If you want to holiday at home you don?t need to lower your standards, says Harriet O'Brien

ARE WE TALKING SWIRLY CARPETS AND LUMPY SOFAS?

ARE WE TALKING SWIRLY CARPETS AND LUMPY SOFAS?

Not any more. Until recently, renting a holiday cottage in the UK entailed overburdening the car with bed linen, basic provisions and even a TV before setting off to live among Formica, garishly-patterned carpets and uncomfortable sofas for a week or two. But a quiet revolution has taken place in Britain's self-catering industry. Many letting agencies and individual property owners now offer the sort of facilities that might be expected of a boutique hotel: chic furnishings, local booking arrangements for restaurants, arts and outdoor activities, and discreet hospitality - often including a welcome hamper of local produce, wine and more. Others bypass the frills and proudly provide properties of simplicity and character. Either way, today's finest self-catering accommodation combines charm and quality in some stunning locations.

I DO LIKE TO BE BESIDE THE SEASIDE

The South-West, and especially its coast, is Britain's most popular self-catering destination by far. And although there is a vast amount of rental property here, summer supply does not always meet demand: around Rock in north Cornwall for example, and St Ives in the south, renters tend to become regular fixtures, booking the same properties on a rolling basis and guarding their slots with tiger-like ferocity.

But with more than 500 carefully-selected cottages and apartments in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, Classic Cottages (01326 555555; www.classiccottages.co.uk) still has some seaside properties available this summer. The Old Chapel in the Cornish village of Mullion, for instance, is a spacious and stylishly-converted 1840s building close to sandy beaches. It sleeps four and costs from £345-£729 per week.

Renting through an agency has its advantages, particularly the ability to switch to another property should the need arise (and in the absence of a visible owner, live the dream that this is truly your home). But hands-on proprietor-managed accommodation offers the bonus of a more personal service - and a personal pride in the place. Tucked down winding lanes near Liskeard, between the south coast and Bodmin Moor, Botelet Farm (01503 220225; www.botelet.co.uk) is a rural idyll, its easy-going atmosphere the result of much hard work on the part of owners Richard Tamblyn and Helen Westwater. The farmhouse offers B&B, and there are two cottages to rent. The larger, Manor Cottage, is a 17th-century Cornish long house with flagstones, oak beams and even a piano. It accommodates seven from £370-£900 per week.

Agencies offering other opportunities in the South-West include Forgotten Houses, with 30 or so historic or unusual buildings in Cornwall (01326 340153; www.forgottenhouses.co.uk); Cornish Traditional Cottages (01208 821666; www.corncott.com) and Helpful Holidays (01647 433593; www.helpfulholidays.com).

ANYWHERE LESS CROWDED THAN THE SOUTH-WEST?

There are plenty more seaside options elsewhere. In particular Norfolk, with its glorious broad beaches, is increasingly regarded as an attractive, if chillier, alternative to the overcrowded south. In the north of the county, The Great Escape Holiday Company (01485 518717; www.thegreatescapeholiday.co.uk) has turned rental management into something of an art form, even providing a gourmet chef if required. Among its small portfolio of scrupulously-vetted properties are the two Harbourside Houses at Burham Overy Staithe, a pebble's throw from Holkam Bay. Both sleep three, cost £470-£645 for a week, and offer direct access to the sea.

Countryside Cottages (01263 713133; www.north-norfolk.net/cottages) and Norfolk Country Cottages (01603 871872; www.norfolkcottages.co.uk) also have a good selection of seaside accommodation in the county.

WHAT ABOUT THE COUNTRYSIDE?

Shropshire's green and pleasant landscape remains largely overlooked. But not by those who have discovered Combermere Abbey (01948 662876; www.combermereabbey.co.uk). This 1,000-acre estate is named after its 12th-century abbey, which is set beside a very large, very lovely lake. Since inheriting the vast property in 1992, Sarah Callander-Beckett has converted a Jacobean stable-block into 11 elegant holiday cottages, each reflecting a character from Combermere's past and each associated with a distinctive designer (including the likes of Ralph Lauren, Nina Campbell and Jane Churchill). Among them, Wellington accommodates five and costs from £588-£815 per week.

