Cash in on the cowshed

Farmers have found a new and profitable use for outbuildings. Christopher Middleton reports
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The Independent Online

Charging people money to sleep in your garden shed sounds like an optimistic property venture, to say the least. But while you might struggle to find paying guests for your average suburban lean-to, the same does not apply in the the countryside. A small but growing number of people are finding they can generate income from opening their old barns and cowsheds to overnight groups of ramblers and backpackers. Plus the occasional stag party.

Charging people money to sleep in your garden shed sounds like an optimistic property venture, to say the least. But while you might struggle to find paying guests for your average suburban lean-to, the same does not apply in the the countryside. A small but growing number of people are finding they can generate income from opening their old barns and cowsheds to overnight groups of ramblers and backpackers. Plus the occasional stag party.

On top of the Kent Downs, Jeff and Dora Pilkington have developed a thriving business, based on what at first sight looks a rather unpromising structure. Nice view, of course, but their flint-and-weatherboard camping barn does lack certain basic comforts.

There are, for example, no beds - just two raised wooden sleeping platforms that face each other, as if this were some disused railway station. Furniture-wise, there's a big refectory table, some chairs - and a small open kitchen at the back.

"It's like a big stone tent," Mrs Pilkington says. "But it's a lot better than sleeping outside, especially since we put in the radiators." To stay at the Coldblow Farm Camping Barn, visitors pay £5.50 a night.

If they're lucky, they'll have the barn to themselves, but the more likely scenario is that they'll share with up to 17 other people. Given the dorm-like nature of the accommodation, you'd imagine the main custom would come from school parties on a tight budget - but not so.

"We used to get a lot of kids on field trips, but Health and Safety has put a stop to all that. The teachers are worried they're going to get sued, and everyone's worried about paedophiles. We've had the police here advising us on what window locks to fit, in order to stop paedophiles climbing in. "Mostly, we get groups of adults, plus a lot of families who want to get together for a 40th birthday party, but who can't afford a hotel." And the stag parties? "Yes, I'm a bit careful about which of those I take," she says warily. "It's the Saab and BMW drivers who are the worst - they're the ones who can afford to pay for the mess they make."

But the average camping barn has few soft furnishings and fabrics that can come to harm. "To be honest, there's not much damage you can do to our barn," says Grayle Butterworth, who with her husband, Martin, runs an ex-cowshed that sleeps 12, on their dairy farm at Middleton-by-Youlgreave, in the Peak District (£5 per night, £1 extra if you want electricity).

The money paid by weekend guests helps subsidise the Butterworths' dairy-farming business. Marketing and booking, are handled by the Youth Hostels Association, which charges the Butterworths and the Pilkingtons an annual £750 fee, plus 10 per cent commission on total annual bookings over £750.

The Butterworths see their barn as an offshoot of their agricultural operation. But Mrs Pilkington says: "The only way we can afford to stay here is by running a business based on the barns."

Note the plural. As well as their original, bone-challenging barn, the Pilkingtons have converted redundant agricultural buildings into more comfortable bunkhouses - for guests who prefer a mattress to a wooden floor.

Coldblow Farm Camping Barn, Thurnham, near Maidstone, Kent ( www.coldblow-camping.co.uk, 01622 735038)

Castle Farm Camping Barn, Middleton-by-Youlgreave, Derbyshire (01629 636746)

Camping Barn Network (0870 770 6113).

Youth Hostels Association (0870 770 8868, www.yha.org.uk)

To add a barn to the network, contact Martin Trouse, YHA (01629 592679).

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