Downstairs in the drawing room, someone is remembering their scales on the baby grand piano. From outside, shrieks drift up as children launch themselves into the deep, dark lake fringed with ducks and paddleboards.
And as you relax in the slipper bath in the master bathroom, beyond the open French windows your gaze rests on a mighty oak, one of 30,000 trees planted across this private sliver of Devon countryside.
Swallows flit in and out of the bucolic view and the sound of tea being taken wafts up from the terrace in the shade of vine leaves. When the heat fades, guests sip stiff gin and tonics as they scan the horizon at dusk for red deer that dash across the fields and into the woods.
Bucolic charm: Via Oliver’s Travels, Sarah Hartley booked a stay at Colleton Hall in North Devon (pictured) for a party of ten
These are not holiday memories from a grand country hotel with five shiny stars, rather scenes from somewhere far more bespoke, yet surprisingly far less costly: Colleton Hall, a delicate, cream-gabled Grade II listed 18th Century house standing proudly on the edge of its nearly 40-acre estate.
Our host, Russell, nods in the direction of a distant field and says with a wink: ‘A week here is cheaper than a Travelodge.’
Rewind to earlier in the year when, like so many families, we longed to gather for a celebration birthday and a holiday; to relax in comfort and style without breaking the bank. We wanted privacy, space to be ourselves, to laugh and joke and be as silly as we liked. Our party of ten, aged from eight to 80, agreed to find an agency with large houses to hire. There are plenty out there, such as bighouseexperience.com or kateandtoms.com. At first glance these period properties or swanky architect-designed pads may seem a tad too lavish, but grab a calculator and you’ll be surprised.
Cosily elegant: The Grade II listed 18th Century property sits on almost 40 acres of land. Above is the drawing room
Priced at £76pp a night, staying at Colleton Hall can work out as cheaper than holidaying in a Travelodge
Our property had to be more than a place to rest our heads; it needed to entertain for days when we wanted to loll. It needed acres of space so the readers didn’t clash with the ravers. A rental investment cynically kitted out according to the latest TV property show didn’t appeal. Our holiday home needed to have a life of its own, and enchant and invigorate so we could each fall in love with it and bank memories.
Experience says go for a property with more bedrooms than you need, for snorers or last-minute guests. Do the website photographs show the rooms clearly (arty shots are not helpful), and how detailed is the description once you’ve got past the ‘stunning’ and ‘truly marvellous’? Key words for a period property are ‘completely refurbished’ – wi-fi is essential. Will the owner be on hand for any issues? Will supermarkets deliver? (It’s easier then to share bills.) And, always scour the online guest book.
We plumped for North Devon as more reasonable pricewise than Cornwall and less crowded, plus it offered good transport links for our multi-pronged arrival.
Oliver’s Travels (tagline: Why do ordinary?) lists more than 310 UK properties that sleep eight guests or more – and came up with dreamy Colleton Hall. It sleeps 12 across six bedrooms and cost £6,429 a week for our dates, or £76pp a night. All boxes were ticked, plus extras for throwing a party or two: a Sonos sound system, two kitchens – one for caterers – and two dishwashers!
Our family shared photos of the place: a bedroom terrace overlooking the sweep of garden sold it for some, while others liked the open fireplaces, proper dining room and grand hall entrance.
Idyllic: Sarah was blown away by the drama of the slate-hued master bedroom (pictured) with its floor-to-ceiling windows
‘Experience says go for a property with more bedrooms than you need, for snorers or last-minute guests,’ Sarah advises
But the children fell for the bunk bedroom with en suite, spring-fed lake with paddleboards (and lifejackets), and the adventures to be had in their own woods. The drama of the slate-hued master bedroom with its ceiling-to-floor windows and heavy curtains framing the view did it for me.
The list went on – three acres of gardens, ten of parkland and 25 of woodland to call our own. A boot room, a games room with snooker table, and flowers in every room. All these trappings are what make a holiday property special; it has to have more to offer – more magic than your own home.
We were swiftly put in touch with Russell and his partner Richard, who own Colleton Hall. They live in the adjacent wing of the house and proved consummate hosts: would we like to book a yoga teacher for lessons? Did we fancy caterers to come in and cook dinner? There’s a barbecue too, if you want. The cupboards are stocked with essentials, said Russell, and so too are the beer and wine fridges. Do you like gin?
The children fell for the bunk bedroom with en suite (pictured) and the adventures to be had in their own woods
Sarah and her family learned to paddleboard in Colleton’s lake (pictured). ‘We were very happy indeed,’ she says
Download the Oliver’s Travels app and each member of the group could see a virtual countdown of the hours (and minutes!) left before the holiday would begin. It makes sense to pre-allocate bedrooms, to avoid potential friction on arrival and take the pressure off the booker (in this case me).
Once inside this glorious house, half the fun was exploring. Is that a David Hockney? Yes, and what about that Tracey Emin? The art collection was sensational and fun, especially the vibrant cow painting by Helen Thorpe in the kitchen.
The kitchen was the heart of our stay. After cocktails, it was perfect for a disco, terrace doors open, Abba bringing every age to their feet. We cooked, we pitched and putted, we played games, we read, we played the piano and we listened to music and sometimes pootled after George and Mildred, the resident mallards.
