The Complete Guide To Winter Breaks

Where to go in the UK and Ireland if you want to get away for Christmas
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The Independent Travel

FILTHY WEATHER AND DODGY DECOR - SOUNDS BLEAK

FILTHY WEATHER AND DODGY DECOR - SOUNDS BLEAK

True, it won't be the Caribbean, but there's nothing quite like a crisp, cold winter's day for invigoration. And if it's raining or even sleeting you'll get a huge sense of satisfaction from braving the elements before curling up in a comfortable cottage. The trick is to find accommodation with seasonal appeal. And far from offending your fashion sensibilities, there's a wide range of stylish and characterful options available. In many cases such accommodation is reasonably priced, too.

I WANT TO BE SOMEWHERE SNUG

Thatch gives a house that cosy look, and there are plenty of agencies offering accommodation with such comforting toppings. With more than 3,000 properties on its books, English Country Cottages (08700 781 100; www.english-country-cottages.co.uk) operates - despite its name - across the whole of the UK and Ireland and also has some cottages in France. It's no surprise that its thatched properties are particularly popular during the winter. Woodpecker Cottage in the New Forest near Fordingbridge in Hampshire, for instance, exudes chocolate-box appeal with its reed roof, pretty garden and inglenook fireplace. The three-bedroom property costs from £439 for four nights or from £578 weekly. Meanwhile, the small architectural charity The Vivat Trust (0845 090 0194; www.vivat.org.uk) offers perhaps the ultimate in thatched snugness over in Lincolnshire. Mill Hill Cottage at Little Steeping looks as if it has come from the pages of a children's book: a little, cream-rendered house with two bedrooms snuggling under steeply sloping eaves and a chimney atop a crop of perfect thatch. Three-night breaks here cost from £305.

But why limit yourself to thatch overhead? In Steyning, West Sussex, Saxon Cottage has a thatched "catslide" roof that descends nearly to the ground on one side of the building's half-timbered front. This wonderfulhouse is one of around 320 or so in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that the National Trust (0870 458 4422; www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk) offers as holiday lets. Complete with beams and creaky floors, it sleeps three and costs from £113 for two nights.

HOW ABOUT A WELCOMING HEARTH?

The attractions of a crackling open fire are sometimes mitigated by the draught factor: generally, it's the older properties that have serious fireplaces, and often seriously leaky windows as well. However, for atmosphere it would be hard to beat Hideaways (01747 828170; www.hideaways.co.uk), which has an impressive range of country cottages across the West Country, the South-east and the heart of England. The Toll House near St Columb Major in north Cornwall, for example, not only has a glorious stone hearth in its living room but also abounds with exposed beams and leaded windows. Close to windy Tintagel and the blustery north Cornish coast, the 16th-century cottage has two bedrooms and costs from £259 for a three-night winter break.

The building conservation charity Landmark Trust (01628 825925; www.landmarktrust.org.uk) offers even more history, with most of its 178 scrupulously restored properties featuring open fireplaces. Although some of these historic buildings can seem a little austere in their furnishings and attention to detail, Obriss Farm near Westerham in Kent is especially comfortable and cosy. Set on the lower slopes of a hill overlooking the Weald, the brick-and-timber building has leaded windows and rug-strewn wooden floors as well as a generous fireplace in its dining area. It accommodates up to five people and costs from around £399 for three-night weekend breaks (the £9.50 price of the Landmark Trust's glossy handbook is redeemable against bookings).

Forgotten Houses (01326 340153; www.forgottenhouses.freeserve.co.uk) also specialises in ancient and unusual properties, mostly in Cornwall, that have been renovated to provide at least the basic facilities of electricity and hot water. Once again, modernisation has not compromised the properties' authenticity. Mellinzeath Farmhouse near the Helford Estuary is possibly the most extreme, and most romantic, case in point. Set beside gurgling streams in a pretty valley, this remote thatched house was once a miller's house - and it comes complete with a worn millstone in the floor. Other features, and lack thereof, might sound a little spartan for winter comfort: the bathroom (with roll-top bath) is in an outside wing; there are electric radiators upstairs but none downstairs; and there is no TV reception and no washing machine. However, the house was built to be snug and has impressively chunky granite walls, two large open fireplaces and even a bread oven. An adjoining barn has been thoughtfully made into a wood-store. Sleeping four to five guests (who are advised to bring wellies since the house is a good five-minute squelch from the car parking area), Mellinzeath costs from £245 per week.

COULD BE SMOKY - WHAT ABOUT A WOOD BURNER INSTEAD?

