My quick trick for finding the perfect UK holiday home

Advice

Nothing says British winter break quite like sitting in a hot tub outside a converted barn, buffeted by a brisk northerly, holding a brolly. 

This was a situation I recently found myself in – nice and toasty from the armpits down, developing frostbite from the elbows up. It’s what they call “making the most of it”. English resolve. I even tried to read a book, but found I lacked the dexterity to hold both a paperback and an umbrella without the former falling in the water or the latter ending up airborne. 

Having spent winters of yore in such exotic locations as India, the Maldives and the Caribbean, a combination of stress-inducing pandemic protocols and the arrival of my first sprog narrowed my horizons this time around. Not for me cocktails in coconuts or coral reefs, but rather a long weekend in Blighty, free from battles to soothe a baby in the sky and skirmishes with nasal swabs and passenger locator forms – if not inclement weather. 



figgy court holiday staycation england sussex weekend break


The hot tub is a big part of the allure of a stay at Figgy Court


Credit: Unique Homestays

It’s a trade-off we’ve all made, likely more than once, over the last two years. Indeed, one of the only good things to have come out of the Covid crisis has been a greater appreciation of what the UK has to offer. Domestic breaks have boomed and, if you know where to look, you’ll find a growing number of first-rate holiday homes waiting to convince you to swap the Med for Medway, or the Caribbean for Ceredigion.

Curation is the key. Scrolling through page after page of Airbnb listings often feels like an exercise in patience, and the results can be hit and miss – far better is a carefully-chosen collection where success is virtually guaranteed. Enter my new staycation secret weapon: Unique Homestays, which offers truly special – yet relatively affordable – accommodation in chic forest cabins, elegant seaside cottages, reimagined manor houses, and much else besides. 

Its star has risen during the pandemic, with requests for inclusion on its books soaring, but it has resolutely clung to its “less is more” philosophy. Sarah Stanley, who founded the company 20 years ago, explains: “Forty new homes joined us in 2021, but our overall portfolio features slightly fewer than 200 properties – just as it did this time last year. Only those we feel epitomise the brand continue to be featured.”

Among them is Sundance, a rustic but incredibly stylish retreat surrounded by charming gardens in a sleepy corner of North Cornwall, where I spent a week last summer, and – the venue for my recent wet winter weekend – Figgy Court in West Sussex. 

Like many of the company’s properties, it is found in a relatively overlooked corner of the country – in this case a sweep of agricultural land to the west of Horsham and the north of Billingshurst. Tractors clog the lanes, not tourists in 4x4s. The Haven, about the most delightfully named hamlet you’re likely to find, is the nearest settlement of note. A rutted track leads to the meandering River Arun, upon which perches an imposing former water mill, also available to rent through Unique Homestays, and – opposite – the converted barn now marketed as Figgy Court.

The 700-year-old building, once a grain store, certainly suits summer stays. An old stableyard alongside it would serve as a wonderful spot for al-fresco breakfasts and idle afternoons over a bottle of English sparkling (the vineyard of award-winning producer Nyetimber is a 15-minute drive to the south). Unfortunately, freezing temperatures and rain rendered outdoor pursuits somewhat difficult. A public footpath crosses the property, and we gamely waded through the mud for a mile or two before turning back. We also managed an afternoon browsing the antique shops of nearby Petworth, home to vast Petworth House, run by the National Trust and best known for its deer park and art collection. Otherwise we were marooned. 

Such a scenario can spell disaster for a staycation – unless the property is special enough to pick up the slack. Figgy Court, with its romantic mezzanine bed, reached by a twisting staircase, ancient oak beams, enveloping corner sofa, double-height ceiling (‘tis a barn, after all), and aforementioned outdoor hot tub, did so – turning our holiday stranding into a restful mini-hibernation. 



staycation holiday weekend uk


The romantic mezzanine bed at Figgy Court


Credit: Unique Homestays

Unique Homestays has another trick up its sleeve to turn a UK break into something out of the ordinary, having recently joined forces with culinary experience company Stirred Travel. It will seek out a local chef who will turn up, saucepans in hand, ready to cook up a storm. 

In our case it was Tim Boswijk, whose numerous employers have included Marco Pierre White and the Hotel du Vin group. Quite how he managed to conjure up a four-course dinner – including ceviche, a roast loin of cod with a flavour-packed romesco sauce, and a clever take on an Eton mess – in the barn’s tiny kitchen, I’m not entirely certain. As we ate, he regaled us with tales from 20 years of cooking for the great and the good – while we prayed our young daughter, asleep in a cot above us, wouldn’t wake up and break the spell. Such VIP treatment, in such special surroundings, turned our damp squib into something genuinely memorable. Who needs winter sun?

How to do it

Figgy Court sleeps two, plus a baby, and costs from £1,395 per week or £1,095 for a shorter break. See uniquehomestays.com.


Less is more: Four other places to find special UK holiday lets

Landmark Trust

This charitable organisation saves historic buildings, many of them wonderfully remote, and turns them into unique – and often surprisingly cheap – holiday lets. It has more than 200 properties on its books, including a Napoleonic-era fort on the island of Alderney, a lighthouse on windswept Lundy, and Clavell Tower, its most in-demand option, on a cliff top overlooking the stunning Dorset coast. See landmarktrust.org.uk

Canopy and Stars

For those who want the romance and affordability of a rustic holiday under canvas without the discomforts, Canopy and Stars offers glamping breaks in Britain and beyond. Options range from treehouses that will bring out your inner child to safari-style tents and quirky tipis. Its website uses thoughtful filters; if a hot tub is a must, for example, you’ll find 234 options, while 113 stays are located within two hours of the capital. See canopyandstars.co.uk.

Kip Hideaways

This collection of boutique holiday lets comes with a USP: only members of the club can receive full access to its portfolio of 164 properties, lending an exclusive feel to proceedings. They also receive a free gift when they book – and have a tree planted in their honour. There are options in both town and countryside, but all are small, sleeping no more than six, and stylish. Membership costs £17 a year or £3.99 a month. See kiphideaways.com.

National Trust 

The charity’s 470 holiday cottages come in all shapes and sizes. Some are remote, like the Lighthouse Keepers’ Cottage in Devon that must be reached via via a zig-zagging ribbon of road down a precipitous Exmoor cliff; others, like the Priest’s House in Sissinghurst Gardens, sit on the doorstep of – and sometimes include private access to – a popular National Trust attraction. See nationaltrust.org.uk

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