My last blog post at the start of the year marked ten years of owning our West Bay Cottage. No one would have guessed what Year 11 was about to bring. A trip to the cottage in early March and then lockdown meant we didn’t go back until July. We decided in May that if we could open the cottage in the summer at all it would be safest to leave big spaces between bookings. Once I’d arranged and rearranged bookings with that in mind it meant there were no gaps left for ourselves! So it was very nice to get down there again last weekend. Plus it gives me a few cottage related bits and pieces to update on here (which is a good thing as I’ve almost forgotten how!).
We had a lovely long weekend at the cottage in July, checked all was all fine, and gave it a late spring-clean. During lockdown we’d had all the windows refurbished by a local sash window company. They’d sent pictures of our renovated windows but it was good to finally see them in real life. They make such a difference to the cottage. A pleasure to open and close and no more rattling on windy evenings.
Another happy sight was outside the cottage. I was so pleased a lovely gardener had started to look after the front and back gardens last year. I hate to think what they would have looked liked left untended for so long. Luckily she loves gravel gardens and has made it much nicer and more colourful than my efforts ever could.
Why the badger picture? During our July weekend we looked out of the front window late one evening and saw three small badgers running around. They were easy to see as they’d turned on our sensor light. How lovely we thought. Perhaps not so lovely we agreed after we’d got a message from one of our August guests saying badgers were getting into the bins. We hoped it was just a phase they were going through. This Sunday we woke up to find a bin turned over and fish and chips leftovers scattered. I’m hoping two bungees now secured on the lids will put a stop to this unruly badger behaviour. If you stay on our cottage please keep them on the bins and do let me know if you have another messy badger invasion, although we don’t have a Plan B yet.
[NOTE ADDED – Our first guests after this reported that the determined badgers made a such a racket in the night they had to bring the bin inside, two big chunks had been taken out of a lid. Bungees not a success. We have a new plan, we are putting the bins in the garage for now.]
That weekend in March we ate at The Hive Beach Cafe. They have a shop in the cafe and I couldn’t resist this poster. In July we got to hang it up, half way up the stairs. What is especially nice is that a local Lyme company makes them using seaweeds collected at our beaches in Dorset as well as Devon and Cornwall.
Did you indulge in a little lockdown retail therapy? I told myself it was good to support some independent businesses in a small way but frankly it was more for my own gratification. The excitement of a parcel arriving! So I bought a couple of very tactile additions for the cottage. First, a super soft sheepskin rug. I put it in the cottage’s back bedroom this weekend and your feet just sink into it. I was tempted to bring it back home again. Also, a gorgeous feather duster. Why use a dreary duster when you can be cleaning the cobwebs away with one fashioned from ostrich feathers? When William Morris said his ethos for domestic life – “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”- he might just have been talking about these two lovelies.
Well, that’s our cottage news. Fingers crossed we can remain open over the coming months, and for now we’ll be continuing with the big empty buffers between bookings for the peace of mind of guests, cleaners and ourselves too.
For us the start of a new decade marks ten years of owning our cottage and running it as a holiday home. If you are reading this perhaps you would like to do the same one day? Here’s how it all started for us, and some things we’ve picked up along the way.
How it all started
We need to go back to the summer of 2009, while we’re camping in Eype, just down the coast from West Bay. No plan to buy a holiday home but I knew there was a cute looking cottage for sale in West Bay. I like to potter around estate agent’s websites occasionally, and we already loved West Dorset, in particular Bridport and West Bay. So we went to look at it, just for fun. We fell in love with it. Furthermore we could see the benefit of having our own little place in Dorset, near my parents. They were getting old and both unwell so it would make visiting them regularly easier. Plus the cottage was running as a holiday let already. We though we could do the same to cover its day to day costs. But really it wasn’t these practical thoughts that swayed us, owning a cottage by that beautiful coast and we’d be “living the dream”! We had to make up our minds quickly, the estate agent told us there were others interested. So we went for it, remortgaging our own house. We were lucky enough to win a nerve-racking sealed bidding process.
