When Sarah Callander Beckett and her family transformed the derelict 19th-century stables at Combermere Abbey into a complex of cottages in 1994, they laid the foundations for a self-catering business that has become one of the best in Britain.
It was never going to be difficult to attract short-breakers to these elegant properties on the border of Cheshire and Shropshire. The red-brick dwellings, with their turrets and mullioned windows, set around a cobbled courtyard, sit in the shadow of a splendid Gothic abbey (a former Cistercian monastery, part of which dates from the 12th century), and are enveloped by 1,000 acres of parkland with a lake and ancient woods.
But the Combermere team appreciates that it takes more than good looks to keep the guests coming. So, there are lots of little extras that might be more typical of a hotel – from the tea tray on arrival to bubbles for the bath, special services including babysitters and massage therapists, and friendly extras such as bicycles and a children's playground.
And while there's much evidence of attention being lavished on guests, staff never intrude upon the tranquil atmosphere here. The result is a five-star rating from Enjoy England.
Most recently, Combermere has turned its attention to refreshing the properties. So far, three cottages have been redecorated, with one modelled out of two former properties to make a unit capable of sleeping 10. The introduction of a new "Nano-Break" package for two-night stays, as opposed to three, has made a winter weekend here a more affordable proposition in tough economic times.
The refurbishment will slowly roll out across all the properties in an attempt to bring contemporary harmony to their styling. The name of each cottage reveals a famous connection – for example Wellington after the Iron Duke, Empress after Elizabeth of Austria, both of whom visited the abbey – and each cottage's decor was previously themed to suit. I stayed in Callander, named after the owner's family, which was a case in point. Before it was refreshed, the sitting room was painted in a brash palette of bold colours, majoring on turquoise, and made heavier by the over-exuberant use of Scottish motifs to express the family's heritage. Now, creams and oatmeals have calmed the atmosphere and let light into the rooms, with bolder splashes of colour picked out more subtly in cushions, curtains and throws. And while the thistles remain – carved on the stair panels, embellishing the mirrors – they are more playful and light in touch.
Generally, expect high levels of comfort with top-quality furnishings and fabrics. The beds are lavishly dressed in soft white linen, the smart bathrooms are supplied with cosy towels and complimentary toiletries. Kitchens are equipped generously and to a high standard, so you can comfortably rustle up a dinner party if you fancy (dishwashers are standard, too). All the cottages have open-style fires, flat-screen Freeview TVs, videos, DVDs and CD radios, and there are board games and books for quieter moments.
The food and drink
A tea tray, featuring delicious homemade biscuits, awaits your arrival. There's a Tesco down the road in Whitchurch, but if you wish to immerse yourself in country life, there are plenty of farm shops around, too, including Cheerbrook Farm Shop in nearby Nantwich, where they prepare the superior frozen meals, such as beef bourguignon and red Thai curry, that you can purchase on site for around a fiver in the honesty shop. Each cottage is supplied with a basket filled with wines to buy, and you can order a hearty hamper, which will be filled with well-sourced essentials, such bread, butter, cereals, eggs, bacon, tea and fresh coffee as well as a few indulgent treats, too. The Combermere Arms (brunningandprice.co .uk/combermere), along the road opposite the estate's front gate, is a highly recommendable gastropub.
Ask about upcoming tours of the abbey. Fishing and swimming are permitted at the lake. There's a newly renovated playground for small children, and bicycles, tennis racquets and croquet sets are free to use.
Explore the grounds, which include walled gardens filled with roses and a unique fruit tree maze, and, further afield, a signed two-mile walk through the woods and across the park – the honesty shop doubles as a laundry for muddy days. The lake attracts a wide variety of birdlife, including herons, swans, geese and ducks, while badgers, foxes and other wildlife call the park home.
You can book an in-cottage massage and groups can throw spa parties at the property, too. A special cleaning service on departure is available, so you don't need to run around tidying up when you need to leave.
The serenity of the location effectively masks this thriving bucolic business park. As well as the cottages, there's an organic farm in the grounds, and the elegant glasshouse in the walled garden has now been complemented by a new pavilion to expand the possibilities for hosting weddings, civil ceremonies and partnerships, as well as corporate events.
Children are welcome – high chairs and cots can be supplied. Babysitters can be arranged. Well-behaved, house-trained dogs over six months are admitted – one large dog or two small ones per cottage – at a charge of £5 per day. There are areas in the grounds where they can run off the lead. "Pooch Packs" (sofa cover, bowl and treat) are provided. Stapleton Cottage can accommodate guests with limited mobility.
Two-night weekend Nano-Breaks at Combermere Cottages start from £300 for a cottage sleeping four between January and March 2012. Kate Simon travelled from London to Crewe with Virgin Trains (08719 774 222; virgintrains.com), which offers return fares from £23.
Combermere Cottages, Combermere Abbey, Whitchurch, Shropshire SY13 4AJ (01948 662876; combermere abbey.co.uk).