BACK when diversification seemed to be the only advice coming out of Defra, John and Amanda Tattersall took it – and sold a hundred acres in order to make six holiday cottages out of old farmyard buildings.
They opened them in July 2003 and have since added two more. Builder was Andy Kendall of Sowerby.
Normally, in this feature, the cottages would come second to the original farm – which in this case still produces fat lambs for Thirsk Market, plus wheat, barley and oilseed rape.
But holiday accommodation is now a mainstay of farm incomes and it felt like time to talk about the business.
First question was how the Tattersalls knew they had a market to go at. The answer is that they used to be part of it. Their own holidays, when their daughters were growing up, were usually based on farm stays.
From that experience, they decided a swimming pool was essential.
Their pool, 5 metres by 10, with spa bath incorporated and a little sauna on the side, cost something like £100,000 – subsidised by a 30 per cent Rural Enterprise grant – and costs close to £10,000 a year to run, heated by oil. It also contributes to a council tax bill of about £10,000 for the whole complex.
But it is one reason why the Old Oak Cottages hit their target of 80 per cent occupancy over 11 months. January, after the New Year parties have gone, is maintenance and recovery month.
You need 50 per cent occupancy to start breaking even, Mr Tattersall reckons. In view of that, they were perhaps lucky to find that plenty of people wanted to find them.
They are in a very nice location. High House Farm is off the village of Little Thirkleby, which you come to after dropping down to single track road five miles from Thirsk.
The rise to the moors, and the White Horse at Kilburn, are part of the view. But there is no obvious single reason to book in here. The customers are looking for Yorkshire in general and choose here for the facilities and the location – half an hour from York or Whitby or Castle Howard or Fountains Abbey.
They get a fair few Scots, who know what the weather can be like in the Highlands and head south while the English are heading north. They are noticing a growing trickle of Dutch. A lot of people come from Yorkshire’s own cities. But most are from elsewhere in England, looking for a broad taste of the Yorkshire experience, as sold by the tourist boards.
The Tattersalls got their first bookings through the Hoseasons catalogue. It did them quite well. But Hoseasons took a commission of up to 20 per cent and wanted to handle all the bookings.
The Tattersalls decided their best bet was Premier Cottages, a co-op which runs a catalogue and website for members running five-star and high four-star accommodation, but leaves them to run their own bookings.
Mrs Tattersall says: “I always thought it was important to deal with the guests myself, from the start, so they can ask me questions and I can fix little things, like extra shower mats or balloons for a party.”
The first six cottages were rated Four Star Gold and the last two are Five Star, according to an agency run by Visit England. Latest annual bill for inspection and listing renewal is £459 plus VAT. The standards are quite expensive too – proper china and glass, baths as well as showers, driers as well as washers, wi-fi as well as flat-screen TVs.
A two-page spread in the Premier Cottages brochure costs around £4,500. Another essential outlay is £375 plus VAT for membership of Welcome To Yorkshire, formerly the Yorkshire Tourist Board.
The Tattersalls are impressed by the energy chief executive Gary Verity has put into making it more than just a name change and they are pleased with the through traffic from the WTY website. They also run their own, of course, at www.oldoakcottages.com. A nephew does the techie bits but it costs £600 a year for the hosting service.
Mrs Tattersall says she has had good value out of Welcome To Yorkshire courses and is planning to go on one to learn about social networking. She recalls a useful lesson from an earlier course – “Always smile when you answer the phone; it really does make a difference”.
A lot of visitors want to go to the Herriot Museum in Thirsk – former surgery of the real vet behind the books, Alf Wight. As it happens, he was the vet for this farm and the practice he left behind, Skeldale Vets, still serves it. John Tattersall, 53, grew up here and his parents, Dennis and Kathleen, still live in the village.
The farm amounts to 330 acres, so it was never quite big enough to be a reliable earner. Amanda used to run a boarding kennels but that was “just pocket money”, she says.
Mr Tattersall comments: “You could farm for a week or two and never see anybody. I like it that the cottages bring people in.”
He runs the farm single-handed, with the help of contractors for drilling, combining and shearing.
He has just finished lambing 140 Texel-x-Mule ewes, sired by Texels, giving him annual multiplication of about 1.9. He also normally grows 120 acres of wheat, 40 of barley and 70 of oilseed rape.
The cottages have influenced the farm layout a bit. He keeps the sheep in close because the guests like to see them and the arable fields on the outside, so muck-spreading is not a problem.
He never wanted to push the farm angle because “you never know what sort of farm you are making people think of”. As it happens, this one is as immaculate as a farm can be. And some guests do come particularly for lambing.
He is wary of all the hoopla about renewable energy but a simple thermal panel, warmed by the sun, seems to be working well as a water heater for the new cottages and he might try one or two for the pool.
Youngest daughter Rosie is studying maths and economics at Warwick. Her sister Amy, 26, has a day job in Thirsk but runs a beauty and massage salon at the farm when she is home, which goes down well with the visitors. The tourist board is angling for an ad for a new Indulgence In Yorkshire marketing drive and they will probably take a small one.
Two cleaners come in Fridays and Saturdays for the changeovers. Linen and towels run up a bill of about £400 a month at the Stanland Laundry, Middlesbrough,
Charges for Old Oak Cottages start at £225 for two for a weekend and £330 for a week in winter, £420 for a week in summer. An eight-bed cottage is between £670 and £1300 for a week. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01845 501258.