We got the keys to the cottage in early November (see top picture). The first evening we arrived in a howling gale with water coming in under the door! The cottage had been renovated within the last couple of years and we had bought a lot of the contents as part of the sale. We didn’t expect we’d need to do much to get it ready for guests. As soon as we stayed in it we found there were some things that needed improving fast. New beds and hob were first on the list, and stopping the fire alarms going off all the time. This was soon followed by a new TV (and an aerial, as it turned out we were connected to number 3’s one!), some baby stuff, the wood burner, and bits and bobs like mats, rugs, cushions, towels, bedding, kitchen utensils, garden furniture…the list goes on. We refreshed it indoors with a coat of paint.
What do we need to do?
Our knowledge about letting out a cottage was non-existent. I bought a book and found lots of useful information on an online holiday rental owner’s forum, Lay My Hat. We swotted up on the legalities, including a fire risk assessment and booking terms and conditions. I put together a visitor’s book with all the information our guests might need about the cottage, and our favourite things to do in the area too. A couple of simple spreadsheets later and we were ready to keep a track of bookings though the year (oh the fear of a double booking) and record all incoming money and outgoing costs, a tax requirement.
We needed a website and were happy the url westbaycottage.co.uk was available. We took some photos and planned the pages and what we wanted to say on them. That Christmas my husband set up a website (luckily he knew a bit about that sort of thing). We kept the same rental fees as the previous owners. A West Bay website advertised local holiday accommodation. We paid for a listing, linking to our website. An early decision was to keep things independent and look after the booking process by ourselves. Mostly to keep the costs down for us and prospective guests. A booking agency might bring in more bookings but we wanted to keep control and high occupancy wasn’t imperative.
The good times
Our website went live at the start of 2010 and it didn’t take long before we had a few bookings. I was nervous before our first guests arrived in March but I needn’t have worried. All was well. I was pleasantly surprised with the numbers of bookings coming in. The cottage was busy that first year, the numbers bumped up with family and friends wanting to stay there too. It turned out West Bay had a lot of fans, and this was before Broadchurch!
As the years went on we learned more about running a holiday home and streamlined the booking process. In 2017 I bit the bullet and created a responsive website. This was new to me but I followed online lessons on how to create a vacation rental website using WordPress. Daunting at first but quite fun. SEO remains a mystery to me but I started to share the odd Facebook entry, twitter comment and Instagram photo from West Bay Cottage. The course encouraged people to write blog posts, so I started to do that too. Mostly subjects I enjoy researching and find interesting about the area, like its history and the films and TV programmes made there. Statistics consistently show that the Dorset apple cake and Dorset knobs posts are the most read from google searches. Food wins hands down!
And a few not-so-good times
There have been a few stress-inducing times over the years. Late 2010 we had noisy builders next door, without warning, upsetting one set of guests. In 2014 a couple staying were very unhappy to find a camera crew on their doorstep. Turned out the Broadchurch team were filming a scene next door! We’ve had a few boiler problems over the years too. Just this New Year’s Eve we had to dash to the cottage to sort out the new “smart” thermostat. Very occasionally we’ve had a complaint. A couple of them with good reason and one or two not so much, a criticism about seagull feathers in the backyard springs to mind. It goes without saying that we want everyone to have a great holiday and find our cottage a pleasure to stay in. Even after ten mostly trouble-free years the worry that something might go wrong, or be found not up to scratch, still gets me. Being an off-site owner doesn’t help. The first thing I do when we arrive back at the cottage is read the comments left in the visitor’s book since our last visit. It’s so nice to read that people have had a happy time and enjoyed the cottage. It makes it all worthwhile.
Has letting the cottage covered the costs?
Yes, letting our cottage has enabled it to “pay it’s way” so far, with some thanks to Broadchurch for making West Bay even more popular. We put much of the profit back into the cottage. Lots has been replaced at least once, including all the kitchen appliances, the tiling in the kitchen and bathroom, stuff in the TV corner, the table and chairs, as well as less obvious things such as the electrics and the boiler. For us the opportunity to keep it as charming and practical as we can is definitely worth it.
A couple of tips for prospective holiday home owners
We’ve learnt that staying there often ourselves is invaluable, although it’s not the relaxing time guests enjoy. We check up on things and do any repairs, replacements, touch-ups or deeper cleaning required. Plus I feel the need to return all the kitchen things to their “rightful” position and move things around on the kitchen shelf!
Anything we might do differently with hindsight? Ideally we’d like to live nearer to our holiday home. The same old car journey gets a bit boring. The expected journey time of three hours expands if the M25 is slow. We reckon the prospect of 90 minutes max travel time ahead would be much more appealing on a Friday evening. But the gripe is not really one to be levelled at our West Bay cottage, it’s more a negative aspect of living just north of London but loving West Dorset!
