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"I have always aspired to have my own business"

Penny, owner of Mill Barn - North Chailey, Sussex | Sleeps 2+1

Penny started holiday letting in late 2017, inheriting a small cottage. It was a huge labour of love, and now Penny gets huge pleasure from having started her own business from scratch and learning something new along the way.

“I have always aspired to have my own business, and now absolutely love what I'm doing with my holiday cottage. Having worked for years in customer service and the travel industry, I felt very well qualified to go into holiday letting. People-pleasing is what I'm quite good at!”

How did you get into holiday letting?

Having inherited the property from my father who sadly passed away 2 years ago, I couldn’t bear the thought of selling his property, so it was an obvious choice to make it into a holiday home and create a kind of legacy for him. It's a beautiful building and in a lovely tranquil spot on Chailey Common – so I knew it was going to be popular.

In many ways, renovating the cottage as a project has helped me incredible amounts with getting through some of the hardest times; allowing me to focus my mind on something really positive!

And what a great legacy it is! Did it take you long to renovate the property?

The renovation took about 18 months from start to finish. It needed lots of TLC. My father loved living there so much but he wasn’t really into interior design! With the help of a builder friend, I decided that one of the rooms upstairs which my father had used as his study would become a luxury bathroom, and the original bathroom downstairs would become a cloakroom/boot room.

The kitchen was ripped out and a brand new one installed, along with a range cooker. The log burner had to be replaced, we had new flooring, new windows, a new front door and a velux window put in the roof above the stairs to create more light and a lovely view of the Common. The spiral staircase also had to be restored. A new pathway and brick terrace was because the old one was quite dangerous. The garden wall was also made higher to make it more private.

There were of course the usual problems with builders/plumbers/decorators etc. and a lot of frustrations, worries, and “why the hell am I doing this?!” – but it has all been worth it in the end!

Was there a specific style and approach you took when decorating your holiday let?

As Mill Barn was my Father's special home, I wanted to keep some of him 'alive' there. He was an avid reader so I kept many of his books (spanning all sorts of subjects) and they are all in the cottage on shelves in the sitting room for guests to enjoy. He was also a keen sailor and owned a boat so I have his old ship's radio on the window sill. I also had one of his charts of the English Channel (complete with his pencilled navigation calculations) framed and the chart is now on the wall in the downstairs cloakroom.

To keep the nautical theme alive, the rails on the spiral staircase are bound with rope and there are a few wooden fish on the walls in the bathroom!

What type of experience do you aim to give?

I had a vision for Mill Barn from the very start. I wanted it to be very special and a peaceful, happy place where guests could come and totally relax and feel at home. A warm and cosy retreat from the outside world. It had to be where 'I would want to stay myself'.

I also wanted it to be of the highest standard - a high quality kitchen and bathroom, and high quality furniture, fixture and fittings. I tried to have a budget but I know I went over it! But I believe that high quality pays off in the end. Guests nowadays (especially discerning Mulberry guests!) are very selective and I know most of my guests really appreciate quality. I was always aware that there is a lot of competition out there and I didn't want to be second-best when it came to creating a special holiday home.

Because there was only one bedroom in the property, I realised that its potential was mainly going to be as a romantic getaway or place for a couple to enjoy simply being in the country and enjoy the surrounding countryside.

It is also very important to me that Mill Barn has a very organic theme. Recycling is extremely important to me and I encourage guests to recycle (without being bossy of course!). I also have a compost bucket in the garden if they wish to utilise their old vegetable/fruit leftovers, teabags and egg shells. The washing up liquid and cleaning products are all environmentally friendly, and the complimentary toiletries in the bathroom are all organic and free from nasties like sodium lauryl sulphate.

What are the little touches that go a long way?

I believe very much in 'attention to detail'. I think it's incredibly important to get the little details right. I always have fresh flowers for guests when they arrive and as many as possible from my own garden. I always leave a welcome hamper for my guests, which includes a bottle of either white wine or Prosecco. (Have to say I steer clear of red wine, simply because of the spillage factor!).

Also included in the welcome hamper is a jar of my home made apple chutney, some nice cheesy biscuits, fresh fruit/home-grown tomatoes/seasonal vegetables, home-grown grapes in the summer, chocolates, sometimes some local cheese and a little jar of fresh home grown herbs. I also bake some chocolate brownies or flapjack.

At Christmas I included things like crackers, a mini Christmas pudding and mince pies. It's all quite experimental still though, and I am always thinking of new things to add at different times of the year. A neighbour recently made some lovely lemon curd for me and I am planning to put a jar into summer guests' hampers. Again I try to keep to a budget for the hampers and use as much home grown produce as possible and buy wine in bulk.

In the kitchen I have a Tassimo coffee maker and I leave 4 pods for guests on arrival. I also have a selection of teabags available and a jar of cookies plus a pint of milk in the fridge.

Bathroom luxuries include good quality dressing gowns and some nice organic soap, shower/hair gel, shower cap, cotton wool pads, cotton wool buds, and books to read on the shelf by the bath.

In the bedroom I always ensure there are fresh flowers and bottled water by the bed. I also have feather pillows available if required.

As I live in close proximity to woods and trees there is never a shortage of logs from fallen trees and branches, so I don't charge extra for logs for the wood burner. Logs are provided in a basket by the burner and there are more logs for guests to help themselves to in a log store outside.

What is your favourite thing(s) about holiday letting?

My favourite aspect of holiday lettings is ensuring that my guests have a lovely, restful stay at Mill Barn. It might sound a bit cheesy, but I love to see them happy! I spend a lot of time fussing over the small touches before guests arrive as it so important to me that everything is right for them. The place has to be warm and cosy and inviting. Small lights on if it is getting dark, and Prosecco on ice etc.

Although the money is very welcome, the financial gain is not significant at the moment. It will take quite a few years to pay back what I spent on renovating. Sometimes I think I am not very business-like about budgeting and I maybe spend more on guest treats than I should, but being new to the business I am aware that I have a lot to learn.

As I manage the property myself, I love the fact that I am kept busy even when guests are in situ - having to plan for the next arrivals, washing and ironing the previous bedding, and thinking ahead about any potential maintenance and upkeep issues.

I have always aspired to have my own business and now absolutely love doing what I am doing with my holiday cottage. I love being my own boss and making my own decisions and not having to answer to anyone else. I also love the variety of all the different aspects involved - cleaning, (very odd I know to enjoy cleaning! But I actually like the challenge and love the end result of making the cottage look lovely for the next guests), gardening, planning and shopping for guest goodies and arranging flowers etc.

I also love meeting my guests. After the initial meet and greet, I leave them alone to enjoy their stay but make sure they know I am there for them if they have any questions or problems. I even enjoy the administrative side - I have made my own business cards and flyers promoting the cottage via Mulberry and I also took lots of my own photos which are on the Mulberry website.