22 December 2000

Quality cottages are spine of business…

Holiday accommodation

has long been a popular

diversification for farmers

with buildings to convert

but with more lets available

and peoples expectations

high, the key to success

must now be quality as

Tessa Gates reports

ADVERTISING guides for the year had long been printed by the time that School Farm Cottages were ready for visitors last summer but despite this David and Claire Sillets first venture into tourism is already proving a success.

"We missed all the guides but had 65% occupancy in June and 85% in July and September with August fully booked," says Claire. "We joined the Farm Holiday Bureau and their referral system worked very well. We also advertised in a Sunday paper and two magazines."

The four holiday cottages at School Farm, Cratfield – a tiny village in Suffolk a couple of dozen miles from the coast – have enabled the Sillets and their young family to stay on the small family farm, although it has meant quite a change in their work patterns.

"We sold off 30 acres of land to diversify, we didnt want it to get to the point where we were forced into doing it," says David. "We owned 60 acres and ran an agricultural contracting business. A couple of years ago we stood back and looked at the options. We saw the potential in the buildings and sold the land and machinery to pay for it."

Objective 5b funding helped. "We got a capital grant and couldnt have done it without it," says David, as he shows off the attractive cottages fashioned from the old neathouse where his father used to keep Jersey cows. Pretty without being twee, the cottages are fitted and furnished to a high standard and have some very individual touches such as bathroom tiles painted with Suffolk beach scenes. All the cottages have real Suffolk flavour to them.

Planning and thought have gone into the project. The couple were not out to turn round a quick profit on the cheap, they wanted to offer something that would be successful in the long term. "We scrimped together all we could and were determined to do everything right from the start. I was determined to get a four star grading for the cottages," says Claire, "and we did!"

Three out of the four cottages have little gardens of their own and guests also have a larger garden complete with play equipment for children. "The main garden is fenced so parents can relax without fear of the children wandering off and people really appreciated that," says Claire. Stair gates, cots and a high chair are also available and before they took any guests, Claire spent £80-90 on board games and childrens videos for guests to use.

&#42 East Anglian base

Most visitors want to use the cottages as a base for enjoying the delights of Suffolk and Norfolk – visiting Southwold and the coast, or Minsmere and other nature reserves in the area, walking locally or even relaxing by the stocked farm ponds hoping to catch a fish.

For Claire, who worked as a teacher until the birth of the youngest of their three children, Peter (3), diversifying into the cottages has meant she can run a business from home. "It fits in so well with the family – it gives us time with the children," she says. For Peter, the project stood him in good stead for a successful interview for the new off-farm job he has taken on recently as a rural development adviser with FRCA, Cambridge. "Getting this off the ground encompassed much of what my new job is all about," he says.

The building work took from November 1999 to May 2000. The work came out to budget and the Sillets quickly took the decision to pay for good landscaping because they felt it was pointless having quality cottages sitting in a shambles. Feedback from guests has proved this was worth doing. They hope to be in profit in the coming year and to pay off all loans in 10 years.

The fabric and the environment of the farm have been improved. "And the value of the farm is going up," says Peter. Best of all, the family can still enjoy seeing their land grazed by Angus beef cattle and have the security of remaining on the farm without being totally dependent for income on farming.

Inquiries: Tel: 01986-798844.

David and Claire are pleased with their guests response to the facilities their cottages offer.


&#8226 Lose any rose-tinted spectacles.

&#8226 Do your research and a feasibility study.

&#8226 Find out the market and target it.

&#8226 Provide something better than people have at home.

&#8226 Always go for quality.