the exterior; however pretty the outside, only the inside will reveal if the cottage is to your taste.
Once you have made your choice, don’t hesitate to get on the phone and ask questions. When replying to private advertisements, don’t be afraid to probe about surroundings, accommodation, and terms, and ask to be sent photographs. Most owners produce a small brochure. Check the provision of linen and towels (you may have to bring your own) and whether pets are accepted. Ask specifically about the hidden but common snags of sagging mattresses, unreliable hot water and poor television reception.
Cottages on the books of agents will conform to the latest stringent health and safety regulations, as will Tourist Board registered cottages; others may not. Uninspected properties are very often acceptable, but they require the most careful checking. Cottages whose owners or caretakers live nearby are preferable; establish a relationship early on. Some owners will provide a box of provisions on arrival, a great help after a long journey. Check what coins you need to bring for the electricity meter.
Don’t be dismayed by a slight sinking feeling when you first stand on the doorstep. It’s easy to exaggerate the charms of a place in your mind, but as you settle in, it usually grows on you, especially if the position is right.
In general, holiday cottages offer excellent value for money. The price is based on the size of the house, its quality, and the popularity of the area. If you want to cut costs, opt for simple and remote and go in low or mid-season. Winter prices are nearly half high season rates. If high season is a must, then consider waiting for the ‘last minute bargains‘ which most agents offer once the season is under way. Short breaks are also offered. Check whether fuel charges are included (usually not), and whether electricity is charged at cost or with a surcharge.
English Country Cottages Tel 0870 585 1155 www.english-country-cottages.co.uk
UK and Emerald Cottage Holidays Tel 01756 700599 www.cottages.co.uk
Welcome Cottage Holidays Tel 01756 799999 www.welcome.cottages.co.uk
Landmark Trust Tel 01628 825925 www.landmarktrust.co.uk
Vivat Trust Tel 020 7930 8030 www.landmarktrust.co.uk
National Trust Holiday Cottages Tel 01225 791199 www.ntrust.org.uk
National Trust for Scotland Tel 0131 243 9331 www.nts.org.uk
Hideaways Tel 01747 828170 www.hideaways.co.uk
Helpful Holidays Tel 01647 433593 www.helpfulholidays,com
Classic Cottages Tel 01326 555555 www.classic.co.uk
Norfolk Country Cottages Tel 01603 871872 www.norfolkcottages.co.uk
Norfolk Country Cousins Tel 01692 650286 www.norfolk-cottages.co.uk
Menai Holiday Cottages Tel 01248 717135 www.menaiholidays.co.uk
Breacon Beacon Holiday Cottages Tel 01874 676446 www.breconcottages.com
Quality Cottages Tel 01348 837874
Lakeland Cottage Company Tel 015395 30024 www.lakeland-cottage-company.co.uk
Ecosse Unique Tel 01835 870779 www.uniquescotland.com
Shamrock Cottages Tel 01823 660126 www.shamrockcottages.co.uk
Premier Cottages Direct Tel 01271 336050 www.premiercottages.co.uk