Last Autumn I started thinking about holding a family get-together: me, parents, all siblings and babies and other-halves and various add-ons such as dogs and fluffy dinosaurs and pull-along ponies. It would be fun, I mused, to get everyone in the same place at the same time and it would also be momentous, in a way, because we had not all been in the same place at the same time for years. In fact, taking sibling husbands and girlfriends into account, we had never all been in the same place at the same time.
Mass gatherings don’t happen in our family very frequently because a) we all live spread out over England and trying to get a time when everyone is free, and able to travel, and willing to travel, is nigh on impossible and b) (and this is probably more the reason) there simply isn’t enough room at any of our houses to comfortably accommodate everyone together without there being queues for the loo or mayhem around the dinner table or gridlock on the driveway. Of course the parental home is always the hub, but what parents expand the size of their property as the children grow up? Most start downsizing, or at least stay put, and the home that once held two adults and a few kids suddenly feels very tight when those kids are tall and come with a family of their own who all need room.
And so (stay with me, readers, you’re in for the long-haul here!) I started a discussion with my Mum about planning a family get-together “away”. Something I’ve inherited from Mother: I take an almost indecent amount of pleasure in organising things “away”. Weekend city-breaks, fortnights in the sun, days out to visit family and friends; both of us seem to enjoy sitting for hours at the computer trawling deals and hotel options, working out flight itineraries and nit-picking our way through Tripadvisor and Booking.com to weed out the trustworthy reviews. So we tackled the family get-together idea with gusto, immediately listing ideas and accommodation options.
We wanted something quite special, with a touch of luxury, as we felt that this was a big occasion (my birthday, my niece baby Edith’s first birthday and something else rather exciting) and so the first consideration was whether or not we booked a hotel. But for the number of rooms we’d need, a hotel was prohibitively expensive and we didn’t like the idea that we wouldn’t be able to cook and we’d have to constantly find activities to keep the group occupied, otherwise everyone would just end up spending time in their own little rooms and the whole get-together weekend would be little more than having an evening in a restaurant and then seeing everyone for breakfast again the next morning!
And so the solution for this special weekend was to rent a house. I’m no stranger to the whole holiday-let renting game; I’ve been on quite a few weekends with twelve or so friends and all the relevant children, I’ve been abroad and stayed at lovely villas with Mr AMR and I’ve shared little holiday cottages in England with my parents. In every way, a large rented house was the ideal solution here: plenty of space to all be together, the ability to cook all of our own meals whenever we wanted to and enough separate, private rooms to allow for quiet time. In short, replicating the typical family home set-up, just with enough room to house everyone comfortably. But with a bit of something extra-special and lovely, something that we would all remember for a long time afterwards…
Enter stage-right Perfect Stays, a property rental company who specialise in luxury houses in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. Perfect Stays suggested the perfect property; Holt Farm in Witham Friary, near to Frome in Somerset. Relatively easy for us all to get to and spacious enough to accommodate eight adults, a baby and Dexter the dog. Though unfortunately, three days before the get-together, Dexter fell really ill and had to stay in the hospital and Mr AMR had to remain nearby, so we were dog-less for all of the weekend and Mr AMR-less for half of it!
Here are some pictures of the gorgeous Holt Farm. We all agreed that it was almost incomparable to any of the rental places we had stayed in before; the attention to detail throughout the whole property was just amazing, with beautiful interior design and well thought out spaces. (Note: don’t try to spot Mr AMR in any of the photos, he is, as always, as invisible as some kind of stealth secret service agent. Always the photographer, never the photographed!)
You may be able to see my extremely tall and handsome brother in the photo above; he decided to wind me up by sneaking into all of my shots. He’s almost as tall as the porch, which I assume is what he’s trying to demonstrate…
The farmhouse was very traditional, with exposed beams and little nooks and fireplaces and it was incredibly cosy. Cosy, but with no lack of space to spread out into; there were three living areas (one a little private snug, see below) as well as a large dining area and kitchen.
There were five bedrooms altogether, one of them with the most ginormous bed…
…and the way the upstairs was laid out was very handy, because there were almost two different “wings”, separated by a lovely long landing and a rocking horse that my brother made up a spooky story about. Which meant that I couldn’t walk past it for the rest of the stay..
The farmhouse sits on a private estate of 140 acres and actually has two other properties, incredible barn conversions, immediately next to it in the farmyard. The “Old Barn” and the “Calf House” are as beautifully decked out as the main house, but very contemporary in design where the farm house is traditional. The barns sleep 8 and 6 and apparently all three properties often get booked up together for large gatherings and multi-family holidays and there’s another barn at the back where weddings can be catered for! I can imagine that it would be such a brilliant spot for a wedding; you could house all of the family guests in the house and barns and there would be plenty of space for marquees and so on..
Something that was a brilliant unexpected bonus: the games room (above) complete with pool, table football (none of us could agree on what the proper name is for it) and ping pong. The games room is in a completely separate little barn again, so – as I said before – plenty of different places to escape to or to be together, depending on the mood and time of day.
But everything – and I say this with a hint of soppiness – is just perfectly pitched for families, whether young or grown-up, to spend time together and re-acquaint and just generally exist together as a family unit again. Which is actually no easy feat, when you think of it; lots of adults together, lots of history or catching up to do. The conditions need to be truly perfect: and they were.
