Ben Davies takes the tried-and-tested route to an enjoyable, scenic and value-for-money family holiday in the UK by turning to the National Trust.
Trust your English country holiday to the preservation society
Choosing a self-catering holiday cottage in any country is something of a lottery: you may find yourself in a picturesque gem that you never want to leave, yet it can so easily go the other way. As a child I remember staying in a gite in France where the mice ran free and a sofa collapsed on my mother's foot leaving her needing medical attention. In the English county of Herefordshire, we once stayed in a place where the carpets were so dirty it didn't feel wise to walk on them.
So, with a baffling array of websites and agencies offering promising-looking accommodation in the UK, how could we really be sure we would get what we hoped for when we booked our last holiday back home?
The National Trust is the organisation in England and Wales that preserves stately homes and protects substantial stretches of British countryside and coastline from overdevelopment. These days, like so many organisations, the NT has diversified. In a logical step, it lets many of its beautifully appointed properties to holidaymakers.
It makes for a unique way to explore Britain - not least because each house or apartment varies enormously and they are often intrinsically linked to a particular area, giving real insight into the way people lived.
Both my wife and I gravitate towards England's West Country, having had happy holidays in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset as adults and as children.
From steam railways through to gorgeous coastline, it's a great place to take children. So accompanied by our daughter, Seren, aged three, and son Morgan, aged 18 months, we spent a few days in Coastguards Cottages in Peppercombe in North Devon. Set down a longish track through dense woodland, a terrace of three properties sits in a steep valley, just a few minutes walk from the sea.
Arriving felt like a quasi-clandestine process - I was given a National Trust telephone number to call in the details that came with our booking, and having identified myself, I was provided with a padlock code (the gate to a track) and a number for a key safe at the cottage door. With the NT, you can reserve with a deposit but the balance is due at least six weeks before the holiday begins.
As we bumped down the muddy track, I feared a little for my hire car - I've form when it comes to damaging oil sumps. But I needn't have worried - a mile or so later we found ourselves in the tight turn around that doubled as the car park for the cottages.
Having squeezed the vehicle into the row of elderly VWs - reliable and understated like many of the people who opt for this kind of holidaying - we unleashed our very excited daughter and slightly emotional son on the peace and quiet.
The cottage we stayed in was built from cob in the late 18th century originally to house the officers of what was then called the Preventive Service, whose role it was to police this wild stretch of coast against smugglers.
The National Trust gives good, accurate descriptions on its website so you know pretty much what it is you will be getting before you arrive at a property. At other cottages we've ordered groceries to be delivered by one of the supermarkets - Waitrose or Sainsbury - to coincide with our arrival. But given the access issues with gated drives and a tight turnaround, this wasn't possible at Peppercombe. You're wise to bring some provisions with you if the location is particularly remote. Typically we plan for a first dinner and breakfast.
All NT cottages come with bed linen and towels and some wood for the fire. You're expected to leave properties in a clean and tidy state on vacating before the caretaker comes in and prepares for the next visitors.
We spent our honeymoon in Mortuary Cottage in a small hamlet also in Devon. When we were expecting our first child we stayed - somewhat impractically - in a converted water tower in the beautiful Trelissick Gardens in Feock, Cornwall.
Some of the properties are grand apartments in beautiful old houses. Others are very remote - such as Foel Gopyn in Gwynedd, North Wales, which is lit by gas lights. Others are just plain quirky, such as the Birdcage in Port Isaac.
You can have a much cheaper self-catering holiday in Britain, but the National Trust properties tend to be beautifully presented, there are lots of nice touches and the visitors' book is a mine of useful information about local attractions, hostelries and restaurants. And, of course, you're on National Trust land so you're likely to be in a place of idyllic beauty with many fine walks and things to visit in easy reach.
Peppercombe was well-equipped, nicely appointed but not entirely suitable for very young children. If your kids were six and above it would be pretty ideal as they could go off and explore the paths, play in the woods and skim stones from the beaches.
Ours were a little too small to cope with the rather steep front garden and steps up to the first floor. Not that this dented our enjoyment with visits to places such as Clovelly, a car-free traditional fishing village just along the coast.
Virtually every NT property I've stayed in has an interesting tale behind it - and nestling back into a comfortable chair in front of the woodburner after a good dinner, it makes for an extremely atmospheric holiday - one where, for a glowing moment, you feel you've tapped into the past.
For the second half of our week we continued our stay in Devon, moving east to Silverton Park Stables outside Cullompton. A rather austere building at first sight, Silverton is owned by the Landmark Trust - a charity established to rescue historic properties, according to their blurb - and give them new life by letting them for holidays.
Having penetrated the substantial red brick interior, you find yourself entering the property the way the horses used to, into a large courtyard with a number of doors off it.
Most of the bedrooms were grouped in twos and threes, with impressive views across a historic parkland. All the bedrooms - which together can sleep up to 14 people - are well-equipped, nicely furnished and with lovely bathrooms. We'd gone around all of them before we discovered the kitchen and living area - a huge, beautiful space furnished to allow different groups to form during an evening.
Many of the properties Landmark takes on are in a desperate state of repair. Silverton itself was acquired two decades ago and has been the subject of extensive restoration. As with the NT properties, part of the pleasure was to hear something of how the building had come to be constructed. It was part of Silverton Park - built for the fourth Earl of Egremont who was annoyed to have inherited just a title and not his family seat at Petworth.
Unfortunately the house itself was never completed - the Earl died six years after the project began and then the building was destroyed by fire in 1902. Only the carriage house and the stable block, where we stayed, remain. In fact, the carriage house is the room in which the living accommodation is now sited.
We'd invited my brother and mother-in-law to join us, plus friends from the nearby town of Tiverton who came for a day. Silverton left us all feeling that not only could we spend many more days there but that it was a singularly suitable location for either a holiday with friends, a family reunion or some special occasion. And at any time of year.
One of the major advantages of the place, if you have small children, is they can play in the courtyard, safely shut in with balls and toys, while the grown-ups mount a table-tennis tournament in the games room. You needn't worry about noise either. Outside are extensive lawns and parkland surrounding you.
Tempting though it was to run around in the substantial garden or sit on one of the incredibly comfortable sofas for most of our visit, we also made a number of day trips both to seaside and to local towns and villages. You can never have enough cream teas.
Like the National Trust, the range of properties the Landmark Trust has on its website is impressive. Landmark offers properties in France, Italy, the Channel Islands and Scotland, too. From the Egyptian House in Penzance Cornwall, the apartment in Rome where the poet Keats died, to the Castle Keep on Lundy Island - there's a huge range both in scale, location and type.
Part of the pleasure will be picking where to go. Personally, I'd go back to Silverton like a shot. Or maybe I'll try Stockwell Farm with its wonderful views over Radnorshire. Or Le Moulin de la Tuillerie, Gif-sur-Yvette, south of Paris - it's the former country getaway of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Or Edale Mill, set in great walking country in the Derbyshire Dales.
The best bit is, with either the National Trust or Landmark, you're unlikely to be disappointed.
If you go
The stay A seven-night stay at Coastguard Cottages (sleeps four) costs from £761 (Dh4,468). Visit www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk or call 00 44 1225 792274. A three-night stay at Silverton Stables (sleeps up to 14) costs from £2,304 (Dh13,635), and £3,755 (22,223) for seven nights. Visit www.landmarktrust.org.uk or call 00 44 1628 825925.