The art collection was sensational and fun, especially the vibrant cow painting by Helen Thorpe in the kitchen, Sarah reveals
Guests at Colleton Hall can sip stiff gin and tonics as they watch for the red deer that dash across the fields and into the woods
We took walks in the woods and unwrapped sandwiches at the brilliant picnic spots. We trailed across the fields accompanied by flights of butterflies.
If it hadn’t been the hottest week of the year, we could have melted marshmallows at the camp fire built at the top of the fields. Through lots of trial and error, we learned to paddleboard, cooled off by the water. We were very happy indeed.
The painstaking renovation of Colleton was lovingly carried out in lockdown by Russell and Richard, who clearly adore their role as its custodians and fondly remember previous guests. They recall the group of hearty octogenarians who took a daily dip in the lake in November, and the occasional, surprisingly genteel stag and hen parties.
We barely made it off the estate. We didn’t feel the need to visit Exmoor National Park, a mere 20-minute drive away, or the local beach of Saunton Sands.
Sarah and her family were too busy enjoying the estate to make it to the local beach, Saunton Sands (above)
Colleton Hall (colletonhall.co.uk) sleeps up to 12 guests from £63pp, per night. The East Wing can be booked for a further six guests. Rates include Oliver’s Travels concierge service (oliverstravels.com).
We did make it to Rackenford, the nearest village. It’s easy to overlook, but nose around the community-run village store and you’ll find it stocked with everything from antihistamines to smoked salmon. Book lunch at The Stag Inn, rumoured to be Devon’s oldest pub, to enjoy a Sunday lunch like no other – cooked by chef patrons Steve and Oliver. Roast Exmoor Topside or Roast Pork shoulder (two courses, £26) draws lunch guests from as far away as Surrey. A party of ten can dine at the long refectory table.
The All Saints Church fete welcomed us in with tea and scones, so it felt as if we’d crashed a jolly party and came away with paperback thrillers, a jar of jam and a porcelain terrier as mementoes of our staycation.
The highlight for my American nephews was tucking into cucumber sandwiches under a 350-year-old oak tree – something they’ll never do back home.
A beautiful property must always pass the Christmas test. Would it work at Colleton? The tree, of course, would reach ridiculous heights in the grand hall but, needless to say, it’s already booked. Only at New Year do Russell and Richard keep it for themselves and throw a huge house party.
You may not be a repeat-guest sort, but Colleton Hall could just change your mind.
And at £76 a head per night, it certainly matches Russell’s claim.
… AS IF TO THE MANOR BORN
Somerset House, Taunton, Somerset – £48 a night
Somerset House in Taunton (above) would suit those in search of an active holiday, as it boasts a tennis court, a full-size football pitch and gym
In the village of Shoreditch, near Taunton, you’ll find this Grade II-listed house where you can invite 20 friends and family for an active holiday.
There’s a tennis court, a full-size football pitch and gym. From May to September you can splash in the outdoor solar-heated pool and dine alfresco on the terrace. Sleeps 20, £6,720 per week/£48pp per night (thewowhousecompany.com).
Cromwell House – £83 a night
How about bunking down in Oliver Cromwell’s former Hunting Lodge? Cromwell House is an elegant and beautifully restored Grade II-listed property which sleeps up to 12 guests in six bedrooms – four in the main house and two in a separate annexe. It ticks all boxes for a multi-gen break with two acres to play with plus an outdoor heated swimming pool, a hot tub, a grass tennis court, trampoline, croquet lawn and sauna and steam room. There’s also a large terrace with seating, heating and a sunken fishpond. Inside expect open fireplaces, a stand-out kitchen for whipping up a meals and a games room featuring a Playstation with virtual reality headset and plenty of traditional board games. You’ll find it in the West Sussex village of Lickfold, in the beautiful South Downs National Park. A week costs from £6,995 with The Wow House Company (www.thewowhousecompany.co.uk).
Leuchie Walled Garden, North Berwick – £80 a night
The architectural delights of the post-Bauhaus Leuchie Walled Garden in North Berwick (pictured) can be enjoyed for £80pp per night
Enjoy the five-acre walled garden at this sleek post-Bauhaus property, the childhood home of Sir Hew Dalrymple.
The house, designed in 1960 by James Dunbar-Nasmith, is a wonderful contrast to the family’s splendid collection of furniture and portraits. Beyond the garden there’s 60 acres more to enjoy, with a tennis court and golf range. Sleeps 12, £6,800 per week/£80pp per night (leuchiewalledgarden.com).
Penally Manor – £71 a night
Built in 1840, this glorious Grade II-listed Manor house gives knockout 180-degree sea views towards Caldey Island. The epic views continue throughout – in the bedrooms and the three large reception rooms, as well as the outdoor swimming pool and the hot tub. The beautiful, south-facing orangery with large chandeliers is a really special spot to dine in style – and the hosts will help arrange caterers for celebrations. There’s a bar, a massive 75’’ flat screen TV and a games area with pool table. Sleeps 25, costs £5,324 for 3 nights or £71 pp/pn (vrbo.com).