The Brits Do Everything Better, Including Tiny Vacation Rentals
These countryside cottages are full of little luxuries.
Published Nov 22, 2022 2:30 AM
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Cat Earp is a self-confessed host with the most. When friends would stay at her former home in London, she’d leave treats on their pillowcases, kit them out in luxurious robes, and splash out on new table linens. “I’d go to town,” she says, laughing. “I really loved it.”
But the visitors became few and far between when she and her husband, Ant, relocated to his parents’ farm more than 100 miles away in Dorset five years ago. Cat was finding it difficult to manage the commute to her job as a senior press officer at Gucci, so she decided to became a full-time mom to their baby daughter, Willa, and began plotting her next move. “We knew we needed to diversify the income of the farm, so we started throwing ideas around the kitchen table,” she says.
They floated ventures as varied as designing headboards to running a wedding venue, “but we kept coming back to the fact that we love hosting people,” says Cat. They landed on luxury shepherd hut rentals. Building tiny, freestanding structures meant not having to deal with the lengthy planning permits constructing a traditional hotel in such a precious landscape would call for. Plus a company making the self-contained units, Plankbridge, is conveniently located just up the road.
With Cat masterminding the decor, the couple opened Aller Dorset in the spring of 2021. Overlooking a picturesque lake, the first two huts proved an instant success (there has barely been a gap in their bookings calendar). So later in the fall, she and Ant decided to build two more retreats—a process that would take six months to commence—and welcomed their first guests just last month. Here, Cat shares her learnings from the world of hospitality and reveals the extra-special details she’ll never compromise on.
Take a Cue From Beloved Getaways
The couple’s many stays at the Soho House group’s hotels played a large role in the huts’ cozy atmosphere. “It’s always very comfortable, and all those little details are so considered, like classical music playing on the radio when you go in the room, and a little pouch with earplugs and toothpicks,” says Cat, who also picked up tips and tricks from her favorite designers on Instagram like Lucy Barlow, Elizabeth Hay, and Beata Heuman. Despite the buildings’ miniature footprint, king-size beds were a nonnegotiable. “I wanted this to feel like somewhere truly special, and I love seeing people’s reactions when they arrive,” she says.
Be Your Harshest Critic
Because there aren’t any closets in the two newest huts, Cat left some wiggle room around the beds that allows guests to comfortably hang their clothes on wall hooks. Any items they wish to stow out of sight can live in the roomy drawers underneath the banquettes in the dining area—a spot that she continues to perfect, after having visitors provide feedback. “The consensus was that the built-in seating area could offer more comfort, so I’ve tried to make the new ones like a sofa,” says Cat. The welcome brochure also got a makeover, with hand-drawn explainers covering everything from how to light the firepit to instructions for ordering wine via a QR code.
Push the Paint Envelope
With one pair of huts already under her belt, Cat felt empowered to make her new “babies” even bolder, so she started experimenting. “I literally had about 20 Farrow & Ball samples pasted all around my house for months,” she says, laughing. Once she’d settled on a shade for the kitchenettes, she played around with patterned fabrics for the sink skirts and contrasting checkered tiles. “It was like putting a puzzle together,” she explains. Each hut’s color scheme is amplified with coordinating bobbin mirrors and painted paneling, and indulges her love of a statement headboard.
Tap Your Network
If the tableware shopping had been left to Ant, he would have sourced it all from a big-box store. Instead Cat blew the budget on punchy glasses and hand-painted baskets (which house her legendary homemade breakfast granola and fresh sourdough loaves). “To some people that might sound crazy, but I want the huts to feel luxurious and even nicer than guests’ actual homes,” she says. These impactful touches are so desirable that Cat now sells almost every accessory through Aller Dorset’s online shop and recently collaborated with makers to produce pieces exclusive to the spaces. It’s proved a savvy marketing strategy: “What’s great is that the brands we work with talk about our products, and often people will discover the huts through buying the homewares,” she says.
Cat has also mined her contacts book from her PR days and welcomed tastemakers and friends with large social media followings for complimentary stays. “I’m very keen for people to experience the huts, and if they then share it on their Instagram, it helps spread the word,” she says. Her past life helped pave the way for her new one.