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All ‘frou-frou’ and holey knickers?

‘Would you describe your cottages as luxury?’

Those of you who have seen our video will probably understand my reply (which confusingly comes as the opening line, such is the power of web editing).  I shudder with embarrassment every time I hear it – it’s not what I say, but how it comes out…

Luxury is indeed an ‘overworked work’, as is quality when it is used to imply ‘top’ quality. But just describing something as luxury, or ‘quality’ doesn’t make it so, and one sometimes feels that copywriters and ad men ought to realise this; the trouble is, we each have our own idea of what the words do mean. For some people luxury simply means ‘better than everyday’ and costing correspondingly more, for other it might imply nothing less than consorting with celebrities on their private yachts, or bathing in asses’ milk. In between one finds elaborate drapes at the window and cushions strewn artfully on the bed, half-used loo paper rolls artfully pointed into a ‘v’. I would not want any of that. To me that would feel pure extravagance or pure show, or both, without any real value.

John and I returned recently from a flying visit to Ludlow, in Shropshire. The occasion was a sad one, to attend the Memorial Service for Andrew Walters, a friend and colleague of John’s. A musical and intelligent man, he had planned his own service at St Michael’s Church, Tenbury Wells with great care. Andrew Lumsden, organist at Winchester Cathedral played the organ, magnificently; a most impressive choir of men and women, young and old had been gathered  together for the occasion and sang quite beautifully; the congregation  of about 250 family, friends, colleagues, former pupils all knew all the hymns and all the tunes (doesn’t always happen these days!) and all sang loudly and with great obvious enjoyment. The whole effect was totally uplifting.  We felt privileged to be there, not sad but joyful.

Thinking about it afterwards, that was quality, but you couldn’t put a price on it. To carry on the theme, we had booked a room for the night in Ludlow, at de Grey’s, which describes itself as ‘Accommodation and Tearooms’. In a way it seemed a funny mix but the reviews were excellent  so we had taken the plunge. When we arrived early, simply to drop off our bags before the service, we were shown Room 2, which opened straight out into the little walkway.  There was the usual cleaning clutter at the foot of the stairs and a carpenter was fixing the door. The delightful Vicky who had guided us to the car park was most apologetic that the room was not ready, although having arrived early we had never expected that it might be. All the same, it did not seem too promising and a big question mark did pop up in my mind. Was this ‘accommodation for the discerning’?

Indeed it was (I’d like to assume we are discerning…)! In fact the room was charming, extremely spacious and comfortable, and spotlessly clean. The bathroom was enormous, with both a roll topped bath and a shower, with basins in between. We felt we were in a private apartment, with our own – now repaired  – front door. This was quality, we felt; this was luxury, understated and discreet. Everything had been thought of for our comfort; the room was charmingly furnished with quality things and one felt  that within reason no expense had been spared, with the aim of providing comfort rather than ostentation.

We’ve all been to places where after a few minutes you realise that the glossy  ‘performance’ is actually tatty and possibly even grubby. As a good friend of ours calls it, ‘All frou-frou and holey knickers”

On the other hand, we felt our room was even better than it looked. We could not have felt more comfortable, nor felt better cared for. We felt our every need had been anticipated.(The breakfast was good, too, but that’s another story.)

We expected 5* and we got it, quality through and through and then plus some. Is that a clue to the definition of quality, or luxury, as far as accommodation is concerned? To provide more than is at first apparent – frilly knickers rather than holey ones?

I realise now that that is what we aspire to with our own holiday accommodation, to please and surprise our Tom’s and Douglas’s Barns guests rather than to disappoint. I hope occasionally we succeed but of course that is for you to decide!

‘The best holiday accommodation we have ever stayed in’

Do you believe in TripAdvsaor?

‘The best’, ‘perfection’, ‘luxury…’. What does that mean to you and me?

It is hard to strike a balance, between a discreet modesty and blatant bragging but I am afraid today this will be nearer blatant bragging than we feel comfortable with. However, we were very delighted to read this latest review on TripAdvisor, written by guests who stayed recently in Douglas’s Barn. We were particularly delighted, because they told before they left us that they had stayed in many holiday cottages, were hard to please and had often been disappointed, which makes their comments all the more pleasing!