So my advise to anyone thinking of buying a holiday home is, if you want to do it purely for financial profit, it’s probably not worth it. But if you like making a place nice, running your own business and fancy faffing around with a website, then yeah, just go for it.
It doesn’t feel very long since my last update about the cottage, but I can see it was a while ago, around Easter. What happened to the summer? It was lovely while it lasted but seemed to go way too fast. Anyway, here are some photos of bits and pieces you’ll find new in the cottage since the spring. Bigger additions were a replacement boiler and a new microwave but they make for very dull pictures!
The first picture is a little Victorian pot, a very small addition to the new kitchen shelf. I got it in an eBay auction as I thought it would be nice to have a little bit of local history in the cottage. ‘Poor Man’s Friend’ was a popular ointment invented by Dr Giles Roberts in the 1790s. He was born in West Bay, then known as Bridport Harbour.
This bedside radio clock has a couple of USB ports at the back. In the summer we stayed somewhere that had an alarm clock with ports and thought it would be useful to have one in West Bay Cottage too. Just bring your phone cable and there’s no scrabbling around for a wall plug socket.
There’s a few Observer’s pocket books peeping out from the back. We have a secondhand bookshop locally and I find it hard to resist the occasional countryside or seaside one for the cottage.
The draught excluder is the only cat welcome in the cottage. It needed a home.
I am very happy that we now have someone coming in to tend and fill some gaps in the little front and back gardens. And even more happy that she loves gravel gardens 🙂
The final photo is our new bench in the back garden. When I visited at the end of July the old outdoor table and chairs were looking worse for wear. Luckily Groves up the road had this one bench left and delivered it the next day. Phew.
We had the chance to spend a very long weekend in the cottage at the start of the Easter holidays. A working holiday so to speak as we had a few jobs to get on with. Here’s a quick update.
We put up a new shelf in the kitchen. In the New Year I’d spent a good many hours sanding and waxing an old scaffold plank and deciding which shelf brackets to buy. More fun was deciding what to put on it. Moving the mugs and tea and coffee things to it makes it much more practical when making a cuppa. Do you like the lucky barn star? I couldn’t resist the “Captain” egg timer I saw in a vintage shop too.
The double bedroom got a new mirror. Actually quite an old one, an eBay find that needed a home after my plan for a vintage mirror wall was not met with the same enthusiasm as my own by a certain member of the family.
Oh dear, our wooden table had bad stains on it, we suspect from red wine. Luckily we’d bought an electric sander with us (a Christmas present so I could do my shelf!). So that was sanded and it and the kitchen worktop got an oil too. So did the door step.
The front door got a bit of TLC and a fresh coat of paint.
Graham has the mucky job of jet washing the back paving stones while I had a go cleaning the windows. It was one of the times I’m glad it is only a little cottage!
West Bay Discovery Centre
I popped into the Discovery Centre with a rusty nail. Sarah, one of the volunteers there, had read my blog (hurrah) and wondered if we would be willing to lend the huge nail I’d dug up last summer. During this summer the Discovery Centre is having an exhibition about ‘Shipbuilding in West Bay’. This year marks 240 years since the shipyard was opened. Obviously we would (I was just glad it hadn’t been thrown away). Our nail is going to be displayed in one of the glass cases!
We didn’t investigate different places to eat this time but did revisit some of our tried and tested favourites. Luckily when we arrived on Friday evening the Seasider was still open. I’m glad to report their fish and chips are still very good. We found The Cornish Bakery a very handy place to have around the corner when you are busy doing things and don’t want to “down tools” for too long. I can’t resist one of their custard tarts every time I go there. And we met some friends who live in Exeter and had a very nice evening at The River Cottage Kitchen in Axminster. Tasty food and a relaxed atmosphere.The deli looked appealing too but sadly we were off the next morning so had no excuse to food shop.
And that was it for us. Hope you had a lovely Easter break too and didn’t eat too much chocolate? Our daughter got a lot and I think it is calling to me from the kitchen!
The other week I saw an Instagram link to a website offering Instax cameras at incredibly discounted prices. I hastily bought one, chuffed I’d got a great bargain. How happy my daughter would be unwrapping it on Christmas Day. My glee was short-lived. My credit card history showed I’d paid a weird company in Singapore. I started to worry. A bit of googling later I found the genuine Instax website with a warning page about fraudulent ones. I’d been scammed. The camera is never going to be delivered. I felt cross. Cross that people would do this to me and annoyed with myself for falling for it.
