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The Dreaded Inspectors Drop in on Douglas’s Barn

Sausage supper in Douglas’s Barn

The mystery shoppers are at it again, honing in again on Douglas’s Barn, where we last stayed almost a year ago, in November 2011. We get wonderfully appreciative comments from all our guests but there is always the sneaky worry that they are just being polite. And of course, we do just want to make absolutely sure everything is as good as we can make it and there is nothing like the owners’ critical eye.

Are our lovely guests just being polite? we wondered, and having a spare midweek short break without a booking this week we decided this was the signal for another hard-hitting personal inspection.

So in we moved in, from next door (a nicely green ‘car-free’ journey) to see how we would fare, with the aim once again of trying absolutely everything out, from boot dryers to using our brand new TV (wih HD) and Sky (where I quickly became unstuck, ditto the microwave) which is quite sobering. How do our poor guests cope? We have a file with all the manuals, conveniently placed in the drawer beneath the microwave, but apart from needing an advanced degree in Microwave technology and accompanying jargon, a month or two of spare time would help.

Making full use of the kitchen

Note one to ourselves: to make sure we know how to work everything and can produce a short, summarised, easy to follow instruction. We’re already working on it.

We cooked a full meal, using the oven and grill, electric beaters (I’m sure the misshapen cake was my fault), the electronic scales, several saucepans and a cake tin, measuring jug etc etc. So far so good: except the electric beaters looked very tired and smelled a bit hot after a minute or two; the ‘leather’ place mats didn’t pass muster, we discovered under a bright light one of the wine glasses to be slightly chipped so…

Note 2: Compile a (long) shopping list for urgent replacements.

We already knew it was time for our six monthly ‘decor spruce up’ and had arranged with Jason Fowkes, our wonderful decorator, to come on an inspection of walls and paintwork so we could plan what to do. Jason is excellent also as consultant. He has an artistic eye and very high standards, and as he is in close contact with so many really super properties he has a keen idea of what works well.

So he has been hard at work all day and is coming back for another, just making everything as smart and bright as possible. We identified together that the bathroom flooring needs replacing, probably with tiles, and we are hoping our joiner, David Goldstraw, will make us a nice wooden side panel for the bath to replace the original one that came with the bath six years ago.

Phew! We had to shed a few layers…

Note 3: Add to our list of things we need to achieve (we have been waiting six months now for our courtyard to be resurfaced, Shaun needs a reminder…)

Finally, I must admit that we were very warm in Douglas’s Barn, coming as we do from our draughty, old and distinctly coolish house. With the oven going, saucepans on the hob, central heating on with all the radiators full bore, we were soon down to t-shirts and going outside for a quick cool down/breath of fresh air. So now we have learnt, to turn the radiators down to the lowest setting and not to rely on more than one sweater! Modern house insulation is a wonderful thing, and a very novel experience for us… We’ll certainly advise our guests not to have the radiators turned up too high (thank goodness they all have an individual thermostat).

We still have another night, before shortly moving the microscope onto Tom’s Barn. No peace for the wicked.

Two Country Mice from Parwich go to London

The Addison Singers 24 November 2012

Every so often John and I are lucky enough to hit the highlights and enjoy a pleasure driven weekend in London, thanks to our London-based young and their many friends. It doesn’t take much to find an excuse for a visit; this weekend our daughter Ruthie was singing in a concert with the Addison Singers. Being fond and proud groupies we were delighted to be able to go; and even more delighted when Ruthie suggest she also get us all tickets on the Friday night before, for ‘A Chorus of Disapproval’ one of Alan Ayckbourn’s terrific plays we were lucky enough to see when it first came out, in the Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, in the days when we lived in Scarborough.

It is on at the Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Rob Brydon in the key role as Dafydd ap Llewellyn the long-suffering Welshman trying against the odds to produce an amateur production of the Beggars’ Opera. The play within the play reflects the similarities between the pimps, prostitutes and minor criminals of the 18th play and the would-be actors of the current version. The whole is clever, witty and very funny and we would whole-heartedly recommend it.

As we would also the Thai meal we enjoyed beforehand, at the Busaba Ethai, almost opposite the theatre. The food was good and the service attentive; this was slightly marred for us by John’s overhearing the waiters’ team briefing when we arrived (for a pre theatre meal). ‘ Be very charming, make lots of money!’ the manager was exhorting… As everything was pretty expensive anyway, we didn’t see the need for any extra charm.

