Cool Cumbria: Down on the luxurious farm

After foot and mouth, some farmers turned to tourism. In the Lake District they set their sights high. Ian Herbert reports on a new breed of quality holiday accommodation

We are bound for Cumbria, to sample life among the cows on a farm b&b, and even before we hit the road an unexpected animal of our own is helped aboard. He is Barnie, the reception class toy bear, who visits a different family each weekend for a range of experiences.

Barnie means pressure. A photographic record of each adventure is pasted into his big album and put on show in class, and judging from his recent adventures we have a fair bit to live up to. The bear, who travels with hot and cold weather outfits, has reached Monaco, Walt Disney World and all points in between, in recent weeks. Shared bathrooms and frilly furnishings - many people's preconceptions of a farm holiday - just won't do.

It is with the album in mind that we linger in the Borrowdale Valley, where Friday's late-afternoon sun is still high in the sky as we, the children and the bear clamber up Cat Bells and gather photographic evidence that you don't need Monaco for moments of exquisite beauty. And once back down to earth again, it's on to the farm, near Cockermouth, the unhurried, uncommercialised and surprisingly bohemian market town 10 minutes west of Kendal.

Behind the town, in the lee of Skiddaw, is The Homestead, a farm worked for 400 years, the last 100 by the family of Christine Watson. Mrs Watson's husband, Allan, was told to cull his herd of 800 Holstein cattle on Easter Sunday 2001, because a neighbouring farm had foot and mouth disease. He tried restocking but his heart wasn't in it, so he and his wife instead turned their attention to converting a traditional Cumbrian longhouse in their grounds into one of the Lake District's new, up-market farm b&bs, with 10 airy, oak-beamed rooms, stone floors, undulating lime walls and stylish ensuite shower or bathrooms.

The conversion job, showered with architectural prizes, has evidently been a labour of love. The longhouse was once a communal bakery and the cast iron oven around which the locals once gathered with their dough retains pride of place. So, too, the cavernous boiling pot, which dominates the dining room. When the winter storms felled oak and cherry trees on the Watsons' land, they sent the wood to a local carpenter, Danny Frost, who turned them into the four-poster bed.

The couple live a discreet distance away in their own house on the farm. With Allan on hand, serving up the Cumbrian breakfast his wife has cooked and fielding questions on everything from the boiling pot to Snowflake and Tassles, the nanny goats, there's also a generous helping of the hospitality and intimacy which defines farm tourism.

The Homestead's qualities belong to a quiet revolution in farm tourism, which has seen the gradual emergence of accommodation that is a cut above. It is one of 16 establishments signed up to Cumbria's new Luxury in a Farm initiative which is highlighting properties like The Homestead, with its vaulted ceilings, mullioned windows - and underfloor heating. The 16 venues include Lakeland cottages, converted granaries, country guesthouses and an old coach house.

They and around 1,200 farm holiday venues are also to be found through Farm Stay UK, an independent farmers' cooperative set up by the tourist boards and the former Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Foods to improve what once was the variable quality of this sector. The unpredictability was a product of what Farm Stay describes as the "Johnny's gone to boarding school, we can let his room" theory of farm tourism, which did the image no good at all in the early days.

But word is getting around about the changes. Business people are attracted by the security of these secluded locations as they lug expensive equipment around the country. The Homestead is among those that have hosted corporate team-building trips.

All Farm Stay venues are subjected to independent inspections under national tourist board schemes, and from next year English farms will fall in line with the Scottish and Welsh star grading system with a "farmhouse" designator. From September, the Farm Stay website will have online booking.

The Homestead also provides a gateway to the less known Cumbria. Cockermouth has a similar informal charm to the farm, it transpires, with few establishments more relaxed than the Front Room - a wine bar and bistro run from Thursday to Sunday. A guided tour of Cockermouth's Jennings Brewery, where soft water drawn from 50ft beneath the town is used to produce the beer, reveals the legendary effects of Cockle Warmer, the 6.3 per cent proof "session ale".

Cockermouth's renowned Castlegate House Gallery specialises in leading 20th-century Scottish and Cumbrian painters. An exhibition of St Ives painters runs until 21 August and the town's summer festival of art, theatre, music and story-telling runs until 5 August. Wordsworth's birthplace restored by the National Trust, can be visited.

On the way home, we stop at the Pencil Museum in Keswick, dedicated to an industry born of the discovery of graphite in Borrowdale in the 15th century. Barnie will return to school with a brand new pencil as well as photos for the album to rival any glamour trip.

