Holiday homes with a difference
by Simon Heptinstall,
An apparently normal family will arrive by open boat at a rented holiday cottage in Britain to find there is no hot water or electricity... and the only lighting is a box of candles. Amazingly, they’ll be delighted. Meanwhile a happy group will be settling down for a quiet weekend in disused arsenic mine... and a love-struck couple will be setting off for their romantic break in a railway station ticket office.
All over Britain, wonderful, quirky structures such as these are finding a new lease of life as self-catering holiday homes for those who want something different from a normal country holiday cottage. Visitors can now stay in rooms in a royal palace, find home comforts in a disused water tower or rent a whole fort. If you prefer, sleep in a lighthouse, an oast house (where beer-making hops were once dried) or a windmill. There’s even a pineapple to rent for the weekend!
They may not have satellite TVs nor air-conditioning - but they offer an unforgettable experience. By way of a taster, here are just a few of the unusual holiday homes on offer in Britain…
Scotland: the Pineapple
A 200-year-old folly in Stirlingshire, central Scotland, is topped by a 75-foot stone pineapple.
The 4th Earl of Dunmore built this strange pavilion in 1777 after returning from the New World. While Governor of Virginia he’d heard that sailors would put a pineapple on a gatepost to announce their return home. Back in Scotland, Dunmore copied the custom with enthusiasm.
The Pineapple has no internal doors, which means you have to go outside to get from one room to another. The Pineapple sleeps four and costs from £185 for a four-night break.
It is just one of 200 restored historic properties rented by the Landmark Trust, a building conservation charity which rents out its properties. They include a former arsenic mine in Cornwall, apartments in the royal Hampton Court Palace near London, a turret in the city walls of Caernarfon, North Wales, a radio hut on the island of Lundy, an old railway station in Staffordshire and a water tower in Norfolk.
Northumberland: Chillingham Castle
Beneath the imposing stone battlements of one of England’s finest medieval castles, which comes complete with dungeon, torture chamber, banqueting hall and minstrels’ gallery, are some historic holiday flats. These are squeezed into all the spare spots around this Northumbrian fortress near Alnwick - including an 800-year-old look-out tower, the castle dairy, the old coaching stables and next to the drawbridge. Their features include a winding stone staircase, beamed Tudor galleries, ancient stone fireplaces and exquisite period furnishing including some of the Grey family’s valuable art collection. It costs from £252 a week (The Tower, sleeping up to four) and for couples it makes a great romantic retreat.
Cornwall: Fort Polhawn
This is a 200-year-old military stronghold perched on the side of a Cornish cliff, with fabulous sea views over Plymouth Sound. It once housed a large garrison so can easily sleep 20 now.
It was built to defend against a French invasion that never arrived. Guests enter through a working drawbridge and granite spiral staircase: the eight-foot thick walls were designed to withstand a naval bombardment. Four-night breaks cost from £995, for the whole fort.
The seven 64-pounder guns may no longer be in their emplacements in the living room but one is still in the garden in case any passing pirates give you trouble.
Oxfordshire: The Dovecote
An 18th century octagonal dovecote seems an unlikely place to spend the night but this important historical monument has recently been voted one of the most romantic places to stay in Britain.
With meter-thick stone walls, it was once home to hundreds of pigeons who became a handy source of winter meat in the grounds of Buckland House, near the university city of Oxford. It has been beautifully restored with a sauna, double shower, underfloor heating, and a huge lantern window - but the most memorable feature may be the ancient rotating ladder that still gives access to the 1,100 brick nesting boxes. Two-day stays for a couple cost from £225.
Herefordshire: The Triumphal Arch
This imposing arched gatehouse provides a grand entrance over the drive at Berrington Hall, an eighteenth century stately home in parkland designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. From January to July each year, however, part of the park is closed: due to the heron breeding season.
The Arch sleeps four, costs from £114 for two nights and is just one example from the large collection of holiday homes rented by conservation charity The National Trust. These historic properties include a remote gas-lit cottage in North Wales, a water tower in Cornwall and a lighthouse in Northumbria.