Despite its areas of spectacular scenery, Northern Ireland is also underrated. Perhaps especially so is County Fermanagh. Here, the 1,700-acre Crom Estate is set around the upper shores of Lough Erne. It is a romantic landscape of woods, water, islands and ruins and is one of the National Trust's most important conservation sites. The Trust (0870 458 4422; www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk) also owns and rents-out seven restored estate properties of golden stone ranged around the courtyard of an old farm. These sleep two to six, and the snug, one-bedroomed Alder Cottage costs £210-£493 per week.

WHERE CAN I STAY IN WORDSWORTH COUNTRY?

Where better than Huntingstile South in Grasmere, a spacious Cumbrian house that once belonged to members of the bard's family. Indeed, Wordsworth himself is said to have been a frequent visitor. Slightly chichi furnishings are mitigated by a great lakeside setting and mountain views. The lodge sleeps eight and costs £606-£1,295 weekly through Heart of the Lakes (01539 432321; www.heartofthelakes.co.uk), which has over 300 properties in the Lake District.

Further north, near Penrith, Lowther Estates (01931 712577; www.lowther.co.uk) offers two of Cumbria's most delightfully-swish properties - Park View Cottage and Whale Farm Cottage. The latter, in particular, is a dream of cream and antiques, and with two double bedrooms costs £650-£900 per week.

Many more Lakeland holiday homes are available through such specialists as Cumbrian Cottages (01228 599960; www.cumbrian-cottages.co.uk) and Lakelovers (01539 488855; www.lakelovers.co.uk).

WHAT ABOUT A COTTAGE IN A SLEEPY COTSWOLD VILLAGE?

Cotswold villages don't come much better than picturesque Stanton in Gloucestershire. Stanton Court Cottages (01386 584527; www.stantoncourt.co.uk) are grouped around the courtyard of a 16th-century manor house built for Elizabeth I's chamberlain. Stretching beyond are four acres of beautifully-tended gardens with a tennis court and outdoor heated swimming pool. The cottages sleep two to seven - Shenberrow, for four, costs £553-£839 per week.

A few miles away, Moreton-in-Marsh is the base of Rural Retreats (01386 701177; www.ruralretreats.co.uk). This agency selects top-of-the-range holiday cottages across the country. Local properties include Riverside Cottage, all mellow stone and fine furnishings, in the village of Lower Slaughter. It sleeps two for a weekly cost of £441-£734. Another letting company is Discover the Cotswolds (01386 841441; www.discoverthecotswolds.net).

I WANT TO SLEEP IN A THATCHED COTTAGE

While West Country specialists Classic Cottages and Helpful Holidays both offer a large number of properties sporting traditional reed roofs, The Thatched Cottage Company (01395 567676; www.thethatchedcottagecompany.com) is a dedicated enthusiast. The family agency has nine holiday homes in south Devon that creak with atmosphere, and is currently renovating more. At the moment, capacity runs from two at The Old Granary in Otterton (£300-£525 weekly) to eight at Christopher's Farmhouse in East Budleigh (£800-£1,400).

Thatch is not, of course, the sole preserve of the south. At Bardon Mill in Northumberland, The Landmark Trust, a building preservation charity, has restored Causeway House. This 18th-century property is thatched in heather - which was known locally as black thack - and sleeps four, costing £258-£842 for a week.

You can call the Trust on 01628 825925 - its website, www.landmarktrust.co.uk, does not give details of the properties. Instead you buy a brochure for £9.50, which is refundable against bookings.

On the Isle of Skye, Beaton's Croft House in the traditional crofting village of Bornesketaig is a wonderful combination of external preservation and internal comfort. Sleeping two, the croft costs £295-£400 per week. It is one of a number of interesting properties on the books of the National Trust for Scotland (0131 243 9352; www.nts.org.uk).

ANY OTHER IDEAS FOR A HIGHLAND FLING?

New to the National Trust for Scotland this year are two properties on the tiny island of Canna - five miles long, one mile wide and with a resident population of 16. With no cars allowed and a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry calling in just twice a week (four times in the summer), it is a remote place for humans and a haven for seabirds. Two refurbished cottages, The Bothy and Jane's Cottage, will swell the island's holiday accommodation by 80 per cent and will be available from June. They are both furnished functionally yet comfortably, and enjoy a glorious setting on the beach. Each sleeps four for about £200-£400 per week.