The concert was superb, by any standards. St Peter’s Church, Notting Hill, was full to the brim; one of Ruth’s and our friends found herself talking music to the interesting man sitting next to her, who turned out to be the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who had come to hear the London premiere of ‘Proverb’, his own recent work! The main feature was the Mozart Requiem; there were several other works including Mozart’s Ave Verum corpus and Proverb (see above!).

A meringue for one!

While waiting for our train back to Derbyshire on Sunday, we decided to have a coffee in the St Pancras Hotel, in what is still called ‘The Booking Office’ (do you remember it?). St Pancras is such a delight anyway: every time I find myself there I feel privileged and grateful to the likes of Sir John Betjeman who prevented it all being rased to the ground and replaced with some ghastly modern monstrosity.

We hadn’t been to the hotel before. Next time we shall go for a cocktail – or you could have afternoon tea. Our coffee was a delightful experience. We were impeccably served by charming waitresses in very neat uniforms whom one could have mistaken for an air hostess. John’s meringue turned out to be the size of a small loaf of bread, very tactfully served with two knives and forks, so with very little reluctance I helped John make short work of it. We did feel the the embarrassing pile of meringue crumbs underneath us might perhaps have lowered the tone somewhat!

Finally, I must mention the Christmas lights. We had not given them a thought, so when the bus turned into Oxford Street John and I were like little children, totally overwhelmed, and John who is hardly ever without his camera was cursing the fact he hadn’t brought it.

We had to make do with mine, which unknowingly I had set on video mode (you can see what an expert I am…). Anyway, it does capture a little of the atmosphere as seen from the top of the 94 bus but sadly I have failed tonight to upload them onto this post!!

Dining Secretly in Sudbury Open Prison

Carrier bag from Sudbury open prison

John bought a bird feeder which came in this bag

Having written recently about the fantastic food at Fischer’s I though perhaps I would redress the balance slightly and let you know about a very nice lunch we had recently at the Secret Diner, in Sudbury (Derbyshire) Open Prison.

Just for your interest, Sudbury is a Category D open prison for males which I gather means it will usually be for non violent short term or prisoners at the end of a long sentence. Prisoners can wander freely but have to show up for roll calls etc; we do quite often hear of prisoners absconding from Sudbury, and whilst that might be foolish, it can’t be very difficult to do. When we visited, it did look as if there was a fence of sorts, but nothing too off-putting if you were determined to get out.

Anyway, the prison has quite recently opened a restaurant, in the grounds but just outside the fence. The building is an old Nissan hut, but clean and attractively decorated. The Diner doubles as a staff canteen and is only open from 11.30am to 1pm on weekdays. It’s probably advisable to ring to book – the number is 01283 584000 and the postcode for Satnavs is DE6 5HW.

Lunching at the Secret Diner

The very sound idea behind the Secret Diner is that it provides an excellent opportunity for prisoners, who can put the training and experience they receive to good use when they get out. I couldn’t tell who were prisoners and who were staff, but it didn’t seem to matter in the slightest.

You won’t be surprised to hear it is not exactly fine dining; one sits at formica tables and queues up to be served but the food was more than acceptable, very plentiful, with lots of choice and all extremely reasonably priced. We went with a crowd of Parwich friends and we all thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the occasion. We were almost embarrassed it was so cheap, and although the staff were extremely pleasant, we weren’t allowed to leave a tip although it was suggested that if we wished we could donate to some charities they support, including the local branch of Riding for the Disabled, which we were all glad to do. We had a three-course meal, with coffee and it came to well under £10 each.

After lunch several of us visited their Farm Shop, where they sell vegetables etc that the prisoners grow, and things they have made like bird feeders and nesting boxes. I was very taken by the fact that there also several dozen pairs of identical black men’s size 8 shoes, being sold for £2.50 each! No other sizes, no other colours… That was an unanswered mystery and if anyone can ever solve it for me I shall be grateful.

Fantastic Food at Fischer’s

This summer, to celebrate the 2012 “proud to be British’ campaign many local businesses offered real bargains of some sort; one of the most generous and most enticing offers we cam across was the £20.12 lunch offered by Fischer’s, Baslow Hall.

