no mirror!
14 November 2019

The Ups and Downs of Self-catering cottages

By Rachel Sloane

Once upon a time a draughty caravan or a tumble-down cottage with rejected furniture and mismatched cups, would have satisfied most self-catering holiday-makers. Now most people expect a holiday home that is of a standard that is at least as good as their own homes, and possibly even better.

One Aldeburgh house, that we rented for a short break, inspired us to landscape our courtyard garden to match the one we admired there – and to update our kitchen. That proved to be an expensive holiday!

With any holiday home there is always an element of surprise, however carefully you inspect the photos or read the online reviews.

Last year a trip to Wiltshire, to stay in a beautiful converted farm building, presented challenges when the low beams were a hazard for my six foot-plus husband. That was solved by hanging supermarket carrier bags on every beam as an on-going reminder. He avoided concussion, while the rest of the party kept ducking their heads even though they had no need!

The owners of that house were also optimistic with their claims of the village pub being “five minutes away,” and “a short walk”. It was ten minutes in the car, along an extremely potholed unlit bridleway (four-wheel drive car suitability only) that went through a new-age traveller’s encampment. (They, and their horses, were actually very friendly, just alarming on first sight.) We soon abandoned plans to stroll to the pub.

The owners of that holiday home had obviously never read their visitors book as almost everyone, for the previous five years, had mentioned that there was no mirror that was situated near an electric socket. Using a hairdryer or shaver meant a lot of guess-work and a mobile phone, set into selfie-mode, propped up on a window sill. Mind you, they were also the only holiday home that we have ever rented that didn’t leave a list of emergency phone numbers or leaflets of tourist attractions.

The previous year, the long drive to Cumbria found us at an Edwardian coach house, very grand and well-equipped but with a garden that was so far below us on a hillside we would have needed abseiling equipment to access it! The plague of midges all week meant that we never actually wanted to venture into the garden, especially after we spotted the owner wearing bee-keeping style veils as she cut the grass.

I have decided that self-catering holidays in Norfolk and Suffolk are the perfect get away. No airport queues, currency issues or hours of driving before the holiday even begins. We have had three Aldeburgh holidays and that is only a forty-minute drive away from our home, and a place I go to regularly. Concerts, films, meals out, or walks along Crag Path or on the beach path to Thorpeness, are even more enjoyable when you have a key to one of the cottages along the High Street.

Two years ago, with friends, we rented a cottage at Sheringham for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, leaving Suffolk, the car sat-nav took us, following an earlier accident on the ring road, through the centre of Norwich, a four-hour journey, but it was still better than an airport would have been. Not only was a cosy sitting room, dining room, and spacious well-equipped kitchen waiting for us, but the welcome pack included dog biscuits and canine mince-pies for Molly, our four-legged friend, and the house was decorated for Christmas. There were crackers to pull, and a large meat dish provided for cooking the turkey. Our week passed with walks to the beach, jigsaw puzzles, TV, hot chocolate in cafes and a trip on the North Norfolk steam railway. The carriages were suitably decorated and there was a mince pie and tiny glass of sherry for every passenger.

Why bother to have the expense and responsibility of owning a second – home when there are so many beautiful places to rent where someone else has all the hassle? There are a few ways to minimise the chances of facing the unwelcome surprise, but holidays are supposed to be an adventure… even if you have only popped to the next county.

Tips for holidaymakers from Clare Philips, owner of Flintstones, Sheringham:

If you are looking for a dog-friendly holiday ask (or check pictures to see) if the garden is fully enclosed. A large gap under the gate or an 18 inch wall that all but the smallest dog could jump over may mean you will have to put your dog on a lead every time he goes outside.

If you like cooking when on holiday, ask how well equipped the kitchen is, for example if you like baking is there a cake tin……and is there a dishwasher so you get a break from the washing up too.

If travelling with very young children ask what’s provided for them – it’ll mean so much more room in the car if there’s a travel cot, high chair and even a buggy already there for use during your stay.

If you are looking to stay in a popular holiday destination enquire about parking – if the property doesn’t have its own space will you have to park several streets away to avoid restrictions or possibly even in a local car park which could be inconvenient and even costly unless the property offers its guests a parking permit.

Tips for holiday home owners from Naomi Tarry, Best of Suffolk:

People choose with their eyes, so add colourful cushions and artwork that fit the theme of your holiday cottage. These will make your property stand out more in your promotional photographs.

Choose a theme that fits in well with the property’s surroundings. If people are searching for a coastal property, they will look for visual signs that it’s by the sea, so choose coastal colours, artwork and ornaments that give a nod to its location.

We encourage our property owners to support local artists and suppliers when furnishing their holiday cottage. It’s another way of contributing to a local community and your guests will appreciate the local touches.

The final 5% of the work you carry out to prepare a holiday cottage for letting is the most important. It can be tempting after carrying out a lot of building work at a holiday cottage to cut back on the cost of the final furnishings, but these are the things that your guests see and touch, so buying high quality is important, from bed linen, cushions and wine glasses to bigger items of furniture.

The market for holiday cottages is changing and people are as likely to request a short weekend break as a week or two’s holiday. So help your property up to meet this market, for example by leaving a nice bottle of wine for guests’ arrival and being flexible about dates and checking in and out times.

(This article was first publicised in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in May 2019)