Isabel Choat, The Guardian, January 17, 2012
Self-catering in the UK is the "easy" holiday option, right? No flights, transfers, jabs, hotel rules, plenty of space, the chance to save money by eating in and so on, all make for a more relaxing experience. That's the theory, anyhow. In practice, booking a cottage can be a minefield. There are dozens of companies selling tens of thousands of properties across the country. The UK's largest self-catering operator, Cottages4You, has 10,000 places on its books alone.
So, where do you start? Who should you book through? When should you book? Are some regions of the country cheaper than others? Are there any firms who don't put their prices up at peak times?
This guide is designed to help you answer these questions. While we can't pick the perfect cottage for you, we've done the groundwork, finding out who offers what and where, which areas are the most popular and which properties get snapped up early.
First things first, when to book? The London Olympics and the diamond jubilee, combined with the economic downturn, mean that more of us are looking to holiday at home this year. Holiday Lettings, which features more than 6,000 UK properties, reported a 50% year-on-year rise in inquiries in the first two days of 2012, while Owners Direct (nearly 3,000 places) says inquiries are up 30%.
An additional pressure will be the expected increase in foreign tourists hoping to combine a trip to the Olympics with a trip into the countryside. Hideaways, which specialises in accommodation in the West Country, says it has taken a number of bookings from families from abroad.
All of which suggests you should book early, especially if you have your heart set on a coastal cottage in one of the more popular regions. According to Cottages4You, the best-selling areas, based on 2012 bookings to date are (in order): Cornwall, Scotland, Devon, Wales, Norfolk, the Lake District and Dorset. Within those regions there are particular hot spots: in Cornwall, for example, Padstow is a magnet for families in summer.
The good news is, while flagship cottages in these honeypot areas are getting snapped up now, there are many alternatives in gorgeous but less well-trodden parts of the country, and as part of this series we will highlight some of the hidden gems in these quieter corners of the British countryside.
Over the coming week we'll be publishing lists of firms specialising in Cornwall, Scotland, Devon, Wales, Norfolk, the Lake District and Dorset – but first, here is a list of 10 that operate UK-wide.
Cottages4You has an overwhelming 10,000 properties available online. Most of the cottages on its books look fairly standard – in terms of decor they are not going to win any style awards – but the group has just introduced a boutique collection showcasing some of its snazziest properties that come with luxury interiors, extras such as swimming pools and games rooms, and lay on treats such as dressing gowns and welcome packs of local produce. Examples include The Manor House on Osea Island in Essex (sleeps 20, from £5,147 to £6,677 for seven nights) a slick, spacious property overlooking the beach and estuary of the river Blackwater with a billiards table and outdoor saltwater swimming pool.
Another new feature is its Baby and Toddler-friendly portfolio of nearly 200 properties, each of which has a tick-list of facilities such as cots, high chairs, steriliser and enclosed garden, as well as useful information on nearby child-friendly restaurants, buggy-friendly walks and soft play centres.
This huge TripAdvisor-owned portal, which puts holiday-makers in direct contact with owners, has a colossal 51,000 homes worldwide, 6,020 of which are in the UK. Cornwall, the Cotswolds, the New Forest, Isle of Wight and north Wales are the bestsellers. Two ever-popular properties are: Slade Farm Cottage (sleeps six, from £575 per week) located off a quiet country lane in Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds and Lantic (sleeps six, from £445 per week) in Fowey, Cornwall, a recently refurbished cottage overlooking the harbour.
Rural Retreats has more than 350 cottages sleeping from two to 24 across the UK. More than 60% of its coastal properties have already been snapped up for the school summer holidays. Sally Port, a lighthouse cottage on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall (sleeps four) is a popular choice that's already heavily booked until the end of August, but not exclusively. For example, three nights from 11 June is £670. With great walks across the surrounding National Trust land, and a couple of decent restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Driftwood Hotel in Portscatho) and pubs (such as the Rising Sun in St Mawes) it would make a dramatic setting for a New Year's getaway (five nights from 29 December for £1,177). However, Peppard Cottage (sleeps six) a Grade II listed thatched cottage overlooking the village green in Sydling St Nicholas, Dorset, is close to the Jurassic Coast and still has plenty of availability this summer. Five nights beginning 22 July cost £1,186.
Sawday's new self-catering website features more than 600 rentals in the UK, with links to individual properties so you can contact the owners directly. Cornwall, London and Devon are the biggest draws, the latter proving the best value, averaging £100 per person per week. Sawday's prides itself on being as much about the people as the properties, picking owners who are also passionate about their area and able to offer great insider tips on what to see and do.
