A little weekend retreat may seem an elusive fantasy.

But share-renting a cottage or farmhouse

is an option. Penny Jackson explains how

we have all come across those people who announce brightly on a grim day in the city that, thank goodness, they are off to their country cottage for the weekend. Or if it's the summer holiday, they look pityingly as you detail your package plans and say, "oh, dear... we always spend five weeks in our house in Cornwall. The children just love it."

What they might not admit so readily, are their anxieties about a property being left empty sometimes for months at time, the inevitable repairs, appalling tenants if the house is let for any period and the fact that they are pretty well obliged to spend this year, next year and every other year there.

If it's close enough to weekend in, then there is an alternative to buying - rent and share. Not all that common, perhaps, but easier than it might seem. Jenni Sivertsen, a commodity trader, returned to London from Hong Kong earlier this year where she and friends had rented a weekend retreat between them. So successful had it been that she was determined to do the same thing in England. Despite doom-mongers who thought of every possible impediment, she now spends two weekends a month in a 160-year-old thatched cottage in Wiltshire, for which she pays a share of the pounds 600 monthly rent.

"The three of us each listed what we most wanted, so we ended up looking for something within an hour and half of London, near a pub, close to water and with a large garden and storage. Amazingly we found it," says Jenni. "So far the arrangement has been working perfectly. We sat down and worked out exactly how to divide up the time even allocating bank holidays, Christmas, New Year and Easter. If we need to swap it is not usually a problem."

They also pre-empted any wildly differing tastes by agreeing on neutral furnishings and only certain colours for bits and pieces bought for the kitchen. "If one of us finds a picture or something they're not sure about, we check with the others before buying it."

But the mood between sharers can quickly turn murderous if a relaxing week in a cottage begins with emptying smelly bins, cleaning sinks and clearing away the detritus of someone else's riotous weekend. Jenni and her co-tenants prepared for every scenario. "We drew up a set of rules that we stick to rigidly. No keys must be lent and if anything is used up it must be replaced. We are really strict about drinks. If someone were to arrive on a Friday night knowing they had left a bottle of champagne and three bottles of wine only to find them gone, it would be disastrous. Finishing up the bit of cheese in the fridge isn't quite the same thing!", she adds. So far, no one has turned up to unwashed bed linen and a chaotic house. "We always strip the beds and tidy everything before we go. It becomes a habit on a Sunday morning. Someone comes to cut the lawn."

A shared passion for gardening was one of the factors that had impressed their landlord. Not everyone is keen to offer a lease to three people, none of whom will be living there all the time, but if their idea of a perfect weekend is weeding and mulching then it's a different matter.

"The agent also persuaded him that as we were professional, in our forties and two of us lawyers, we were a safe bet," adds Jenni. "The great thing is that if it doesn't work out we have nothing to lose. None of us wanted to take out a second mortgage for our own place."

In Norfolk, though, Malcolm Duffey of agents Belton Duffey, suggests that in the long run it might not cost any more to buy outright. Renting in the popular coastal regions would be expensive since the amount paid over a year has to buy out the lucrative summer months. Not many owners would regard their seasonal goldmine worth trading for a 12-month lease. A pretty cottage some 12 miles or so from the coast would cost about pounds 325,000 a month to rent, if one can be found at all.

In north Cornwall, the story is much the same. John Bray & Partners in Rock can provide short-term lets but nothing for a year since owners can expect as much as pounds 1,200 a week in the summer season. Lane Fox in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire has only a few suitable properties to let as second homes - a thatched cottage in Dinton at pounds 625 a month and a barn conversion at Dorton for pounds 695.

In Oxfordshire, Strutt & Parker's Newbury office has steady demand from London. "The main concern of landlords is that a property should not be neglected by tenants understandably reluctant to spend part of their weekends doing chores", says Amanda Denton. "While owners might prefer to see a lease in just one name, the possibility of a joint tenancy depends entirely on who is involved". An estate cottage in Pusey will shortly be available for renting at pounds 1,500 a month through Strutt & Parker.

The pleasure of not being responsible for the upkeep of a property is precisely what appeals to Frances Sanders, who rents an unfurnished cottage from a farmer in West Sussex with another family.

"It helps that we all have children. We treat the cottage very much as a bolthole and haven't got involved with the local community. It feels like home but the great advantage of renting is that it's simply furnished and decorated and we feel no need to improve it. We do have a cleaner on a Monday, which takes any strain out of sharing."

Leaving your mark is irresistible to some, though. Rose Gray and her husband had been considering renting a place in the country with others. "But I would drive everyone mad because I constantly want to do things to a house. Anyway, I recalled all those horror stories friends would regale us with endlessly. Sharing worked like a dream when they were single and then someone's girlfriend started to regard the place as her own and took over the kitchen and the best bedroom. All everyone did was complain. And that's before the children came along. Then they either moaned about how awful each other's kids were or that they couldn't get to the cottage when they wanted."

Not surprisingly, the Grays have just bought their own place in Cornwall. It was Rose's decision: "At least we'll keep our friends this way".