By contrast, over on the mainland, Cawdor Cottages (01667 404666; www.cawdor.com) are some of the Highlands' most stylish self-catering options. Dotted across the huge Cawdor Estate between Inverness and Nairn, the eight properties were built in the 19th century for estate workers and have been redeveloped simply yet with sophistication - and a touch of tartan - by Lady Cawdor, a former fashion stylist for Vogue. The properties sleep between two and ten - Fisherman's Cottage, for example, which is set on the banks of the River Findhorn, sleeps six for £479-£956 a week.

Hoseasons (01502 502588, www.hoseasons.co.uk) is one of the UK's largest providers of holiday cottages, and has properties from Cornwall to Caithness. In the latter county, the Old Crofter's Cottage at Berriedale, on the Pentland Firth, is exactly what it says. It sleeps four (or five at a pinch), and costs between £178 for an off-season three-night break and £506 for a week in high summer.

Other companies with a wide choice in the Highlands and Islands area - from converted bothies and schoolhouses to chalets and manors - include Ecosse Unique (01835 870779; www.uniquescotland.com) and Discover Scotland (01556 504030; www.discoverscotland.net) while The Road to the Isles website ( www.road-to-the-isles.org.uk) offers useful links to privately-run self-catering accommodation in an overlooked part of the region, along the wild and rugged Lochaber coast.

WHERE ELSE CAN I WALK ON THE WILD SIDE?

On the windy moors of Yorkshire you can stay in Darnbrook Barn, a National Trust property. One of three dwellings on a working sheep farm on Malham Moor, this grey-stone conversion is best approached in daylight, since rocky outcrops bordering the access track can be hazardous to drivers. Although a TV with video is supplied, there is no reception. The barn sleeps four and costs from £247-£656 weekly. The National Trust has a dedicated holiday cottage operation with 310 properties: 01225 791199 or www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk.

For majestic remoteness, coupled with a back-to-nature appeal, it is hard to beat the Trust's Foel Gopyn on the Ysbyty Estate in Snowdonia National Park. Eight miles from Betws-y-Coed, this isolated cottage has no electricity (the lighting and heating runs on gas) and is difficult to reach in very bad weather. For obvious reasons it has no TV, washing machine or microwave, all of which - plus magnificent views and four-poster bed - add to its charm. Sleeping two, the property costs £226-£527 per week.

MORE ACCESSIBLE ROMANCE?

Top of the range of properties especially for honeymoon couples is Park Hall Country Cottages (01255 820922; www.parkhall-countrycottages.com).

Guests arrive to find fires lit, flowers on pillows, handmade chocolates by the bed and champagne on ice. Set in 600 acres of farmland near Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, the three cottages have been carefully developed to allow maximum privacy, and each is painstakingly decorated to highlight the magnificent tangles of oak beams overhead. The largest sleeps six, while Cart Lodge is ideal for two and costs £402-£731 per week.

Less pampering but more style is on offer at The Temple, a gracious hideaway for two near Bridgnorth in Shropshire. This 18th-century Doric folly was designed by James Wyatt as an architectural ornament from which to admire the 40-acre woodland of Badger Dingle. Today it is managed by the Vivat Trust (0845 090 0194; www.vivat.org.uk), a charity that restores and safeguards buildings of historic and architectural merit (and notably different from The Landmark Trust in its less stringent approach to interior design). A week here costs £495-£660.

CAN I STAY IN A STATELY HOME?

From gatehouses to converted stable-yards, a number of estate properties of grand, historic houses are available to rent. Duns Castle in Berwickshire (01361 883 211; www.dunscastle.co.uk), has five holiday homes. Sudeley Castle (01242 602308; www.sudeleycastle.co.uk) near Cheltenham offers 15; and Stately Home Holidays (01638 674749; www.statelyholidayhomes.co.uk) has a portfolio of 25 aristocratic establishments available for rent.

There are few accommodation opportunities within stately homes themselves, but the Landmark Trust offers a spacious apartment inside Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. Originally built for Officers of the Pastry, the accommodation is within the service wing of the Tudor palace, sleeps six and costs from £1,056-£1,850 per week.