TripAdvisor is often feared, or decried, and one can only imagine how upsetting it must be to receive malicious reports from competitors or from guests who may well have behaved very badly during their visit to a bargain basement establishment somewhere that tuns out – rather unsurprisingly, to be rather unattractive. And of course there are always tales of employers churning out gushing, ecstatic reviews of their own accommodation.

I don’t know about you, but John and I certainly always consult TripAdvisor before booking somewhere to stay, or to eat. It is easy to spot and immediately discount the one-off angry blast or the very suspicious glowing comments that could only have come from the pen of someone in the know.

Also one decides what is important. Whenever we check out somewhere local  before recommending it to our guests, John always insists on inspecting the Gents. He reckons that if they can’t keep their loos clean, there isn’t much hope for their kitchen hygiene either, never mind anything else. I couldn’t agree more, but am equally concerned that everywhere – including the Gents but I have to take his word for that – looks and smells clean and that the service is sincerely friendly, not forced  ‘friendly’ or even worse, ‘They’ve booked, so we don’t need to bother any more…”. If we’re considering booking a restaurant table, I am very concerned to read about the quality of the food. It’s no good going somewhere  sweet smelling, with spotless Gents’ loos if the food is dull or badly cooked.

However, one can’t always visit in person, and like many, I am more influenced by other users’ reports of what they actually experienced rather than the glowing description of facilities by the biassed owner/manager who has never tried them out for himself and in his enthusiasm risks -inviting disappointment, by over-promising the delights.

So, we are very happy to use TripAdvisor and are very grateful for nice comments written there by our Tom’s and Douglas’s Barn guests. Thank you!

I shall write a post soon, I fear, trying to define more clearly  what we mean by ‘The best’, ‘perfection’, ‘luxury’ ‘top quality’ – all descriptions that we hear about Tom’s and Douglas’s Barns…

 

Comments from a Canine Guest Blogger

Rocky Rimmer 025

Our Canine Guest Blogger

We get many beautiful dogs visiting Tom’s Barn with their owners: many rescue dogs, many mongrels and many very aristocratic pedigrees. We don’t as far as we know have many literate ones, so were very pleased to see that Rocky, an English Springer Spaniel who stayed recently, wrote in our Tom’s Barn Visitors’ book last week. You hear of Guide Dogs, Deaf Dogs but Rocky may be the only Scribe Dog we will come across.

He writes: Take me home – I need a rest! I’m on the go all day. I’ve been to Ashbourne, Matlock and Bakewell; my favourite was the water at Carsington. But best of all was lying in front of the log fire, me and my owners all asleep. They struggle to keep up with me – they’re middle-aged, not like me!! But they haven’t done too badly…A pint at the local, then food at the George and the Devonshire Arms at Beeley. It sounded like they enjoyed it.

The weather has been great for us four-legged friends Thank you for my lovely weekend – I can hardy keep my eyes open!

Self-Catering Web Awards

Tom’s & Douglas’s Barns at Orchard Farm

No! We didn’t even make the short list, sorry! Obviously not everyone can win and we will try and learn from those that did. I must admit I thought the overall winners’ website – Mortons of Pitmilly – is super! I also particularly liked the Welsh winners’ website, East Jordeston Cottages. They’re both very clear and informative and make you want to visit them.

There were 327 entrants apparently, competing in three different categories: agency, owner operated, self-catering portal; also four regional winners from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, and one overall winner. The scoring criteria was content, navigation, design and functionality.

I think the idea was generated by SuperControl who provide an online booking service for a growing number of self-caterers (including us since 2009); however they were not involved in the judging process. It comes from the assumption (clear intention, no doubt as in SuperControl’s case) that more and more self-caterers will incorporate online booking.

Apparently according to a Mintel report (no source provided!) 7/10 holidays were booked online last year.To digress for a moment, I can’t help feeling that this is slightly misleading. If one is booking a package holiday, or a special offer bargain short break where the emphasis is on speed, on bagging the bargain offer… ‘Book now!” “Offer closes at midnight!!” – the priority is on speed; you know what you want, or you don’t really care as long as there’s sun, a bed and a beach or to spend as little as possible. However, when you’re looking for holiday accommodation of a superior quality it’s not about speed, but about careful choice. You may mull for weeks over the perfect spot for your family get-together, that perfect romantic cottage for two. We have many honeymoon couples who don’t take their choice of venue lightly.