Beautiful gardens at Baslow Hall

The food is delicious, the gardens are lovely

Now, Fischer’s, for those of you who don’t know the area yet, is the only restaurant in Derbyshire to hold a Michelin Star; their head chef, Rupert Rowley, recently won Silver in the Taste of England category at the national Visit England Awards for Excellence 2012. The restaurant is in a beautifully restored country house surrounded by lovely gardens, in Baslow, the other side of Bakewell, about half an hour’s drive from Tom’s and Douglas’s Barns.

£20.12 lunch at Fischer's

John enjoying the pudding

We went in the summer, and loved the whole experience. The food was pretty amazing too! We have just heard from them today that it was so popular that they are going to continue the offer throughout 2013. They are now offering a special “2013” menu, available from Monday to Friday, 12 noon-1.30 pm at a cost of £20.13 for two courses, and £25.13 for three courses between 2nd January to 29th November, excluding 14th February.

Fine dining at Fischer's

Fischer’s, Baslow Hall

This is already fantastic value – but wait for it – in addition, Fischer’s are partners in our Peak District Premier Cottages Privilege Card scheme, which entitles all guests staying with us to a 10% discount on top of the very generous offer. Mention it when you book, and be sure to show them your Privilege Card on your keyring when you arrive!

Obviously, you may well decide to stretch the budget to include wine, or coffee afterwards, but you don’t need to, and will be under no (external) pressure to do so. I must say we did, and then had a very relaxing stroll round the gardens to make the whole occasion a very special one indeed.

We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Below is a sample menu to give you a flavour of what you might expect. Tables need to be reserved in advance by ringing them on 01246 583259 or emailing: reservations@fischers-baslowhall.co.uk.

“£20.13 Lunch”

Duck Liver Parfait
toasted brioche, Fischer’s chutney

Nasturtium Cured Salmon
tartar, pickled kohirabi, horseradish snow

Confit of Duck Leg
rosti potato, honey & orange sauce

Pan Fried Cod
roast cauliflower, curry spices & granola

Toasted Marshmallow
Haygrove strawberries, tarragon custard

Warm Chocolate Pudding
damson ice cream, caramelised hazelnuts

Two courses £20.13

Three courses £25.13

Our dishes may contain nuts, raw eggs & unpasteurised cheese.

Keep the Home Fires Burning?

A busy day today and it is pleasant to relax now.

Fridays are always busy but today was busier than necessary.

We had a Fire Safety Assessment scheduled for today (they had to have entry into both barns, so it had to be a Friday). When I realised today was also our cleaning day I rang to explain that we would not have much time to spare, could we perhaps suggest that another day might be better? The very pleasant man assured me there was absolutely no need to worry. ‘We’ll only take a few minutes of your time he said and then we’ll spend the rest inspecting both barns on our own’.

Well, rather predictably, the whole visit took over two hours, and for a lot of it in spite of their assurances, they needed one of us there. As John was busy power washing our stone slabs which with all this rain were getting very potentially slippery, of course the one of us the Fire Audit men needed was me. I must have appeared very distracted and possibly not as cooperative as I/they would have wished. When you want, as we do, each barn to look immaculate when guests arrive, so it feels to them as if no one has ever been before, this doesn’t happen by chance. It takes 4 1/2 to 5 hours of sheer physical (loving – we take a pride in it) slog. And it’s got to be ready when the guests arrive. Unlike some deadlines, there is no scope for saying ‘ Sorry, I’ll be a day or two late’, or even an hour or two…

Anyway, with John drafted in after he’d got all the slabs looking startlingly anaemic and for the moment not even potentially slippery, and all was well. We finished in time, as did Janet in Tom’s Barn, so that’s that for a couple of days.

Ad as for the audit, we now await the official report. Nothing dramatic was mentioned today; we were told we ought to have an extra smoke detector at the top of the stairs in both barns and one or two other very sensible suggestions. After all, the last thing anyone wants is a fire so any advice to help prevent the likelihood is gratefully received and acted upon if practicable

More news later, when we have received the report.

All That Glitters…?

We have recently been warned by Visit England that standards have to be raised. Since the award was first launched over half of England’s Five Star cottages have now been given the Gold Award.

Visit England argues, very convincingly, that the bar has to be raised. If over half Five star cottages receive this award, the award has lost its value.

Gold is gold, and not to be taken for granted.

So far so good; it is when one realises that it is not ‘them’ but probably ‘we’ that get downgraded it becomes more personal.

Loss of face certainly, if our Gold Award status is taken away, but practically, also, think of all the stationery that has to be reprinted, the website entries that will soon have to be changed.

