Britain's Quirky Cottages

Luxury Adventures: I'd like to tell you about the time I fought for my life against a huge wild boar with blood-red eyes and tusks like razors, but it didn't happen - apart from in my imagination, that is. But trust me - for one brief, scary, North Yorkshire moment it was pretty real.

The twilight was fading quickly and the ancient stones were merging into the musky woods. I knew the grounds were closed and the rest of the world was locked out, but there came a vague rustle and I sensed I was not alone. You know that Edgar Allan Poe feeling? I made my way a bit faster across the ruined cloisters towards the lights of the Prior's Lodge cottage; whistling in the dark and thinking about ghosts of the monks and laymen who built the great priory more than 600 years ago.

I was also thinking about the wild boars that get around this corner of England and racked my brains for the recommended defence against them.

The sounds of my bête noire headed towards me and intensified; louder now, pounding through the columns and slabs of the ancient church. I still hadn't come up with a defence strategy and then -- dainty, nimble and quick as a flash -- a cute little deer leapt over the rocks and disappeared.

And that was it. As Homer Simpson would say to Julie Andrews: "D'oh! -- a deer, a female deer."

A few seconds later the cottage was bright and welcoming, the complimentary wine even more so, and it didn't seem necessary to relate how Bambi had frightened the tripes out of me.

In a way, I'd asked for it -- we had selected the English Heritage cottage because it was old, remote and quirky, and these days the British hospitality industry gives wonderful quirk.

Heritage has a dozen or so holiday properties; most of them within the grounds of castles, stately homes or ruined religious buildings. By day they are on the fringe of tourist attractions, come evening and you're all alone - apart from whatever your imagination can create.

It's impossible to tell who's been sleeping in your bedroom when that room might be 500 years old. Maybe a couple of kings, possibly the odd revolutionary, perhaps a smuggler or two.

We chose Prior's Lodge for its location -- close to the Yorkshire Dales, the coast around Scarborough, Whitby and York itself. The nearest town is Northallerton which has supermarkets, a comprehensive library and good produce stores; the closest village Osmotherley, which has a couple of excellent pubs.

Driving from London is easy -- just keep heading up the Great North Road for about four hours and when the people on radio sound like bit players in Billy Elliot you're just about there.

On the long laneway to the ruined Carthusian priory you have to give way to ducks and geese and a notice warns that the geese can get nasty. And indeed they looked like tough customers to me, but what would I know? I'd been alarmed by one of the cutest creatures in creation.

The priory is a massive, widespread affair, sheltering behind a large Jacobean country house built from plundered stones. They were pinched when Henry V111 ordered an end to all religious orders that didn't agree with his methods of getting rid of wives -- thus changing the landscape of England for ever.

Prior's Lodge is to the side of the property, between the mansion and the cloisters. The cottage was added to the main house around 1750 and is built of rocks looking suspiciously like bits of old priory. Inside it's all pale timbers, handcrafted furniture and mullioned windows with views of the ruins, the wide Vale of York and the distant Pennines.

It's a long, rambling structure -- I estimated more than 30 metres from kitchen to second bedroom -- with three short flights of stairs, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge living room and a laundry. Everything is newly furnished with rescued timbers; in fact the oldest thing around was the 2004 Languedoc cabernet sauvignon snuggled up to local cheese and bread in a welcome hamper.

The honeyed stones were kissed by the early morning sun as we padded across the lawns between the cloisters; our feet leaving tracks in the dew, our clumsy footsteps startling the dozens of rabbits which evidently kept the turf so short.

There were still three hours before the day trippers would descend on Mount Grace; ample time to explore the old buildings and return to our idyllic cottage to cook breakfast before setting out for the day. When we returned the crowds would be gone; a very fair way of sharing the lovely place, I thought. We had booked the cottage for four days and given ourselves an itinerary based on the compass -- first day east, then north, west and south.

East was the sprawling national park of the North Yorkshire Moors, which run from the boundaries of the priory to the sea at Whitby, Robin Hood's Bay and Scarborough. To the north is the revitalised industrial area around Gateshead and Newcastle and the towering, amazingly incongruous roadside statue known as Angel of the North. Turn left around here and you'll wind up in the wilds of the northern Pennines, which reach their summit at Cross Fell. Drive a bit farther and you're in Scotland.