And so, to the original point of my post which was really to weigh up the various benefits of luxury self-catering, for a special occasion, rather than going to a hotel. I did a round robin family email asking for feedback and here are the best and most useful points:
1) There’s communal space, which you wouldn’t have at a hotel. Not for exclusive use, at any rate. In a hotel you’re kind of confined to your rooms or to the hotel eating area or lounge, but it’s not private and comfortable and you’re aware of other guests and staff. In a self-catered house all of the space is your own to use as you please, you can laugh as loudly as you like and not worry about baby/children noise affecting other people. You can also go to bed when you want, without fear of upsetting other people, so if you do want to drink wine and play Taboo until 2am then you can.
2) You can cook all of your own meals. Or not, if you prefer to dine out, but the option is there. You can stock up the fridge with everything you love and not have to worry that a bottle of mineral water from the mini bar is going to set you back four quid a time! For many families (I know this is true for ours, at least) cooking is one of the central activities that brings us all together. Whoever is on cooking duty is always flocked with people holding glasses of wine and sticking their noses into the pots and pans, or offering their sous-chef services. It’s always a time of immense activity and everyone seems to congregate around the kitchen chatting and messing about. Take cooking out of the equation and things become a little less homely, don’t you think? Yes it’s lovely to go to a restaurant for a treat, but it’s those long, informal mealtimes that I always remember – and you can roll straight into bed when you’ve had enough.
3) In the case of Holt Farm, one of the huge benefits was the amount of space around the properties. Acres of land to walk in as well as large gardens equipped with all of the outdoor stuff you might need. It was cold and misty when we stayed, but I can imagine that in the summer you would spend loads of time outdoors. (And a little birdie told me that Holt Farm might be getting a swimming pool at some time in the future. Mr AMR suggests that hot tubs would be an excellent addition to the barn properties, but he is just generally obsessed with hot tubs, for some reason. Even though I think he’s only ever been in one about twice in his life.)
4) Cost. This is an important one – possibly the one you’ve been waiting for! We worked out that the cost for all of us to stay in a hotel with equivalent level of interior decoration and beautiful surroundings and so on would be around £150-£200 per night, per couple, so – at cheapest – about £450 for the three night stay. Plus restaurant or cafe/sandwich costs for lunches and dinners, and the myriad of teas and coffees and glasses of wine, which would easily be another couple of hundred. With self-catering, the initial outlay seems steep (the farmhouse starts at £1300 for three nights) but when you divide it down it’s far far less expensive than a hotel. £325 per couple, which amounts to just over £100 per night if it’s a short break, or if you’re staying for a week it’s even better value as the total starts from £1600.
And food/wine bills are minimal compared to eating out – I cooked an amazing (if I may say so myself!) Italian-ish feast on one night, with lovely fresh buffalo mozzarella balls and zingy grilled courgettes and big bowls of tomato pasta with olives. Even with buying the olive oil and good quality balsamic and wine and so on, the supermarket shop only came to around fifty pounds – compare that to a restaurant three-course meal for eight!
My sister had some extra feedback: “Great for staying with children, cot and high chair were handy, loads of space to crawl about. The animals were great, Edith thought the cows were hilarious and the sheep! It was like living in a magazine home and I didn’t want to leave. I think when you are crammed into a family house the owner naturally has to become the hostess whereas in a holiday let you are all guests together. I want to go back!” (Good point about the hostessing; being on “neutral” ground does mean that tasks are more readily shared. Though the parents still assume their natural roles, I think – they can’t help it!)
Mum had loads of thoughts, but her email was so long that I have made her do a separate blog post for me. You can read that and find loads of extra pictures by clicking here – I’ll also link to her blog at the end of the page.
Overall, the whole thing was a whopping great success. Mum and I have already started planning a late-summer escape to Cornwall and perhaps Holt Farm again for next Christmas or New Year; though there are changes afoot in the little AMR family so who knows what will happen! We tested out the Holt Farm Estate as guests for this feature, but all agreed, after our little costing-out and de-brief session that the rates are surprisingly affordable considering the level of luxury and comfort and we would have absolutely no qualms with booking again. A few family members mentioned that they would normally disregard such a luxe-sounding accommodation option, assuming that it would be way out of budget, but when it’s broken down into a per-couple or per-person price, it’s so much cheaper than even the most reasonable B&B. And far more stylish, with its designer wallpapers and stone floors and wooden walking-stick holders…
FYI: we are looking at Hawker’s Cove for the late summer, though I shouldn’t shout about these things as it’ll probably get booked up and I’ll be left with no holiday! It starts at just over £1000 per week, around £2000 for the summer weeks. But £200 per couple, for a week’s hols in Cornwall, in the summer? I’m in. I’m all for the “staycation” at the moment, I’ve really enjoyed my last few holidays in the UK and if I could just get lucky with the sunshine this year, I’d have no cravings to go abroad whatsoever.
You can find all of the holiday properties at Perfect Stays here – there are loads of brilliant photos and also interactive floorplans, which is a great touch. It’s literally my new favourite daydreaming website; I know most of the house floorplans off by heart!
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