Northern Ireland: Downhill Holiday Home
Situated on the Causeway coast of Northern Ireland, 40 minutes from Donegal, this modern coastal cottage is completely self-sufficient in power thanks to a windmill generator. The remote house is positioned between two gentle waterfalls, with spectacular views of the sea, cliffs and dunes on Downhill Strand, a delightful, seven-mile long sandy beach. It sleeps up to six and costs from £250 a week.
Somerset: Turnpike Cottage
This circular thatched toll cottage was once used to collect a fee from all users of the road outside. Now it has been restored and converted into a charming holiday home, half a mile from Chard in Somerset’s Blackdown Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Turnpike Cottage still has the distinctive conical thatched roof and gothic windows. Inside the thick stone walls, it boasts flagstone floors, the toll-keeper’s original open fireplace and a double bedroom upstairs under the thatch. It sleeps four and costs from £166 for three-nights.
Devon: St. Michael and All Angels
Here’s chance to appreciate a lovely Victorian village church – by sleeping in it. The village church at Hollocombe, in rural Devon, near the market town of Chumleigh, was built by the local landowner the Earl of Portsmouth in 1890. St Michael’s still has its bell tower, arched stained glass windows, and ornate stone corbels. Now it has been turned into a home with three bedrooms and a bathroom. It sleeps six and costs from £426 a week.
Yorkshire: The Pigsty
Yes, this was built to house a herd of pigs… but hold on, this Yorkshire oddity was built by an eccentric local squire after he’d been to the Mediterranean in the 1880s. He used timber Doric columns and a neo-classical façade to decorate what must be the world’s most ornate sty. The property is now in the hands of the Landmark Trust which admits: “We have made it acceptable to a higher breed of inhabitant; and although the living quarters will never be palatial, the view over hills and towards Robin Hood’s Bay… is undoubtedly fit for an empress.” It sleeps two and costs from £164 for a four-night break.
Channel Islands: Mermaid Cottage
A former keeper’s cottage at the base of a black and white striped lighthouse on a the Channel Island of Alderney has become a luxury holiday hide-away. The scenic cottage sleeps five and guests are reassured that the huge fog horns on its roof are preserved for historical interest – they aren’t actually used. It costs from £304 for two nights.
Holiday home agency Rural Retreats have similar lighthouse properties available at eight other spots round the British coast, plus an oast house in Kent, toll house in Somerset, and nineteenth century folly in Gloucestershire.
Norfolk and Yorkshire: Railway hideaways
Surely this is every rail traveller’s dream holiday home – a station waiting room all to themselves? The Old Station Waiting Room in Heacham in Norfolk sleeps two from £182 a week and comes complete with a platform and Victorian canopy from the days of the old Great Eastern Railway.
For those who prefer a holiday on rails, head for the Old Station at Allerston, North Yorkshire. Guests stay in one of three railway carriages, which have been refurbished as self-catering holiday homes complete with kitchens, bathrooms and beds for up to six people, from £234 a week. Clothes washing and drying facilities are freely available in the “Staff Tool Van” alongside.
Wales: Bardsey Island
This rugged island off the coast of North Wales has been a place of Christian pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years. It is now a carefully preserved wildlife haven with no concessions to modern convenience.
Guests must travel two miles to the island in an open boat, weather permitting, and are carried to their old stone holiday homes on a trailer pulled by a tractor. There are no electricity or gas services so they must use candles, torches, portable gas cookers and chemical toilets. A stay at a Bardsey holiday home is guaranteed to be primitive but it surprisingly popular. And it’s not expensive – from just £90 a week including the boat from the mainland.
Shropshire: The Temple
A secluded eighteenth century folly on a wooded clifftop overlooking spectacular rural views near Bridgnorth in the Severn Valley, the Temple is a neo-classical oddity. Once used by its wealthy builder for occasional tea parties, now it has been restored as a holiday home by the Vivat Trust, another charity dedicated to conserving Britain’s architectural heritage. It sleeps two, costing from £270 for three nights.
Vivat offer many other properties around the UK, including a sixteenth century tower fortress in Scotland and an octagonal Jacobean summerhouse, also in Shropshire.
For more holiday ideas in Britain, see VisitBritain’s comprehensive website, www.visitbritain.com.