The wood burner versus real fire debate can get a little, well, heated. Those in favour of the former maintain that wood burners spread warmth far more effectively than open fires, that they are much less of a hazard, and that they have the added advantage of not giving off as many fumes. Classic Cottages (01326 555 555; www.classiccottages.co.uk), which has 500 or so properties across the South-west, has a good choice of accommodation with both these features. As a rule of thumb their more traditional properties tend to have open fires, while the rather sleeker interiors feature wood burners. For instance, Sculptor's Cottage in the village of Easton on Portland Island in Dorset sits in a well-conserved terrace of Purbeck stone, although inside there's a bright, contemporary feel. In particular, the living room has a clean, uncluttered look, and its original stone fireplace is painted white and houses an efficient wood burner. Accommodating three, the cottage costs from £261 per week. Also blending ancient and modern is The Thatched Cottage Company (01395 567 565; www.thethatchedcottagecompany.com), this year's winner of the English Tourist Board's Excellence in England Self-Catering gold award. At present the company has eight properties (seven impeccable renovations and one new development built with traditional materials) in south-east Devon. Among these, the Old Granary at Otterton is especially charming. Once part of a monastery complex, it has an architect-designed interior, the sunny sitting room making a good play of exposed timber and adding a modern twist with a striking wood burner. The property sleeps two people and costs from £175 for a three-night winter break or £300 for a week.

AND IF I'D LIKE A COSY KITCHEN?

Ancient dressers, wood-panelling and old oak tables may help to create a homely atmosphere, but they are nothing compared to an Aga or Raeburn. Such a stove is not only warming, it's a benign, soothing presence, say enthusiasts. Operating across Britain, luxury accommodation company Rural Retreats (01386 701177; www.ruralretreats.co.uk) offers many cottages and houses with such sought-after appliances. Among its properties with particularly pretty kitchens is Calf Cote, a beautifully converted barn near Bromyard in Herefordshire whose kitchen comes with an Aga, pine fitments, a ceramic hob and a conventional oven. The house sleeps six and costs from around £600 per week during the winter. Over in Gloucestershire, regional specialist Discover the Cotswolds (01386 841441; www.discoverthecotswolds.net) also has a wealth of properties with Agas or Raeburns. Home Farm Cottage in Ebrington, near Chipping Campden, for example, not only boasts a large open fire in its sitting room but its kitchen luxuriates in the warmth of a bright red gas-fired Raeburn. Accommodating six, the house costs from £385 per week during the winter.

ANY MORE GLAMOROUS FEATURES?

A surprising number of rental properties offer hot tubs in which you can soak away the winter chill. For instance, Hoseasons (01502 502588; www.hoseasons.co.uk), one of the largest suppliers of self-catering accommodation in the UK and Ireland, has over two-dozen houses cottages that come complete with such facilities. At Rudyard Lake near Leek in Staffordshire, Driftwood is a Swedish-style log cabin with a hot tub built into its lake-side deck. You can enjoy the watery views from this warm vantage point and then retreat into the creaking comforts of the cabin's modern, beamed interior. The two-bedroom property costs from £237 for a three-night winter break, or from £347 for a week.

The views are even more staggering from the Jacuzzi of an architect-designed house in the hamlet of Kilfinan in Argyll. Standing in large private grounds, the property looks directly over Loch Fyne towards Arran - and the Jacuzzi, set in a conservatory, is positioned in style and warmth to make the very most of its dramatic outlook. The house sleeps eight and is available on a weekly basis from £1,100 through Edinburgh-based Mackay's Agency (0870 429 5359; www.mackays-self-catering.co.uk), which offers a wide choice of holiday rentals across Scotland.

HOW ABOUT SOMETHING WILD AND WOOLLY?

If you're in search of Wuthering Heights-style atmospherics - but without the interior chill factor - head for another National Trust property. High Lidmoor farm is eight miles beyond the North York Moors village of Fadmoor. Set on a working sheep farm, it comes with central heating, a TV, a dishwasher and a microwave. This 18th-century property sleeps five and costs from £114 for a two-night stay.

Alternatively, make for the rugged reaches of Wales. Among the National Trust's 250 properties in the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains and the Welsh Marshes, Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages (01874 676446; www.breconcottages.com) has a particularly secluded yet comfortable farmhouse in the Duffryn Crawnon Valley near Llangynidr, south of Brecon. Pen-y-Garn dates from the 16th century and boasts a warm sunny kitchen, a spacious sitting room with large inglenook fireplace and a positive forest of exposed oak beams. The property has three bedrooms and costs from £490 per week.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy a full-on agricultural experience at Nannerth Country Holidays' (01597 811121; www.nannerth.co.uk) working farm near Rhayader. This traditional hill farm has six distinctive properties to rent, from a converted granary to a large, Grade II-listed Tudor farmhouse. The latter has a pariticularly striking interior, with mullion windows, original cruck beams and an enormous open fireplace. It has four bedrooms (one with four-poster bed), sleeps up to ten people and costs from £258 for three nights during December (a 25 per cent discount on the usual price).

