Amy Hopkins tries the growing trend for UK staycations and discovers you don’t have to travel far for a restorative family getaway
If there was ever a time to have your summer holiday in the UK, 2017 is it. The sweltering June heatwave is predicted to melt into weeks of unbroken sunshine, lasting all summer. Add to this the post-Brexit fall in the pound and a family staycation has never felt more appealing.
When it comes to choosing your holiday, the lure of an all-inclusive package is tempting, especially to frazzled parents. But while a hotel offers the ultimate in convenience, in my experience, nothing beats the freedom and privacy of renting your own house. Plus, it’s usually much cheaper.
There’s also something exciting about spending a week or two living in a different house. You get to live a temporary make-believe life – you can be swanky mansion-dwellers with your own swimming pool, or an adventurous family of nomads living in a gypsy caravan.
Plus, with a place all to yourselves you can come and go as you please. You don’t need to fit around hotel mealtimes, or worry about disapproving looks from other guests when the kids are acting up. You can bring the dog, the bikes, the X-box – whatever you can fit in the roof box. And you can control what the kids eat, so it’ll only be a chips-with-everything holiday if you let it.
Of course, every family is unique and we all want different things from a holiday. Rental company Sykes Cottages understand this better than most, since they’ve been matching families with properties for twenty five years.
In a rented house, you temporarily get to live a make-believe life
When booking with Sykes, choosing your property is half the fun. Their easy-to-navigate website lets you refine your search by destination, price, time of year, number of bedrooms, amenities, and even nearby attractions. You can sift through their eight thousand UK and Ireland properties in no time, to find a cottage that fits your family’s unique specifications.
Sykes have thousands of country and coastal cottages, as you’d expect, as well as a collection of quirky shepherd huts, yurts, wooden cabins and even a converted pigsty. There are plenty of pet-friendly options and every property is personally inspected.
I search for a four-bed countryside cottage, within two-hours of my home in London, since we’ll only be going for a weekend. The website’s live calendar shows availability and the tick rating is handy for finding properties with the best reputation. I opt for Woodhill Cottage in the pretty village of Holmbury St Mary, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Surrey hills.
I haven’t booked with Sykes before, so I set up an account, which takes a matter of minutes, before paying a 30% deposit. The rest of the payment is due six weeks before the trip. And that’s it – we’re booked! I don’t need any help, but if I did, Sykes’ advisors are always on hand, by phone and email.
A week before my trip, I receive a friendly email from Sykes, giving me clear directions to the cottage and letting me know how to extract the keys from the key sharer.
On a warm Friday evening in June my husband and I arrive in the village of Gomshall. We only left London an hour ago, on the 6pm train, but deep in the Surrey countryside we feel a million miles away from the stresses of the week.
Our pre-booked taxi is waiting in the tiny station car park and we set off down leafy roads, while our taxi driver does his best to spook us with tales of local ghosts.
Picturesque Woodhill Cottage is tucked away off the road. Stretched out behind the semi-detached house is a large lawn with a table and chairs at the far end. I retrieve the keys from the key sharer, as per instructions, and we head inside to explore our four-bedroom hideaway.
I discover there’s already washing-up liquid, milk and other basics waiting for us, as well as bed linen and plenty of towels, plus a cot, highchair and stairgate. Woodhill Cottage is immaculate, but still feels like a family home. Everywhere are discrete signs that families live and play here – the detailed welcome pack has a colourful crayon drawing as its cover and the bookshelves are laden with books and board games.
I’d pre-ordered a supermarket food delivery to come to the house shortly after our arrival and this works perfectly. I load our groceries into the huge American-style fridge-freezer and before long we’re in our slippers and tucking into dinner, watching the sun set over the garden. Already we feel at home.
That night, the silence and pitch blackness of the countryside are the perfect recipe for a long, deep sleep. The next morning I wake to pale spring sunshine streaming in through our windows. Less than a mile away is the Holmbury St Mary farmshop, where I pick up some fresh eggs and the weekend papers. I assemble a cooked breakfast in the roomy kitchen and we eat at the table in our garden.
We make plans to hike up Holmbury Hill to enjoy the wonderful views recommended by our taxi driver, but we end up starting a 1000-piece puzzle and losing track of time as we all huddle round the picnic table in the garden, assembling a picture of Salcombe harbour, chatting and enjoying the sun on our backs.
Before we realise it, most of the day has slipped by and we’re ravishing. Feeling sheepish about our total failure to explore the local area, we finally leave the house and at 6pm. A ten-minute stroll from Woodhill Cottage is Holmbury St Mary, a picture-perfect English village with clusters of enviable country houses set among rolling hills.
We sit outside the Royal Oak pub on the green and tuck into generous portions of pub grub. It’s been a perfect day and as we walk back to WoodHill Cottage, a supermoon looms in the sky overhead, lighting our path through the countryside.
The next morning, we reluctantly draw the double doors into the garden, pack up the puzzle and load the dishwasher, preparing to leave in time for 10am checkout. There’s a slight kerfuffle when we miss our taxi to the train station because the driver tries to call my mobile – there’s no signal at the cottage so we miss the call – but it’s soon resolved when we arrange a taxi using Woodhill Cottage’s landline.
A weekend retreat with Sykes Cottages gives my husband and I lungfuls of country air and a sense of calm that we take back to London. Being with my family and doing very little has been more restorative than any spa holiday – and a fraction of the price. I’m already planning our next staycation.
Woodhill Cottage costs from £617 for 7 nights.
Sykes Cottages offer over 8,000 holiday homes across the UK and Ireland – from romantic cosy cottages for two to larger properties that sleep 20 or more.