Creatures of habitat

John and Angela Foster transformed a derelict barn into award-winning cottages without evicting the resident owls. Sharon Dale reports.

John and Angela Foster in their kitchen
John and Angela Foster in their kitchen

Moving into a vast seven bedroom Georgian house in need of renovation prompted John and Angela Foster’s first foray into farm diversification.

Back then the couple simply sectioned off a third of the farmhouse and let it to holidaymakers in the summer. It was strictly no frills, but there was no need for them in the early 1980s.

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“It was a step up from a tent or caravan so people were just happy to have a roof over their heads and they loved staying on a working farm. We didn’t even provide a TV then as they didn’t expect it. Now they want Sky,” says John, who has more than 650 acres of arable land.

Times have certainly changed and with guests demanding ever higher levels of luxury, the Foster’s latest holiday lets are all hampers, high threadcount sheets, crystal glasses and original art. Prints are frowned upon by the fussier five-star gold guests.

The five cottages created from a redundant barn at Sewerby, near Bridlington, are also eco-friendly with a ground source heat pump and wind turbine and they boast their very own TV channel that beats Springwatch hands down.

The couple have rigged up a webcam in a specially-created nest in the gable end of the property, which is home to a pair of barn owls. Guests can tune in and the shy birds have proved to be compulsive viewing.

“We had one woman up all night watching them and it is fascinating, especially when they have babies and you can see them preening and learning to fly,” says Angela. The owl cam is one of the most impressive aspects of the stunning conversion that began with a bid to rescue the derelict barn from collapse.

“It gradually became redundant as farming changed. It wasn’t even any good for storing machinery because what we have now is too big,” says John. “There was no justification for spending money repairing it and so we had no choice but to watch it moulder. I’d dreamed of converting it because it is south west facing with views of the sea and I knew that because as a boy I used to heave bales of hay up there while sweating in the July sun.”

He and Angela had experience of converting farm buildings. When dairy hit difficulties in 2002, they sold most of their herd and turned their cowsheds into holiday accommodation , keeping a few “decorative cows” for guests to look at.

The High Barn project proved more problematic. They managed to get planning permission providing it was eco-friendly and the now defunct Yorkshire Forward gave a grant towards a wind turbine, which cost £70,000, a ground source heat pump, which was £30,000 and the rainwater harvesting system.

“The only issue were the deadlines we had to meet and if we didn’t hit them we didn’t get the funding. We only just managed that because we were badly delayed by a terrible winter,” says John.

Installing the eco elements, including the laying of a mile of piping for the ground source heat pump, also took time as contractors got to grips with technology they were unfamiliar with. The turbine provides electricity and ground source heat pumps run the under floor heating and hot water for the cottages, while the boiler room also doubles as a laundry.

“There’s no need to use the tumble dryer. It’s so warm I just put sheets and towels on drying racks,” says Angela, who estimates that ground source is two thirds cheaper than oil and the turbine provides half of their electricity.

From planning to opening, the build and fitting out took about three years and cost a total of £850,000, which was well over their original £570,000 estimate.

There was no way they could cut costs on the interiors either as they wanted to tick the boxes for five-star gold status. The cottages got top marks with a design worked out by the Fosters, who were keen to show off the architectural features, which include original openings that give views reminiscent of Hockney paintings.

To expose the beams and trusses while satisfying building regulations’ demand for high levels of insulation, they put a new roof packed with insulation over the old one. The couple planned the décor and sourced everything themselves, including travertine floors, MKM kitchens and worktops from Set in Stone. Staircases are by Norton Joinery and furniture includes vintage pieces from their farmhouse alongside Laura Ashley, TK Maxx and Barnitts of York.

The paintings are by favourite local artists including Ian and Stephanie Mitchell, Rosie Abrahams and Estella Brown. The building’s heritage is also on display. The Foster family has owned the farm and its buildings for more than 140 years and there are framed sepia photographs of horsedrawn ploughs and John’s family.

A favourite is the photo of a great uncle standing by a cow that gave birth to four calves, which is highly unusual. He called them “Expectation, Realisation, Astonished and Well, I’m Blessed”.

Outside , there is a wildflower meadow, pond with newts and the nest for the owls. The birds have played a part in making the barn conversion an award winning building.

The property won best self-catering accommodation in Yorkshire recently.

“We were thrilled,” says Angela,” who has just finished modernising her own farmhouse and reconfiguring the space that had included a beer kitchen, where ale was stored and served to harvest workers.

“It’s been an ongoing project over the past 30 years. We only got central heating in here two years ago. “I got to the point where I said: ‘I can’t stand it any longer. Our holiday cottages are lovely and warm and we’re freezing’.”

High Barn Cottages are part of FarmStay and Premier Cottages. Tel: 01262 674932, www.highbarncottages.co.uk.

Useful contacts

Fabrics: Laura Ashley and Dunelm Mill

Quartz work tops: Set in Stone, Holme on Spalding Moor, www.setinstoneuk.co.uk

Plants and trees from Reighton Nurseries, Filey, tel: 01723 890359

Norton Joinery, www.nortonjoinery.co.uk

Blinds: Janice Walker Interiors, Driffield, www.janicewalkerinteriors.co.uk

Town and Country Fires, Pickering, www.townandcountryfires.co.uk

Kitchen and bathroom suppliers MKM Driffield, www.mkmbs.co.uk