Ian Herbert stayed at The Old Homestead, Byresteads Farm, see details, right. (luxuryinafarm.co.uk; farmstayuk.co.uk). The Front Room Wine Bar & Bistro (01900 826655). Jennings Brewery (0845-129 7190). The Pencil Museum (01768 773626; pencils.co .uk). Castlegate House Gallery (01900 828149)

Stylish lakeland retreats

The Old Homestead at Byresteads Farm

WHAT'S IT LIKE? Spend the night in a traditional 16th-century, renovated Cumbrian longhouse - The Old Homestead at Byresteads Farm near the town of Cockermouth. Opt for The Masters Room, a self-contained guest room with an airy, vaulted ceiling, exposed beams, wooden floor and canopied four-poster bed.

CONTACT: Byresteads Farm, Cockermouth (01900 822223, byresteads. co.uk). Doubles from £60 per night b&b. Children under 10 are no longer permitted.

Silverbank

WHAT'S IT LIKE? No 1 Silverbank may be a 200-year-old cottage in Coniston village, but its chic interior owes more to the 21st than the 19th century, with its open-plan living room, oak floors and shaker kitchen.

CONTACT: 1 Silverbank, Coniston (0207-704 9071; boutiquegetaways.com). The cottage sleeps two to four, and starts at £400 for four nights' self-catering.

Highpark

WHAT'S IT LIKE? Set around a small gravel courtyard and tucked up a grassy lane by the village of Loweswater, Highpark dates, in part, from the 14th century. Inside, it's a tasteful mix of chintz and beams, with spectacular views over Crummock Water.

CONTACT: Rural Retreats (01386 701177; ruralretreats.net). A week's self-catering, for up to six sharing, starts at £870.

Fellside Studios

WHAT'S IT LIKE? Slate-clad bathrooms, wooden floors, kitchens with all mod cons. This duo of stylish studios, each sleeping two, is tucked down a lane in the sleepy village of Troutbeck.

CONTACT: Fellside Studios, Troutbeck, near Windermere (015394 340 00; fellsidestudios.co.uk). Doubles start at £52 per night, bed & breakfast.

Staffield Hall

WHAT'S IT LIKE? Staffield Hall is an imposing mansion originally built in 1848 for a young bride by the name of Lady Jane Aglionby. The hall's current owners, Michael and Marie Lawson, have divided the first and ground floors into eight well-appointed apartments for visitors to rent. Sweeping views of the lush Eden Valley come as standard.

CONTACT: Staffield Hall Country Retreats, Kirkoswald (01995 61574; premiercottages.co.uk). Self-catering apartments range from £329 to £1,200 per week. Short breaks are also available outside peak season.

Crake Trees Manor

WHAT'S IT LIKE? Get a taste for the rural way of life with a stay at Crake Trees, a working farm which also welcomes guests. Halfway between Maulds Meaburn and Crosby Ravensworth, Crake Trees' four guestrooms have been stylishly converted from an old barn - think roll-top baths, lofty ceilings, exposed beams and afternoon walks along the banks of the Eden River.

CONTACT: Crake Trees Manor, Crosby Ravensworth, Penrith (01931 715 205; craketreesmanor.co.uk). Doubles start from £35 per night, with breakfast

Whale Farm Cottage

WHAT'S IT LIKE? The pretty stone-cut Whale Farm Cottage perches on the edge of the Lowther Estate - 70,000 acres of prime Cumbrian scenery leased to the National Trust. The two-bedroom property sleeps up to four, is decked out in soothing beige and cream inside, and has a four-poster in the main bedroom.

CONTACT: Stately Holiday Homes (01638 674 756; statelyholidayhomes.co.uk). A week's self-catering starts from £495.

Ashlack Cottages

WHAT'S IT LIKE? Each of the five Ashlack Cottages, inthe scenic grounds of Ashlack Hall, overlooks the Duddon Estuary between Ulverston and Broughton-in-Furness. The cottages' names are inspired by its former resident; a gamekeeper lived at the pretty Keepers Cottage, while a shepherd occupied the larger 17th-century Beckstones Cottage.

CONTACT: Ashlack Hall, Grizebeck (01229 889888; ashlack cottages.co.uk). From £265 per week. Pets are welcome (£15 extra).

Anns Hill

WHAT'S IT LIKE? The recently opened Anns Hill is perhaps the ultimate in farmstays. Part of an 18th-century farmhouse, it sleeps two, and no expense is spared. A luxury hamper and fresh flowers await visitors, with restaurant-quality meals available by prior arrangement.

CONTACT: Anns Hill, Bridkirk, Cockermouth (077103 888180; annshill.co.uk). Doubles from £118 per night, short breaks from £302 and seven nights from £560.

Blencathra

WHAT'S IT LIKE? This lakeside hideaway cottage provides uninterrupted views over Lake Windermere,is surrounded by 40 acres of land, and even has its own stretch of lake frontage. But if the solitude gets too much, it's just two miles to bustling Ambleside.

CONTACT: Blencathra, Ambleside (01539 488855: lakelovers.co.uk). The cottage, which sleeps four, starts at £495 for seven nights' self-catering.

Additional research by Chelsea McLain

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