WHAT ABOUT A WEE DRAM?

In the heart of Scotland's whisky country you can become a (paying) guest of Her Majesty. The Balmoral Estates Office (013397 42534; www.balmoralcastle.com) has five cottages to let, when they are not in use during royal visits. Connachat Cottage, for instance, is on the edge of Ballochbuie Forest, three miles west of Balmoral Castle. There are three simply furnished double bedrooms here, and the estate adds that the outside rod room could be used for further accommodation although it warns that this would be extremely spartan. The cottage is equipped with electric cooker, microwave, immersion heater, night storage heaters and fuel for the open fire. There is no television reception but a radio is provided. The cost is from £420 per week.

Further north, the National Trust for Scotland (0131-243 9331; www.nts.org.uk) offers the opportunity to live like a laird in (part) of picturesque Castle Fraser near whisky-producing Inverurie. Sleeping five, an apartment in the east wing of this dramatic, 16th-century building costs from £150 for three nights. In addition, the John Bell Apartment, an elegant turreted courtyard property in the castle grounds, is available from £220 for four-night mid-week breaks and sleeps up to seven people.

AND FOR IRISH CHARM?

There are many good-value modern holiday properties in the Irish Republic that are available through companies such as Self-Catering Ireland (00 353 53 33999; www.selfcatering-ireland.com), or Irish Ferries (08705 171717; www.irishferries.com), but traditional cottages to rent are rather less plentiful. Shamrock Cottages (01823 660126; www.shamrockcottages.co.uk), however, offers more than 300 properties in secluded settings and has an impressive choice of older accommodation. Among its more popular, and romantic, winter lets is a renovated stone cottage on tiny Mason Island, a quarter of a mile off the coast of Galway. It has central heating, an open hearth for a peat fire in the sitting room, a radio telephone, electricity from its own generator and five bedrooms. The property sleeps up to eight people and costs from £188 per week or £348 inclusive of a wide choice of return UK ferry crossings for five adults and a car.

Spanning both the north and south of the island, The Irish Landmark Trust (00 353 1 670 4733; www.irishlandmark.com) has restored 12 buildings of exceptional interest which are available for holiday rentals. One of these in County Antrim, is the wonderfully Hansel and Gretel-style Beally Cottage, built in the 1860 for the local estate's deerkeeper. It offers an old-style country kitchen with snug; parlour; sitting room; period furniture; outdoor venison store; and three bedrooms that sleep up to seven people. Mid-week rental charges are from £152; weekly rates from £280. The Hidden Ireland Holiday Rentals (00 353 1 662 7166; www.hiddenhr.com) also offers characterful properties for rent throughout the country.

WHERE CAN I LIVE IN THE LAP OF LUXURY?

Top-of-the-market rental companies have become so sophisticated that some even provide a concierge service. Norfolk specialist The Great Escape Holiday Company (01485 518717; www.thegreatescapeholiday.co.uk), makes up new guests' beds, provides its own range of toiletries, stocks the property with groceries, books local restaurants and can organise a chef for the evening. At the chic stable conversion cottages of Combermere Abbey (01948 662876; www.combermereabbey.co.uk) in Shropshire you can order dinner in advance of your arrival, and choose your wine from the house selection. The next day you can breakfast from a pre-ordered "Shropshire hamper" of muesli, brown bread, eggs, bacon, sausages and more, and buy-in seasonal, home-made dinner dishes from the "Cottage menu". But perhaps the most luxurious service is offered by Bruern Holiday Cottages (01993 830415; www.bruern.co.uk) near Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds. Its 12 sumptuous properties feature open fires or wood burners, are furnished with antiques and are also stylishly decked-out with the likes of Nina Campbell and Colefax and Fowler furnishings. They also contain almost every conceivable facility, from microwave and dishwashers to wide-screen TVs and extensive video libraries. You can arrange a housekeeping service; ask for a masseur; buy in home-made frozen dinners; or even hire Bruern's resident chef. Given such a sybaritic environment, basic rental prices are far from extortionate: for example, Sandown Cottage sleeping four, for example, costs from £714 per week.

IS IT TOO LATE FOR THIS YEAR?

Not yet, although you'll have problems if you're looking for a large property - these tend to get booked up a year or so in advance. Depending on where in the country you want to be, your best bet is to try some of the larger agencies such as Hoseasons or Classic Cottages. At the time of going to press the latter still had 100 or so properties to rent over Christmas. For example, in Coverack, south-west Cornwall, it has Carndu, a 17th-century thatched cottage that sleeps four and costs £717 for a week over Christmas or New Year. The National Trust for Scotland still has some large properties for rent over Christmas, such as the John Bell Apartment at Castle Fraser. But Scottish firms say that there are few properties available over Hogmanay - and are now taking bookings for next year.

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