West is the ravishing country of the Yorkshire Dales; all hills and valleys dotted with pubs, castles and market squares. And south are the ancient towns of Ripon and Thirsk -- All Creatures Great and Small Country -- the elegant Victorian spa city of Harrogate with its ever-so-proper Betty's Tea Rooms and the incomparable glories of York, one of the world's great tourist cities.

Hundreds more ancient holiday homes are administered by organisations such as Landmark, Vivat, National Trust and specialist commercial companies including Rural Retreats and Stately Holiday Homes. Many of them are in sleepy villages lost in the country and operate as self catering, B&B -- even full blown pubs.

One of the main attractions of renting one of these idyllic cottages is the financial benefit and on this basis the deal can work out well, particularly if two or more couples can share the cost.

In high summer Prior's Lodge and similar two bedroomed English Heritage cottages will accommodate four people. Comparable hotel accommodation -- say two suites in the high-ranking Punchbowl Inn at Crosthwaite in the Lake District -- would cost as much for just one night, although admittedly including a sumptuous breakfast and afternoon tea.

At a time when many of Britain's historic country cottages are being snapped up and refurbished as private weekenders by city dwellers, the concept of offering ancient dwellings as holiday lets is attractive to locals and international visitors, who otherwise might not have the chance to sleep under centuries old timbers and pad around on stone floors.

One of the leaders in the repair-and-let trade is Landmark Trust, with about 180 rescued buildings on its books, including the decidedly eccentric Freston Tower in Suffolk. This 1578 structure has one room on each of its six floors -- and no lift. It does, however, have views down the Orwell River to the sea from the sixth-floor sitting room.

The property is handy for the ancient towns of Ipswich and Colchester and the Constable/Gainsborough Country region around the wonderful parishes of East Bergholt, Lavenham and Long Melford. The nearby Ancient House at Clare dates from 1473 and is also managed by Landmark.

Rural Retreats, a commercial organising specialising in unusual and ancient properties, has everything from converted pigsties to lighthouses. The Manger in deepest Devon is a remarkably refurbished cowshed; the Temple in the Cotswolds is an 1815 take on classical Greece; Chaucer Barn is on a farm once owned by the author of Canterbury Tales.

Another important player in the quirky accommodation line is the Vivat organisation, dedicated to managing former derelict but important old buildings. One of the more attractive is Lincolnshire's Mill Hill Cottage, built in1750 and looking like a piece of Connemara vernacular with its whitewashed walls and thatched roof. The cottage can sleep five and is one of only 200 'mud and stud' cottages that have survived into the 21st century.

Inside is an original bread oven; outside is a bell shaped well. The little property is set in the heart of rural Lincolnshire, a region that was little known until the location scouts for The Da Vinci Code decided this would be the spot for a movie.

Vivat also manages Nettlestead Place Gatehouse in Kent, a crazy-looking two storey affair with a whacking great hole in the middle. Built more than 800 years ago, the single-bedroom cottage is handy for Canterbury, Dover and the almost perfect villages and small towns of the Kentish Weald.

Britain's National Trust is extremely important in the cute cottage industry, with more than 350 self catering properties. One of the cutest is Laundry Cottage near Sevenoaks in Kent -- an archetypal mediaeval affair with timber studded walls and pantiled roof.

Built around 600 years ago, the cottage was part of the servants' quarters at Ightham Mote, a 13th century moated manor house and the subject of the Trust's biggest-ever conservation project. It has a Tudor chapel with hand painted ceiling and a Grade One listed dog kennel.

I'm not sure whether it also has Grade One listed dogs -- presumably they'd be just the thing to help you out if you had a wild boar issue.

By Paul Edwards
JustLuxe Contributor

Paul Edwards

Paul Edwards has been a newspaper and magazine journalist for more than 40 years. Based in Melbourne, Australia, he has travelled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, Australasia and the Pacific region and says life is too short to settle for anything less than the best. He has visited many of the world's finest hotels and resorts and recently completed a lengthy cruise on a luxurious freighter/li...(Read More)

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