If you look at the Visit England table you will see that in every category the stakes have been raised. The only one that instantly doesn’t worry us is the cleanliness. We have consistently scored 100%. The other grades are more problematic, and reignite some longterm anxieties about the scoring system which up until now has seemed to many so subjective, and so unpredictable.

Our two barns have identical tiled floors, and identical wall surfaces: they have received differing grades. In Tom’s Barn we were advised to replace our cooker and the Ikea occasional tables we had. As always, I pored over Which and spent hours in John Lewis and eventually chose an Electrolux double over AA+ model with excellent Which recommendations as being easy to use and to cook with excellent results. We replaced all our old coffee and bedside tables with locally custom made oak beauties, at some considerable expense. They are a great improvement, but did our grades nudge up just a single point? No!

The other anxiety we have always had, is the scope, within a tick box Yes/No system of acknowledging intentionally differing styles. With our two barns we have tried to keep things relatively unfussy, more barn than boutique boudoir. We don’t go in for massive flower arrangements or lavish drapes at the windows. We aim at top quality comfort and quality in an unfussy and unostentatious style. Will that count against us? Time will tell.

The last anxiety that I will mention (there are others) is this: how do you measure the unmeasurable? How do you gauge the degree of genuine care and concern for your well-being, even kindness? How can an inspector coming for the first time – and as an inspector, not a guest – get an understanding of how easy the website is to navigate, how enquiries are dealt with, booking arrangements, whether there is efficient and friendly pre-visit contact, pre-arrival information, whether guests return or never do…? All they can do, if they think of it at all, is to ask these questions of the owner, who quite naturally will answer, “Oh, but of course, yes.”

So, all we can do is continue as always to try to make our barns as cleans and as well-kempt as possible, and to look after you our guests as well as we can from start to finish. If we lose our Gold Awards we shall be devastated, but our standards won’t have changed at all.

Without more real understanding of what makes a ‘good’ cottage a special cottage it is rather like judging a car by its gleaming looks on the garage forecourt, unaware that it has no engine.

Stop the Brain Rot: Train the Brain!

This afternoon our son suggested, kindly, that I might enjoy the challenge of training my brain, and recommended a site he uses called Luminosity. More or less simultaneously I spotted a link – needless to say, on Twitter, to an article by Graham Jones, an ‘Internet Psychologist’ in which he claims, very convincingly that regular use of the Internet affects our intellect and memory.

The bogey used to be too much telly making one fat and passive, now the threat is our intellect and memory shrinking through lack of use: in other words, brain rot, brought on by being locked excessively in an intimate and essentially superficial world of one’s own, shared only with a computer/tablet/smart phone. And we’re still all getting fat because we’re still all sitting all the time. We’ve just swopped one screen for another.

So, I am wondering, should one try to redress the balance, and embark on these brain games? I think yes, ‘if only for the fun of it’, but deep down it feels much more than simply fun. Apparently most people are unaware that they no longer rely on their memory, or their intellect, but rely on the internet to nanny them. We are spoon-fed bulleted facts, reminders, calculations, grammar and punctuation. We have become impatient for results, lazy, with the attention span of a butterfly. None of this is hard to believe.

As an ex-teacher, I cannot help noticing too that we are all tending to adopt a kind of text speak ‘Twitteresque’ style. People tend to write in soundbites, the fairly limited conventional vocabulary is liberally peppered with ‘OMG’, ‘LOL’ ‘Wowees’ etc; they/we are more ’emotional’ and extravagant with praise or criticism, quick to jump to conclusions rather than to take a measured approach. It is all rather superficial. However, it is very easy, very tempting – we don’t have to think too deeply and this all makes life simpler in the short term, and certainly more sociable via the keypad.

Does it make us more sociable in reality? I am always struck by the number of young couples one sees, arm in arm as they walk down the street, each transfixed – not by each other – but by an individual smartphone which holds their entire attention, away from each other. Are they texting one another? Are the sweet nothings coming via the screen? Or are they confiding to their separate friends the fact they’re walking down with the road with each other…? ‘OMG, wowed, I’m sooooooooooo excited…”.

But perhaps one is too harsh. Maybe they are playing brain games. I read encouraging reports from Luminosity readers about improved memory and concentration, becoming more alert, thinking more clearly and I am ressured to read that ‘the brain can reorganize itself when confronted with new challenges, even through adulthood. If you hear nothing more it will be not through modesty, but embarrassment.


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