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Jo Haywood and family retreat to the Yorkshire Dales for an idyllic weekend
You know youre having a great time when your footie-mad teenage son forgets the FA Cup final is on television because hes busy photographing
Not a lot can distract Jack from his football, except perhaps Alexandra Burke in her skimpies, but on this occasion he was happy to forget his lifelong passion. We were having such a relaxing, chilled-out time at Natural Retreats in the Dales, nothing seemed to matter more than the bevy of bunnies in our garden, the lone grouse on our terrace and the clouds of sheep munching their never-ending lunch on the surrounding hills.
Our eco-friendly lodge, nestled comfortably and privately among 19 others in a steep wooded valley on the outskirts of Richmond, was green from the very roots of its sustainable timber and evergreen sedum roof to its passive solar glazing, biomass heating and natural spring water. But it was as far removed from the more common back-to-basics, knit-your-own-yogurt style of environmentally- friendly accommodation as you can get.
This was gold standard green living and, despite the unseasonably cold weather, we were determined to make the most of our two-night stay.
We started as we meant to go on by ordering a gourmet treats hamper, which was beautifully presented in a wicker basket and packed with all manner of local goodies, including cheese, cake, jam, tea, coffee, chocolates, pate, artisan bread and biscuits. Add in the eggs, butter and organic milk in the fridge and we were pretty much set fair for food.
The lodge itself was a real revelation; generously proportioned with three good-sized double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a utility room and a glorious, fully-glazed open plan living, dining and cooking space that made us feel part of the surrounding countryside with our woodland neighbours just a windows breadth away.
An after-dinner stroll around the site there are three plotted hikes around the land, but we decided to free-style it brought us into close contact with yet more rabbits (are there more rabbits than people in Richmond?), an elegant deer and sheep who were happy to pose for a photograph or two, particularly when my other half decided to bellow baa! at them in a sonorous voice that sounded like an ovine Stephen Fry.
And it wasnt just the animals that were friendly; the Natural Retreats staff could not have been more helpful.
From the moment we booked to the moment we left, they were attentive without being intrusive and helpful to the point we actually considering kidnapping one so they could be our personal concierge at home.
But maybe that would have been taking the caring, sharing, recycling message a bit too far, even for somewhere with such gold star green credentials at Natural Retreats.
A seven-night stay in a three-bedroom lodge at Natural Retreats in the Yorkshire Dales starts from 560. For more details, call 0844 384 3166 or visit naturalretreats.co.uk.
Natural born leader
Matt Spence opened his first Natural Retreats destination in 2006 on what used to be his familys farm on the edge of Richmond in North Yorkshire.
It all started when I was working for Coca-Cola in London and I got a call from my mum to say she was struggling, he said. She was in her seventies and barely scraping a living, often lambing at two in the morning on a freezing hillside. The area was still beautiful, but farming wasnt fun anymore.
Matt pulled his savings together and his mum handed over her land, then for the next two years the family set about building luxury lodges from scratch.
It was tough and the recession made it tougher, said Matt. But we were determined to build quality properties that families would actually want to stay in, with more room than in a hotel, real log fires and really comfortable beds. We wanted to create a recognisable brand of cottages, something we could take round the world.
And theyre well on their way to achieving that goal, with sustainable rentals now available in Cornwall, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Canary Islands and America.
I knew from the start this wasnt just about cottages in the Dales, said Matt. I want residences in every UK national park and in Americas 48 national parks too. We are now looking at pretty much every English speaking freehold society.
While hes working hard to develop the Natural Retreats brand worldwide, his mum is relaxing in her own luxury lodge on their former farmland. Her home, known as The Sanctuary, sits high on a hill with far-reaching views across the North Yorkshire countryside.
Knowing that my mum will never have to go back to lambing in the dead of night keeps me going, said Matt. Shes loved that land for ever, and now she can really sit back and enjoy it. Shes so chuffed that shes still able to live there and paint the days away.