Self-catering. Is there a more depressing adjective to be found in the English language? For travellers like me, the answer was no – until Boris Johnson's roadmap announcement in February.
England’s lockdown-easing plans abruptly thrust the nation’s self-catering properties into the limelight. Glampsites, holiday cottages, country manors, lighthouses and delightful oddities such as barges immediately bedazzled British travellers. In England, self-catering properties are opening their doors well over a month before hotels. And if there is one thing we are all looking for in a holiday right now, it is that it’s soon.
So just like that, Britain became a nation of fervent self-catering enthusiasts. Glamping site pitchup.com saw bookings increase fivefold immediately after the announcement. “February 22 was the biggest ever day for bookings in Canopy & Stars’ 10-year history, with traffic to the site doubling,” says Mike Bevans, managing director of Sawday’s and Canopy & Stars.
My fashion blogger friend, Monique, who normally graces Instagram sipping negronis at LA’s Chateau Marmont, posted screengrabs of a successful Airbnb booking for birchwood ecopods in Norfolk. My friend Josie, an A&E doctor with two small children, banished happy memories of an all-inclusive Portuguese beach resort with a kids club from her mind, and booked a shepherd’s hut in Cornwall with a massive Sainsbury’s nearby.
There are plenty of travellers, me included, who never expected to book self-catering breaks with such glee and fervour. Sure, I could see the appeal of this type of holiday to various traveller demographic groups: families, business travellers, large groups of friends, budget travellers, picky eaters, misanthropes and people without mouths. But when I travel, I travel in order to be surprised and delighted. And my own cooking, while it can sustain me, will never exactly thrill me. But right now, I’ll leap into bed at any self-catering property that will have me.
As I type, I am yet to secure the self-cation of our dreams, aware that shrewder and more sharp-elbowed travellers have undoubtedly already commandeered Britain’s best barges, yurts and country cottages. But I can already feel myself morphing into a self-cationer.
I’m excited about the potentially strange decor. I’m excited about doing a big supermarket shop in a big supermarket that is not my local big supermarket. I’m excited about having a bath, because in my flat, I just have a shower – and right now, a clawfoot bath is as dreamily aspirational to me as an infinity pool overlooking a Santorini sunset.
I can finally see the charm in Britain’s wide variety of self-catering stays. Glampsites, yurts, treehouses and shepherd’s huts all exist to make the most of the natural surroundings, and the past year has taught us to cherish nature. I’m daydreaming about mountain scenery, or icy dips in rivers and lakes. Stately homes and country cottages offer the chance to sleep, drink and (sigh) cook in a piece of British history, the sort of experience that American and Australian tourists fantasise about. And right now I feel a positively Antipodean tingle about the thought of bedding down in a building with a fascinating and evocative history.
So, whether you consider yourself a seasoned self-cationer or a semi-reluctant rookie, we are all a nation of self-cationers for now. Ready, steady, go… and cook.
Take our quiz below
What type of self-cationer are you? Tell us in the comments below, and read more about where you should book...
The DIY Health Bootcampers
Lockdown lethargy begone! We might not be able to get to our favourite yoga retreat in Ibiza this spring, sigh, but surely we can recreate a similar vibe in this lovely sea-view apartment in Scarborough. It just requires a positive mental attitude and some intention-setting before that visit to Whole Foods. So we’ve packed our NutriBullet, stocked up on Spirulina, hemp protein and bags of kale.
With five superfood-jammed smoothies a day, just think about how glowy and healthy we’ll be by Monday! And yes, we’ve checked the Wi-Fi speed is sufficient to get us through a 45-minute Yoga With Adriene session in the morning, right before our wheatgrass shots. At the moment, the luxury apartment smells faintly of Toilet Duck, but soon this will be replaced by the aroma of this Jo Malone Pomegranate and Black Pepper candle, and we’ll be swiftly transported to la isla bonita. Anyway, excuse us, we must bring in the Mexican blankets and our shakti mats from the car. Let’s get manifesting!
Spring selfcation sweet spots: Burnt-out West London yoga teachers and wannabe surfer city bankers have been quietly flocking to Ilfracombe and its North Devon environs for years, thanks to the miles of coastal trails, top-notch surf and abundance of under-appreciated country cottages. Take a look at Trimstone Cottages and Chambercombe Manor Cottages via visitilfracombe.co.uk.
The Creative Retreaters
So I just wasn’t quite in the headspace to write my great novel during lockdown. It was so hard to get inspired, you know, in my own surroundings? But now that I’m in my own atmospheric cabin in the Lake District, I’m positive the words will flow out of my fingertips. This isn’t a holiday – it’s a writing retreat. An investment in my own creative passions. Perhaps I’ll start with a nice inspirational walk, following in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I expect the very moment I see a daffodil, a fully formed poem shall pop directly into my head! It’s just how creativity works, you see. Impossible to be a poet in Clapham.