We certainly have had more online than ‘admin’ bookings over the last three years, but not significantly so. Herein may lie the weakness of my argument and maybe why we didn’t even make the short list!

Is it because our website is not clear, because the design is faulty or unattractive, or difficult to navigate? We’d appreciate some honest responses, if anyone is kind enough!

However, a surprising number of guests do like to have a chat first, just for reassurance. They may go on and book online as had been their intention, but often will ask us to do it for them while we’re chatting. It’s all about building a two-way trustful relationship.

To return to the competition, it is disappointing not even to make the short list and even more disappointing that we will never know why as I think it is only the short-listed entries that get feedback. I have had a quick look at the winners‘ websites and will try to see what we could learn from them. One thing strikes me, is that they are quite all big outfits, not small and more personal ones like ours whose needs may be slightly different.

Our website is constantly evolving as John, Jeremy Brough our web designer, and I try to think how we can improve its usefulness and fun all the time. But one thing remains constant: our website is for you our guests. It is a unique online relationship with you, just as we feel we have with you when you stay here ‘on the ground’! It’s for us, not necessarily to win competitions!

How Long is a Piece of (Luxury Holiday Accommodation) String?

It’s that funny time of year. Christmas and New Year have come and gone and we are all still here in spite of seriously gloomy Mayan prognostications.

So what to do? How do we keep up the sense of excitement and euphoria? To avoid inertia we’ve got to have a purpose, we’ve got to see a way ahead… Everywhere you turn there are predictions and announcements about the year ahead, what will and won’t happen, what will be the latest fashion and what will not, who will be in and who out.

The travel industry is as keen as any to enthuse potential customers into future activity. I read somewhere that Thomson’s Holidays is braced for a massive number of bookings and enquiries on Sunday (Jan 6th) which is apparently THE key day for forward planning in the post-Christmas spell of apparent gloom. So, the message they want you to hear is, if you want to book a Thomson’s holiday, get in quick! It will be amusing to see what happens to our bookings. (We’ll let you know…)

TripAdvisor recently commissioned a review of 5,600 people, and announced with a roll of drums which echoed round Facebook and travel blogs, that 25% of those questioned intended to spend more on their holidays this year. No one seemed to have read further on to see that in fact far more – 42% – intended to spend the same and indeed nearly one third intended to reduce their expenditure.

But even though this seems less optimistic figures like these are meaningless. If last year you went on a round the world cruise, you surely would expect to be spending less this year unless you were going to repeat the exercise, but you might still be spending a lot of money by ‘normal’ standards. Or someone else might be pushing the boat out by by spending two nights in a budget hostel rather than one.

Visit Britain is planning a big ‘staycation’ campaign to encourage people to holiday at home. This suits us, of course, and holiday cottages would not be so popular if no one holidayed at home anyway! Funnily enough earlier today we were talking to our guests who were leaving after their New Year week here. They were saying they used to go abroad but planned now to keep exploring Britain and to avoid the frustrations and stress of airport travel.

They were marvelling over the variety of scenery our small island has to offer, and how standards have risen including the quality of food. We agreed whole-heartedly with that. In the thirteen years since Tom’s Barn was ‘born’ our own expectations have risen, and those of our guests. We have always aimed, right from the start, to provide top quality five star service but the quality of this top quality service has increased…

So how do you measure quality? How do you define ‘value for money’? How long is a piece of string? Just occasionally someone will ring up to enquire about booking a week in high summer, or perhaps at Christmas, and when we mention the price (£655 is the top rate now) we will be told with a horrified gasp that they can easily get a week for under half that. No doubt you can, somewhere, but is the price fully inclusive? Will you perhaps arrive and find the cottages damp, dark and unloved without even a comforting teabag awaiting you? Do you have to pay for extra firewood, or electricity? (We once stayed in a holiday cottage where I rather disappointingly spent the first day cleaning, simply enough to make it hygienic and throughout the holiday the children had to sit on their anoraks on the seriously greasy/grubby/damp sofa. We were freezing cold because we didn’t learn how to work the electricity meter until the last day and just as well, the rate it gobbled up our £1 coins. That holiday and that cottage has gone down in family history as one of mother’s very worst family ‘treats’!)