In Devon, The Old Shippon, Beara Farmhouse (sleeps four, from £300-£550 per week) is a converted barn on a smallholding next to the owners' farmhouse and would make a great base for a family with young children. Or if you're looking for a quirky – and cheap – retreat, Jackson's Cabin in Totnes (sleeps two, plus two small kids) was built by the owner, a furniture maker, and costs between £250 and £390 per week.
A collection of 400 properties, including lighthouses, listed lodges, farmhouses, fisherman's cottages, mansions and manor houses. Some of them are in particularly spectacular locations, such as Bird How (sleeps four, from £319 per week), a remote fellside cottage above the River Esk in Cumbria, and waterside Quay Cottage, the only holiday cottage on the National Trust-owned Brownsea Island in Poole harbour and already booked up for most of the year.
For wow factor, take a look at Egryn, a Grade II listed medieval hall house dating from 1510 (sleeps nine) on the coast between Barmouth and Harlech overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales, from £810 for seven nights (low season) to £2,253 (high). Simpler in style but in a fab location is the Lighthouse Keepers' Cottage (sleeps 10, seven nights from £646-£1,651), perched on the edge of cliffs on the remote Foreland Point in Devon, where you're more likely to see dolphins, porpoise and gannets fishing at high tide than people.
A particular favourite of ours and a great choice if you're looking for somewhere special. Every one of its 183 historic and unusual buildings, including an Elizabethan gatehouse, a former chapel and a gothic temple, has been meticulously restored and boasts outstanding original features. Plus the website's easy to use with useful sections on what's available next week and special offers. Its smaller properties are especially popular (take note any couples looking for a Valentine's escape) but places for larger parties also get snapped up for long weekend breaks. Its most popular building is Clavell Tower, a tower for two on a wild stretch of Dorset coast, so popular it's almost fully booked this year – book now for 2013! As an alternative, try Culloden Tower (sleeps four), a 1746 building in Richmond, North Yorkshire, which the trust says boasts the grandest bedroom ceiling of all its properties. A three-day weekend in April costs £875.
If you're planning a big get-together, Stately Escapes could have what you're looking for. Although it has cottages for two among its 150 properties across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as the name suggests it specialises in the kind of impressive pad you might want to hire for a special occasion. Search is made easier by listing properties by facility: for example with a pool, within walking distance of a decent pub, dog-friendly places to stay and so on. A seven-night stay at The Gardeners Cottage (sleeps six) in the grounds of Inglethorpe Hall, a Grade II listed country house in 30 private acres in north Norfolk, is available for £360.50 per week until 28 March, and up to £710 in high season (three nights from £252-£498). Inglethrope Hall itself sleeps up to 15, three nights from £1,556-£3,326 or seven nights from £2,033-£4,346.
One Off Places says its USP is picking properties for their character or uniqueness, so its 120 UK holiday rentals (out of a total of 850 worldwide listings) include yurts, gypsy caravans and even a barge. In keeping with other cottage companies, its most popular areas are Cornwall, Norfolk, the Scottish Highlands, Devon and west Wales. Lantau Cottage in Cornwall (sleeps nine, from £695-£1,495 per week) is a 17th-century cottage with wonky floors, a winding staircase that incorporates an original full size ship's mast, and an Elizabethan panelled bedroom. In Cirencester, Gloucestershire, Log House Holidays is a group of four log cabins on the edge of a private lake, each with its own boat (sleeps four, from £650-£1,185 per week).
As the name might suggest, this is a farmer-owned consortium featuring 1,200 self-catering, B&Bs or alternative places to stay (yurts, shepherds huts, etc) on or near farms. The advanced search has a pretty extensive list of facilities so you can narrow down your selection by opting for a tennis court, pool, internet access and real fires, to find a property to suit you. Examples include Airhouses (sleeping two-10, from £350-£1,550 per week) on 600 acres of farmland in the Scottish Borders, with outside hot tubs, and pettable pet pigs and Shetland ponies. In Norfolk, Wheatacre Hall Barns is a group of six converted barns (each sleeps six, £390-£1,306 per week) with on-site games room and acres of land for running about.
A cottage and villa specialist with nearly 3,000 places to stay. Among its most popular properties are the Old Vicarage (sleeps 10, £550-£650 per week in the low-shoulder seasons), a 700-year-old Grade II listed property in the quaint back streets of Looe, Cornwnall, less than a minute's walk to the harbour and sandy beach. The Old Coastguard Cottage next to the lifeboat slip on the eastern tip of Swanage Bay in Dorset (sleeps six) is another popular choice. Like the Old Vicarage, it is fully booked all summer, but is available from £350 per week out of season.