Admittedly for this to be an authentic romantic-era literary retreat, I’d subsist on laudanum, but I stocked up on M&S ready meals on the drive north. In fact, I quite fancy the Goan fish curry right now. And perhaps I’ll just watch one more episode of Married at First Sight on All 4. Just to get the creative juices flowing. Anyway, please don’t disturb me while I’m writing.
Spring selfcation sweet spots: The West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge is about as artsy and inspiring as destinations get, while Alnick in Northumberland has built a strong local literary community around the fabulously unique Barter Books (barterbooks.co.uk). For accommodation, airbnb.co.uk is your best bet for the creative hideaway of your dreams.
The School Trippers
Have you tried keeping three children of disparate ages entertained and semi-educated for months, indoors, in a small house in York? Have you? Well, we’ve squeezed every last bit of interest from the corners of our home, and frankly, this week in a yurt in the New Forest will feel like an edifying Grand Tour of discovery by comparison. For a start, it’s a yurt! Not a boring old house in a boring old street. There is so much to talk about in a yurt. Something for everyone! If they’re not interested in the wood-fired stove, they’ll be interested in the waterproof exterior. Perhaps we can even talk about the history of the yurt; must remember to Wikipedia “yurt”.
And we’ve mapped out every landmark of interest, any old brick wall, or Victorian folly, anything, anything interesting that we can talk about with our bored children. The schools might be open again, but we’ve forgotten how to have a holiday! We simply can’t recall a time when we weren’t juggling our own jobs with our surprise moonlighting gigs as unpaid schoolteachers and children’s party entertainers.
Anyway, must dash. The kids were all allowed to choose whatever fillings they wanted from Morrisons on the way, and we’re going to have a go at making stuffed pasta!
Spring selfcation sweet spots: Both the New Forest and much of North Yorkshire feels like it was designed specifically to salvage the sanity of parents of school-age children, with virtually every outdoor activity under the sun and a great variety of accommodation. Try newforestcottages.co.uk and runswickbaycottages.co.uk.
Oh my goodness, the Aga is even bigger than it looked in the pictures! And the light in the kitchen is perfect for our Instagram cooking tutorials. Quite honestly, it was cooking that got us through these lockdowns. The new Ottolenghi book has been our bible. Forget “mindfulness”; it’s “fullness” that kept our bubble sane! We started off experimenting with sourdough and banana bread, and then, well, before we knew it we were paying for filo-pastry making workshops online and spending three hours preparing cassoulet to eat in front of RuPaul’s Drag Race! Obviously we’re still hoping to get out to San Sebastian this year, but for now, we have nabbed the most perfect farmhouse outside Bruton in Somerset, with a kitchen that would make Nigella positively purr.
First things first: let’s shove those tired old free teabags and Nescafé – shudder – right to the back of the cupboards. Before we set off, we researched all the best local suppliers and farmshops – Geoff, the local butcher, now follows us on Instagram. And we’ve been in touch with a local foragers group about the microgreens we’re hoping to use to make pesto. We just can’t wait to try Somerset wild-harvested pesto! What do you mean, it will probably taste the same as Oxfordshire wild-harvested pesto?
Spring selfcation sweet spots: Cornish spots like Port Isaac are fast catching up with Padstow as a foodie mecca (check out harbourholidays.co.uk) while oyster obsessives are making a beeline for Mersea Island and the surroundings Essex towns (try wakeslodges.co.uk for luxury lodges).
Food? Yes, of course we brought some. There are Tyrrells crisps and a jar of olives somewhere. We’ll be fine! Ready for a glass of red to toast our long-awaited holiday? Obviously Tuscany is spectacular at this time of year, but we’ve brought along bottles from the wineries on our must-visit list. This remote cottage in North Yorkshire isn’t quite Montalcino, but we do have the wine! And a lot of imagination.
And did we mention the wine? Oh, and don’t forget about the Bloody Marys, for Sunday – it’s practically soup. We make them with mezcal these days, a little trick we picked up on our tour of Napa. The Californians infuse their mezcal with bacon, can you believe it? Americans put bacon in everything – brownies, cocktails, even ice-cream. We’re not messing about with that kind of nonsense on our holiday. We’re here to use the fridge, not the oven.
Spring selfcation sweet spots: For wine-lovers hoping to absorb some Tuscan or Provencale vineyard vibes without straying beyond England, it’s got to be Kent. Hush Heath Estate (hushheath.com) makes a good epicentre and kentandsussexcottages.co.uk has a good array of accommodation.