It was a useful first lesson in what we, as a fairly ‘normal’ family without particularly demanding high standards, would try hard to avoid in future and what we would look for instead: care, comfort, cleanliness and good quality throughout. So, my moral is, if you want a bargain basement discount cheapie don’t look here! If you don’t mind paying more for the best quality and service we can provide for you, we might be the place you’re dreaming of. You might even feel it was a bargain at the price…

The Mystery Shopper Challenge

As you probably know, after we, the ‘Mr and Mrs Mary Portas’ from Orchard Farm, had spent a very happy few days doing our best to identify the slightest failing Douglas’s Barn, we had been planning to focus our relentlessly beady eyes on Tom’s Barn and to be fair, enjoy a few relaxing days there too at the same time

However, after an extremely busy and long day on Friday the spirit failed and we rather weakly decided to delay until the (Saturday) morning and start on our quest feeling fresh. That was our lucky undoing. Quite late on Friday evening we received a very last minute enquiry from an eagle eyed couple who had spotted we had a gap. And less than 24 hours later they are here, and happily settled in until Wednesday. And we are still at home, foiled for the time being.

There is still one midweek break available in Tom’s Barn, Monday 10 to Friday 14 December. The normal price is £330 but because it is so soon and because it is just before Christmas and because… we would reduce the price to £295. We do actually want to stay there ourselves but we don’t like having our barns empty and anybody who would like to come has priority over us!

The snag is, we will ask you to do the mystery shopper things for us, and help us spot what needs repairing, replacing or even introducing. It does mean we would hope you would shamelessly try out everything, from DVD player to toasted sandwich maker and let us know what your findings are.

If you are dogless, there is a gap in Douglas’s Barn too, same thing goes for the price… You could try the mystery shopper role but hopefully we have got there first. Now there’s another challenge – spot our deliberate mistakes.

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.

Funny First Impressions

We all love flowers!

I was reminiscing recently about the coronation and how somehow its importance had been signified to a young girl by being given a bottle of CocaCola at school.

Idly playing with my iPad this morning I decided to see what TripAdvisor had to say about a local hostelry in nearby Biggin. (We are very often asked to recommend suitable places to stay near here if we are already booked or even for people who don’t want self-catering at all, believe it or not…).

Having already noticed how easily influenced a “traveller” can be – one had rated this particular speciality lodging 2/5 because her glass of red wine appeared chilled, I was informed at the bottom of the page that the person reading this review (me) had funnily enough also visited a nearby speciality lodging, Tom’s Barn and Douglas’s Barn… So back I popped, to our page, but fortunately for us, our lovely and warmly grateful guests are not so easily put off – and fortunately for us too, of course, we don’t serve wine at all, chilly red or not, so no risk of a problem there.

At a workshop the other day we were all told that apparently it takes everyone – is it three seconds, or five – to gain a lasting impression about other people or a place, which is a seriously scary thought. But facing me now is an even scarier thought: impressions gleaned by some mechanical algorithmic process, in this case a TripAdvisor robot scanning our reviews.

Under the section: What TripAdvisor travellers say about this ‘Speciality Lodging’ it picks out as the main points:
“Fresh flowers” (9)
“Short drive” (4)
“Personal touch” (3)
“Very warm welcome” (3)
“Lovely place” (3)

All lovely observations, if short on detail – and I am quite surprised it hasn’t picked up all the appreciative cake comments which keep cropping up – but that is beside the point. What intrigues me, is the “short drive” which comes second from the top. Is the Orchard Farm drive embarrassingly brief or in fact is this seen as a good thing? Or perhaps it’s only a short drive to Chatsworth? Or from home, be it Lincoln, Taunton, Aberdeen or even Derby (yes, we’ve several guests from as short a drive away as Derby, Chesterfield and Sheffield). I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but that’s another example of a possibly quite unhelpful if not completely misleading first impression.

