It was supposed to be a secret, but someone told the birthday girl: a weekend party in the countryside for her 70th, with all the family - and a couple of friends - present. No matter, we had more surprises up our sleeves.
It wasn't the easiest event to plan. Not least because we had a party of 12 to satisfy, aged from two to 72. And then there was the fact that the organising committee was based in London, Haverfordwest and Helsinki. But to compound matters, we wanted somewhere stylish with good service; a venue as special as the occasion. Yet it couldn't be a hotel - that was too expensive. And anyway, with the kids in mind, we wanted the freedom of self-catering.
It proved a tricky task, but not an impossible one, thanks to a growing number of self-catering properties around the UK that have grown wise to the fact that today's punters want more than a draughty barn with mismatched cutlery. Our final choice, Hidelow House Cottages, is one of this new breed. An old farmhouse with cottages tucked away down a country lane just outside Bromyard in Herefordshire, it offers superior accommodation, with quality furnishings, pretty decor, and lots of thoughtful extras.
Stuart and Pauline Diplock bought the derelict 250-year-old house and its outbuildings in 1993. By 1995 they had opened for business. Now they offer b&b in two rooms in the house and self-catering in the six restored "cottages", one of which houses the Hop Pocket, where the dried flowers were once pressed into sacks.
The various sizes of the buildings, sleeping from two to 10, means they can easily cater for different sizes of parties. We comfortably fit into the Tithe Barn (four bedrooms and an extra sofabed in the second sitting room) and one of the rooms in the house. This flexibility has put Hidelow on the Herefordshire House Parties circuit, the tourist board's bright idea to promote larger properties in the county that can host special events like ours.
Among the other cottages at Hidelow are two specifically designed for people with disabilities. There are level pathways between the buildings, too, so that wheelchair users can get about with ease. These improvements have been enhanced by the addition of an information centre, supplied with leaflets and maps and featuring a free broadband connection. It also houses a "shop" - shelves stocked with local produce, free postcards, and videos and DVDs to rent. And a menu of prize-winning homemade food can be pre-ordered to take the "self" out of self-catering. Unsurprisingly, these extras have won the Diplocks a clutch of awards and assured membership of Premier Cottages, an organisation showcasing the pick of Britain's self-catering establishments.
But most impressive and unusual - and one of the reasons why we plumped for Hidelow - is the bespoke itinerary service offered by Stuart. Tell him what you and your party are interested in and he will use his local knowledge to suggest a schedule for the weekend, making any bookings you require, which you can dip in and out of as you wish.
And so we handed over the planning of our weekend to him, which worked out very well. On Saturday morning, we visited nearby Ledbury, one of Herefordshire's black-and-white timbered towns. Then a convenient couple of miles down the road we took up his recommendation for lunch at The Farmers Arms, which offered a selection of good food that pleased old and young alike. That afternoon we returned to the house where two therapists from The Pamper Company - located by Stuart via the net - waited to administer spa treatments. And we rounded off the day with a gourmet dinner at The Three Crowns Inn, where all us adults were at liberty to enjoy a glass of wine thanks to the Diplock's own "taxi" service.
On the Sunday morning two of the kids went horse-riding, with the option of a walk, playtime in the garden or the Sunday papers for others. And we said our farewells after a tasty lunch at the Scrumpy House Restaurant at Much Marcle.
With 12 of us to choose from, it can't be long before there's another birthday to celebrate.
The author stayed at Hidelow House Cottages (01886 884547; hidelow.co.uk) courtesy of Herefordshire Tourism (01432 260621; visitherefordshire. co.uk). A three-day weekend in one of the cottages costs from £246. She travelled there courtesy of Carrentals.co.uk (0845 225 0845; carrentals.co.uk), which offers weekend car hire from £83. For information about Premier Cottages, go to premiercottages.co.uk
Our favourite self-catering
For five-star self-catering with the kids, we recommend Bruern Holiday Cottages (01993 830415; bruern-holiday-cottages.co.uk) in the Cotswolds. Your penchant for Colefax and Fowler will be complemented by child-friendly facilities, including a games room, playhouse, bicycles, pedal cars and heated outdoor pool. The 12 converted 19th-century stables of Bruern Abbey now host parties of two to 10 sharing exquisitely decorated and furnished surroundings, with hi-tech mod cons. Extras include baby gear, welcome baskets and homemade food to order. A four-night midweek break costs from £289.Reuse content