Tips: how to book a trouble-free cottage holiday
We all have our idea of the perfect holiday cottage or apartment – whether it stands by the village pond and has roses around the door, or a contemporary vibe and a view over the sea. But how do you realise your dream, and more importantly in these uncertain times, how do you make sure everything goes smoothly? Here is our booker’s guide.
Don’t hesitate much longer or you may miss out. The Prime Minister’s road map out of lockdown is subject to delay but is “irreversible”. Self-catering accommodation should be open again on April 12, and even if there is a delay then surely it’s a racing certainty it won’t be pushed beyond the end of that month. Cottage agents in popular areas had virtually fully booked already for the school summer holidays and since the announcement, there has been another rush to book. Pressure on the first week in May (spring bank holiday) and the first week in June (school half term starts on May 29) is already building.
At the bottom of this page we list a dozen of the best booking agents. The advantage of booking through one of these is that the company sets and monitors standards. If you have specific needs or questions, or if you have a problem while you are there, it should be set up to deal with these and answer efficiently. It is responsible for the description of the property and fulfilling the contract so you have more legal comeback if there are any problems.
There are plenty of owners offering excellent properties through platforms such as airbnb.co.uk and vrbo.com – in these cases your booking is direct with the owners rather than the website, so while you do have some protection, it is different from booking with an agency. One issue here is to avoid the risk of fraudsters who pose as owners on the sites and can perpetrate inventive scams. To protect yourself, the key thing is to be sure to follow the website’s booking and payment instructions to the letter. Always pay through the site’s scheme and immediately report any “owner” who tries to persuade you to pay in a different way – no matter how convincing they seem.
Check the small print. It’s boring, but you need to be sure what the cancellation and refund policy is in case you have to amend or cancel your booking because of Covid. Some agents and owners require you to have cancellation insurance – double check this too: does it include claims related to the pandemic?
Check online reviews – both for the property and the agency (which may flag up whether there have been issues over refunds during the pandemic, for example). When checking reviews specific to individual accommodation, it may be worth putting the name and address of the property into a search engine to see if that throws up any information – as well as looking at any reviews on the agency site. I always find it helpful to look at the one-star reviews as well as the overall average score. They tend to highlight any persistent issues which may or may not be problems important to you.
Location is critical and is worth triple-checking before you book. Not everything is mentioned in the descriptions. How close is the nearest road? Is the garden overlooked? Does the owner live next door? Zooming in on the satellite view on Google Maps is one of the best ways of doing this.
If you have small children, don’t assume the property will have been properly checked for safety. A good agent will do this, but it is always wise to double-check, especially if there is a pool – either private or shared – or other water feature such as a pond or river near the property. Roads might be a risk. Check fencing, gates, steep drops, steps and staircases. As for cots, I always preferred to take my own travel version rather than rely on the one supplied.
Companies to consider
English Heritage: Stand-out collection of 19 properties in lighthouses, castles, gatehouses and priories throughout England (english-heritage.org.uk).
Heart of the Lakes: Lake District specialist offering around 300 cottages sleeping from two to 20 (heartofthelakes.co.uk).
Boutique Retreats: Nearly 200 holiday lets, from cosy bolt-holes to grand 12-bedroom houses with a focus on the South West (boutique-retreats.co.uk).
Classic Cottages: Southern England specialist with 1,000-plus properties and a wide selection in Devon and Cornwall (classic.co.uk).
Cottages and Castles: More than 610 holiday lets in the mainland and islands, from tiny lodges and bothies to 16th-century castles (cottages-and-castles.co.uk).
Coastal Cottages: Pembrokeshire-based firm with 500 cottages near beaches and the Preseli Hills (coastalcottages.co.uk).
Cottages.com: Has 19,000 holiday houses across the UK, including the Isle of Man and Jersey (cottages.com).
Landmark Trust: Some 200 historic buildings in mainly rural locations (landmarktrust.org.uk).
National Trust: More than 400 properties, with some allowing out-of-hours access to the trust’s estates (nationaltrust.org.uk).
Original Cottages: More than 5,500 holiday lets. Particularly strong in Wales, East Anglia, the Cotswolds, Yorkshire and West Country (originalcottages.co.uk).
Canopy & Stars: A collection of unique, creative places to stay across the UK and Europe (canopyandstars.co.uk). Unique Homestays: Stylish collection of retreats, mostly in Wales and southern England, ranging from a cosy log cabin in Snowdonia to a Georgian manor in Surrey (uniquehomestays.com).
Take a deep dive into our Great British Getaways hub. From walking trips to city breaks via coastal escapes and activity holidays.