Homemade cake or biscuits for you

Still, there’s no use agonising over this. We’ll continue to care for you/all our guests as well as we possibly can, in spite of the short drive. It is such a pleasure to welcome here so many truly nice, interesting, different, fun people. We try hard to make our barns as lovely for you as we possibly can and we can be pretty sure you will love them. The rest we can take no credit for: it’s down to our great good fortune to be in a quiet, friendly village in such a beautiful setting with wonderful walking and in fact only a short drive to so many interesting places.

Keeping up with Facebook

Percy the Peacock - strutting his stuff

That is a very pretentious title, as we can hardly claim to be anywhere near even understanding what it’s all about, let alone keeping up, despite the fact we (as in I and our barns) have been Facebook users for about four years, passive users for at least 31/2 of those four years, with the dawning realisation that this is the way things are going, fast, for the time being, until the next development comes along.

It is amazing how things have changed in such a reactively short time, especially now with so many people using smart phones which are more or less portable mini computers providing instant personal access to the internet and social networking sites.

Many companies employ several people to do nothing else but ‘work’ their Social Networking connections as a marketing tool but of course, one-off small businesses, like us and so many other holiday cottage owners, have no one to fall back on and it is one more thing to add to the daily agenda. However, as someone who loves people, talking and writing, I am finding i really rather enjoy it and the danger is the risk of spending too much enjoyable but entirely unproductive time as far as social marketing goes. I like the communication, am much less happy abut the marketing/selling which actually, with only two cottages already with a big loyal following, hardly seems an urgent priority. Also, quite significantly, there is for John and me the now rather old-fashioned but nevertheless deep mistrust boasting, bragging, swanking, showing off, call it what you will.

However, we are always aware of the danger of getting left behind, admiring what laurels one can muster or being hindered by outmoded inhibition, so in an attempt to smarten up the act I have enrolled for some Social Media training and through unfortunate management have two sessions this coming week, one day after the other. In the preliminary chat with one trainer, he expressed shock that our Tom’s and Douglas’s Barn page only had 73 ‘Likes’ and was unimpressed when I said that they were practically all genuine ‘Likes’ from guests and friends. The point is that if one’s page is too tiny one can get completely lost in the rankings, and nobody much gets the chance to read one’s news, or to see John’s photos as we sink into social oblivion.

So that is the first challenge, to extend our network by getting more people to like us… You can see why one cringes! But in case you genuinely would like to like us, and are on Facebook yourself, please do so and preferably before Wednesday so I can hold my head a little higher when I meet this trainer on Wednesday.

Thank you!

How Did You Enjoy Your Time in Douglas’s Barn?

Daffodils amid the waning snowdrops

It had been such a long time since I last collected some comments that they have had to come in two instalments. This is the second Douglas’s barn one and Tom’s Barn’s will follow in due time.

“Lovely stay! You have thought of everything to meet our every need.”: October 2011

“Thank you John and Marion for making our Pearl Anniversary so special! Our 2nd visit and just as excellent as ever.” October 2011

“Dearest John and Marion, what a joy to meet you both and stay in Douglas’s Barn! We have had such a wonderful time: the barn is so beautiful, we felt like the first ever visitors here! The love and care you have taken makes this a place we truly do not want to leave! Thank you so much for everything.” December 2011

“What a beautiful place to stay. We enjoyed it so much we barely left during our visit! A brilliant setting for A’s 30th and for getting into the Christmas spirit.” Dec 2011

“What a wonderful place to relax and take it easy. I can’t remember the last time I spent so much time doing nothing…apart from walking, running, jigsaws, knitting, reading and…relaxing.” Christmas 2011

“Thank you so much for a wonderful week. The cottage had everything we could possibly need and was incredibly cosy. We loved the local walks, and lots of eating too. Great local food.” January 2012

“Wonderful barns, hosts and village. We have completely recharged our batteries. We will be back!” February 2012

There is just one thing I really feel must be said: if we were to write a Guests’ Report we would be pretty gushing. We are most very fortunate in that we have such genuinely lovely, interesting  people staying here. It makes it so easy and pleasant for us. In fact, as I write this, inspiration has struck: I think my next blog post must be a Report on our Guests – so wait for it!


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