With its 500-year-old thatched farmhouse and cluster of stone barns around a cobbled courtyard, Red Doors Farm in the village of Beacon is the quintessential Devon farmstead – the sort of place you see pictured on boxes of local fudge. Set amid the rolling hills of the Otter valley in east Devon’s rural heartland, the surrounding landscape of small farms, hamlets and narrow one-track lanes has changed little in the past 200 years.
But the only tractors passing through the gates at Red Doors these days are of the Chelsea variety – smart, four-wheel drives loaded with bikes, cool boxes and holiday gear. Open the barn door and you won’t find farm equipment or animal feed but croquet sets and portable barbecues.
Red Doors is no longer a working farm, having swapped agriculture for the more profitable harvests of tourism. With just six self-catering cottages, it’s one of a growing number of small-scale rural enterprises offering guests the chance to combine a taste of country life with the kind of accommodation and facilities you’d normally find in a boutique hotel.
Within minutes of arriving, owner Gill Desoutter has whisked off my three-year-old daughter to meet the resident guinea pigs and to feed the chickens – a daily ritual that becomes the highlight of her holiday – while we settle into our home for the week, Holly Cottage, a cosy, stone-and- cob barn conversion with inglenook fireplace, woodburning stove and far-reaching views across the valley from every window.
Gill and Adrian Desoutter bought Red Doors just eight months ago but they’ve wasted no time in giving the cottages a five-star makeover. From the chic, boutique-style Swallow’s Loft, a romantic bolt-hole for couples with four-poster bed and sumptuous bathroom, to the traditional Devon longhouse, sleeping eight, with its flagstone floors, Aga stove and ancient beams, all the accommodation combines rustic charm with luxury touches such as Egyptian cotton sheets, whirlpool baths, fresh orchids and welcome baskets of local produce.
“It’s all about trying to get the balance right between the luxury element and an authentic rural experience,” says Adrian. He illustrates the point by explaining how they were keen to have chickens so that guests could enjoy freshly laid eggs, but refused to get a cockerel as they didn’t want guests being woken at dawn.
While farm stays are hardly a new phenomenon, there has recently been a definite shift upmarket. Where once a hearty cooked breakfast and a chance to watch the cows being milked would have been the sum total of guest extras on offer, the new generation of rural holiday providers are having to raise the bar to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive market.
“People have this image of muddy farmyards, but some of our members have really raised their game and they are now competing with country house hotels in terms of luxury and facilities on offer,” says Andy Woodward, chief executive of Farm Stay UK, a consortium of rural accommodation providers. He estimates that about 140 of his 1,000 members are offering five-star graded accommodation, with added perks ranging from tennis courts to hot tubs and saunas in converted pigsties.
The facilities at Red Doors would certainly put many hotels to shame: a heated indoor pool; well-equipped games barn with pool table and toddler play area; free Wi-Fi access and a library of DVDs, books, and games; outdoor play areas with trampoline, table-tennis, putting green, croquet lawn and ride-on tractors for children. There’s a list of local takeaways and supermarkets that will deliver, and a freezer stocked with organic, locally produced ready-meals for those who don’t wish to spend precious holiday time slaving over a hot Aga.
“We’ve really tried to think of everything to make parents’ lives easier,” says Gill. They will even provide travel cots, stair gates and highchairs, so parents don’t have to load their cars with baby and toddler paraphernalia.
Not surprisingly, this type of holiday has huge appeal for families with young children. On Mumsnet, the influential parenting website, four of the five top-rated UK holidays, as voted for by the site’s users, are farm stays. A quick glance at the availability calendars for some of the more popular locations – such as the award-winning Tredethick Farm Cottages in Cornwall, and Clydey Cottages in Pembrokeshire – show them to be almost completely booked during school holidays for the rest of the year, despite peak season prices of £2,000-plus per week to stay in the larger properties.
Another of the big tourism success stories of the past five years has been Featherdown Farms. The franchise of posh campsites based on working farms has spread to 29 locations across the UK since it was launched in 2006 by Luite Moraal, the Dutch entrepreneur who brought Center Parcs to Britain in the 1980s. It offers an idealised version of life on the farm, where stressed-out parents can pull on their Hunter wellies and show their city-reared children that chickens don’t normally come wrapped in cellophane, before bedding down for the night under a patchwork quilt in safari-style tents. It’s a formula that is being mimicked at farms up and down the country and the popularity of this type of holiday shows no sign of waning. But when did the countryside become so cool?
Gina Woodcraft, marketing consultant for Cartwheel Holidays, a consortium that promotes rural holidays in the UK’s west country, believes the vogue for posh farm stays owes a lot to the popularity of TV programmes such as Countryfile, Springwatch and River Cottage, and the resulting interest in food provenance. “With this kind of holiday you get the whole package – accommodation with real character, the sense of staying in a rural community and, of course, the wonderful local food,” she says.
At Red Doors, perhaps not surprisingly in an area famed for its farm produce, food was the major focus of many of our excursions. After a huge free-range fry-up each morning – eggs courtesy of Gill’s chickens, sausages and bacon from one of the handful of excellent farm shops nearby – most day trips seemed to revolve around finding a good country pub for lunch where a typical menu might feature lobster and crab from the fishing village of Beer, scallops from Lyme Bay, beef from Red Devon cattle and ice-cream from the Otter Valley Dairy (worth a detour to this part of Devon on its own), all accompanied by ales from the Otter Brewery, an award-winning local enterprise. Luckily, there is some great walking from the doorstep at Red Doors and in the beautiful Blackdown hills should you feel the need to burn off some calories.
I don’t think I’ve ever slept or eaten so well on holiday and this was the most relaxing break we’ve had since becoming parents by a country mile. A life-long city-dweller, I don’t harbour any fantasies about running my own smallholding or keeping goats and pigs, but as we sit out on our front porch, drinking wine and watching the sun dip over the valley, I decide this is one version of the good life that I could probably get used to.
Joanne O’Connor was a guest of Premier Cottages (www.premiercottages.co.uk), which offers a week at Red Doors Farm during May from £625, staying in Holly Cottage
Rural retreats: More upmarket family farm stays
Tredethick Farm Cottages, Cornwall
A pioneer of upmarket farm stays offering luxurious cottages on a working farm near Lostwithiel. Kids will love the pony rides and feeding the animals with Farmer Tim. www.tredethick.co.uk
Gladwins Farm, Suffolk
A taste of the good life in tastefully converted farm buildings. Hot tub and pool, and Constable country on the doorstep. www.gladwinsfarm.co.uk
Dandelion Hideaway, Leicestershire
Similar formula to Featherdown Farms: canvas “cottages” with woodburning stoves and comfortable beds on a farm on the edge of the National Forest. www.thedandelionhideaway.co.uk
Clydey Cottages, Pembrokeshire
Fifteen charming cottages spread over two sites. There is a menagerie to feed and top-notch facilities, including pool, sauna, gym and hot tub. www.clydeycottages.co.uk