The National Trust for Scotland has at least three stately properties where gracious apartments, complete with fine furnishings and antiques, can be yours for a week or more. At Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire, for example, four floors around the turret of Preston Tower sleep 13 for £950-£1,575 weekly. And from November this year at Brodie Castle near Forres, the Laird's Apartment, formerly home to the late Ninian Brodie, will become available complete with art collection and room for 14 guests.

CAN I BE KING OF AN ENTIRE CASTLE?

Sporting estate specialist George Goldsmith (0131 476 6500; www.sportingestates.com) offers more than a dozen castles across Scotland, some of which can be rented in their entirety on a self-catering basis.

Dating from the 12th century, Dairsie Castle near Cupar in Fife sleeps 13 and costs from £1,750 per week. Also north of the border, Large Holiday Houses (01381 610496; www.lhhscotland.com) has an impressive portfolio of castles such as Lickleyhead near Auchleven in Aberdeenshire. This 16th-century fortress house, complete with wood panelling, chandeliers and four-poster beds, accommodates 14 and costs from £1,950 per week.

Scotland does not have a monopoly on castles. Kingswear Castle in Devon, for example, is a 15th-century turret built to defend Dartmouth harbour. The Landmark Trust has restored the ground floor to look as it would have done when originally in military use, and has converted the two storeys above into a comfortable dwelling for six that costs between £670-£1,794 for a week.

WHERE ELSE CAN I FIND SOMEWHERE BIG?

Rural Retreats offers Melmerby Hall, a sumptuous historic manor near Penrith in Cumbria, which has capacity for 18 at £2,546-£4,100 weekly. Nearby, Monkhouse Hill Cottages (01697 476254; www.monkhousehill.co.uk) is a group of nine stylish properties on a former hill farm. The biggest, Great Calva, sleeps 14 for £840-£1,770 per week.

Yet these appear minuscule in comparison with two Devon properties let by Helpful Holidays. At Brimpts Farm above the village of Dartmeet on Dartmoor, a huge and lavishly-converted barn sleeps up to 32 people for £1,100-£2,434 weekly. Colehayes Park, a Grade II-listed country house near Bovey Tracey, accommodates a staggering 70, for between £2,624-£3,074 per week.

WHAT'S THE ULTIMATE IN WACKINESS?

Follies, watchtowers and lighthouses (Rural Retreats alone lists more than 15) are among the more unusual properties to rent.

Those in search of greater eccentricity could head for the Glenfinnan Station Museum near Fort William in Scotland (01397 722295; www.road-to-the-isles.org.uk/glenfinnan-station.html). Here you can rent a (stationary) railway sleeping carriage from the 1950s, with on-board facilities including a kitchen, a lounge with a TV and showers. Sleeping 10, this unusual piece of rolling stock offers excellent value at £80 per night (with bedding, £60 without) or £200-£400 per week.

Perhaps pride of place as a one-off wonder should be reserved for Fort Clonque, reached by a causeway from the Channel Island of Alderney.

Built as a small naval base in the 1840s, this Landmark Trust property is planted on rocky boulders and commands spectacular sea views. Accommodating 13, the entire fortress costs £623-£2,739 weekly. This summer, you can reach Alderney from a wider range of UK airports than ever.

CHILDREN

While some of the more lavishly furnished properties do not accept guests under 16 years old, several show that style and child need not be mutually excluding. Two in particular are outstanding, catering for the younger generation while ensuring that they do not impinge on other residents. At the seven beautifully appointed cottages of Red Doors Farm near Honiton in Devon (01404 890067; www.reddoors.co.uk) facilities include an indoor swimming pool, games room and a hidden area with swings, slide and play house. Meanwhile at the sublimely converted Bruern Stable Cottages at Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds (01993 830415; www.bruern.co.uk) there's a child's haven with Wendy house, play cabin, Brio, Lego and more.

PETS

In general, owners and agents clearly state if dogs are permitted in a property. But there is rarely any mention of other creatures, such as pet mice, guinea pigs or the occasional boa constrictor - presumably caged animals are less of a potential problem.

An extensive guide to animal-friendly accommodation is given in Pets Welcome 2004 (AA Guidebooks, £7.99) while www.pets-on-holiday.com provides useful web links.

HOW CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Local tourist boards provide information on self-catering accommodation within their areas, while The Good Holiday Cottage Guide 2004 (£6.95, Swallow Press) recommends some 270 properties across the country.

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