5 October 2001


B&B with a stylish twist is

proving a good move for a

farming family who have

given up dairying on doctors

orders. Tessa Gates visits

Handley Farm, Somerset

FIRST impressions of Handley Farm, Waterrow, Somerset, are of pretty cottage gardens fronting the farmhouse and well kept buildings that give you confidence that this is somewhere good to stay. Even from the outside, standards look high.

The confidence is well placed. Bed and breakfast guests here are in for a surprise. They will stay in beautifully furnished suites, newly created in a renovated stone barn and offering all the privacy of self-catering accommodation with none of the hassle. Breakfast and optional dinner are taken in the farmhouse a few strides away from the barn.

Cooking for the guests is Linda Leigh-Firbank who with her husband George and their two young teenage sons came to the farm about 18 months ago. It was something of a return to their roots as Georges family have long farmed in nearby Wiveliscombe.

&#42 Told to slow up

"We had been dairy farming in Cornwall since 1990 and let self-catering accommodation there but then George was ill and the doctor told him he had to slow up or else," explains Linda.

The warning was serious and George immediately put the farm up for sale and the family went off to Australia for a long break. On their return they rented a property while they looked for a new farm to run with tourism in mind.

Handley Farm fitted the bill but at first George was reluctant to view it. "He remembered it from years ago when it was derelict," says Linda. Fortunately it had been sensitively restored and was offered as a three bedroomed farmhouse with adjoining two bedroomed cottage and a cider barn providing three bedroomed self-catering accommodation. There was a further barn ripe for conversion too. It came with 15ha (38 acres) of land – including 3ha (8 acres) of woodland and two coarse fishing lakes.

"The project was to convert the barn into a self-catering let but there is a lot of this already in the area so we thought we could do B&B in self-contained suites and they could come across here for breakfast," explains George.

The stone barn had cob walls and a galvanised roof. Once work was underway it was found that a couple of the walls were in too poor a state to repair. As they came down, the cost went up. "You generally spend 20% more than you budgeted for and this is what we have done. We had a small grant but this was only given on the original estimate for the work," explains George.

Work was started in the third week of January this year and finished a week after Easter.

The result is superb and the accommodation is English Tourism Council-rated four diamonds, silver award. Separate entrance doors lead to Nut-hatch – with a king-size bed and en-suite shower room and toilet – and Swallow – one double and one single bed with en-suite bath, shower and toilet. Both have comfy sofas and armchairs, good pine furniture, TV and video, hairdryer and tea/coffee facilities. Each has a door leading out to a veranda and access to the gardens. All this for £35/person a night.

"We had nearly finished everything when foot-and-mouth broke out. We opened on May 1 and have had a steady trickle of guests ever since," says Linda. "July was the worst month but September has been pretty good – you have got to be grateful for what you can get this year.

"In Cornwall our return bookings were 50% but we are inland here and that is a different thing. However, we are about 15 miles from Taunton and close to Exmoor National Park and we have been amazed at what there is to do in the area.

&#42 Personal touch

"The most important thing is to look after them while they are here. We want to give people personal attention and provide all the finishing touches and even if they dont come back, hopefully they will recommend us to someone else," she says.

"The thing we learnt in Cornwall is that you must put something back into the business every year. People notice everything and expect high standards."

Some guests who enjoyed staying with them in Cornwall have already visited Handley Farm and bookings are coming through from the Exmoor Farm Holiday group and through Cartwheel. All the accommodation at the farm is open year round.

"B&B was new for us but we have had no problems. Guests are not living in the house so we have not had to give up our privacy and they can come and go as they please. The happiness of the customer is what is important," says George.

He has had to put his own farming on hold, although he has been working on other farms. Soon he hopes to get some stock for the farm. "Simmental crosses and we will see where we go from there."

The rebuilding of the B&B barn was finished too late for the swallows and martins to nest there this year but the new roof has a good overhang and Linda hopes they will be back again next year. And the guests, too, of course.

Inquiries 01398 361516 and www.handleyfarm.co.uk

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