Fortunately it wasn’t a lot of money but the experience has brought home to me the potential risk of buying things on the internet. In the future I’ll be more wary before I press the ‘Proceed to Payment’ button. It has also prompted me to look into what you can do to keep safe when booking holiday accommodation online.
Fraud is rare but unfortunately does sometimes happen. It can happen whether you book through an Online Travel Agent (OTA) like Owners Direct or Airbnb, or book directly with the owner. Anyone can set up a listing on one of the OTAs in minutes, with no checks. A little longer and a bit more technical know-how and they can set up a basic website. The perception seems to be that you are safer booking through an OTA but arguably an owner with their own quality website is less likely to be fraudulent. They have taken the time and effort to set up a good website.
Ways To Protect Yourself
Protect yourself against fraud. Take due diligence no matter how you book. There are several things you can do before booking a property to check that it is genuine. Here are some tips:
Look through the website or listing thoroughly. Does it have plenty of information and decent pictures?
Check that email addresses match the property name and /or the web address.
Google the online presence of the property. Make sure all the details, photos and contact details are high quality and are the same everywhere.
Check social media. Is there a Facebook page for the property? Instagram is getting ever more popular these days. Has the owner verified the property on Google My Business? A scammer is unlikely to have set up much of a social media presence but a genuine owner will often make the effort.
Contact the owner. If a phone number is provided, give the owner a ring to have a chat about their property. Ask lots of questions. A genuine owner will be happy to answer and will have a good knowledge of their property and the area.
Use common sense. Is the price reasonable for the property and doesn’t sound too cheap perhaps? Are you feeling under pressure to book quickly? If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Thinking back to my dodgy camera website, a little voice in my head was telling me it sounded an unbelievable offer but I wanted to get that bargain quickly before they all sold out. So, don’t be like me, take your time and do some research. Most importantly, trust your instinct. If you feel uneasy, just walk away.
When it comes to handing over money many owners, ourselves included, can take credit cards, which gives you similar payment protection to that offered by the OTAs. Travel insurance also gives you added protection (check what is covered).
Keep Calm & Book Direct!
Please bear in mind that fraud is rare. The intention of this post isn’t to scare anyone away from looking to book direct. With no middlemen you save yourself a booking fee and owners don’t pay a hefty commission so they can ensure you get the best possible price. You support your independent holiday home owner too. It’s just a reminder to stay savvy to ensure you stay safe.
A couple of days between cottage bookings gave me the chance to go and stay there myself earlier in the week. And it was hot, hot, hot. I spend a lot of my time outdoors giving the back garden a bit of a spruce up. Jet washing was a very messy business, I think I got myself as wet as the backyard. Then a bit of chopping back some invading shrubs. Plus a quick battle with the garden mint. It seems to be on a mission to take over the whole patch. I also added a couple of new plants, sadly accidentally unearthing some spring bulbs in the process.
Each visit I’m on my hands and knees pulling up weeds growing between the paving in the back and through the gravel in the front. And next time, oh look, more weeds. But I can’t put weedkiller down. We have hedgehogs visiting the Row quite often and in late summer lots of butterflies are attracted by the windfall apples in the front garden. Well, as Eeyore said, weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.
When digging a hole for a new plant I found the biggest nail I’ve ever seen. It is almost 20cm long, very rusty and looks old. Martin said that once upon a time it would have held down the decking on a wooden boat. In the 19th century West Bay, then called Bridport Harbour, was an important centre for shipbuilding. The largest vessel ever built in the shipyard weighed 1,460 tons and was over 60m long. I wonder what size boat this nail came from?
The seaside was lovely in the late afternoon. I watched people paddling in the sea at West Beach while I savoured my reward (for all that hard work gardening) of a Baboo Gelato ice-cream. Followed by a Cornish pasty from the bakery. Perhaps not the conventional order to eat them in. That’s one of the good things of being somewhere on your own, you can do whatever you want whenever you want!
If you are staying in the cottage help yourself to the mint and rosemary. If you notice any of the plants looking parched please do water them. Why is it that the plants you want to keep need TLC whilst the weeds seem to thrive on neglect?