Returning home: how a ruined Cornish barn became a super popular staycation spot.
Over 50% of Brits are planning to swap Gran Canaria and France for a staycation spot this year. Intentionally or driven by the pandemic, we are starting to embrace eco-friendly tourism close to home.
Not travelling abroad is great for your wallet and stress levels but as tourism is responsible for nearly one tenth of the world’s carbon emissions, staycation it’s also great for the planet. One Cornish business owner, Kate Smith, tells us how she runs her incredibly popular, eco-friendly barn in St. Austell.
Tell me a little bit about the barn and how it all started?
My parents bought the barn in 1995, they were just old farm barns used for keeping cows etc. There was a massive storm one year and the barn got completely destroyed. My dad and his friends: Alan who was a carpenter and Les who was a cob specialist, spent about 15 years building it back, they added an extension too. They must have finished it around 2012 and then they started letting it out on Airbnb. It has been really successful, there are lots of people who come back every year. Lots of people who got engaged there or had their honeymoon there…
One couple came as boyfriend and girlfriend and this year they are coming with their first baby!
I grew up here, moved out and now I returned and I really like that Idea of people returning, coming home…
How did it happen that you got involved in running the place?
Because of the lockdown, I came back in September last year from London. I had never been career driven. Of course I had jobs, but I had never been like: “Oh, this is my passion, this is what I really want to do.” In London, that can be a bit of money drain.
If you’re just living in London it’s to what end, really? Are you saving for a house, are you settling down, are you working your way up in whatever business you want to be in? I wasn’t doing any of that and I think lockdown really brought that to light.
My brother dying also put things into perspective…what am I doing with my life?
So I came down (to Cornwall) and there were discussions if I should move back. My dad said: we are not going to be opening the barn because it’s a bit too much work but if you want to do it then you can do it. It actually sounded like a great idea. I love redecorating and making places look right. Every time I had been to the barn, because it was very much my parents’ style, I was always going: “Oh, if this was mine, I would change this and that.” And then I realised I could finally do it, so it was really exciting.
What have you changed since you’d taken over?
Essentially, what draws people in, the bare bones are still there: the kitchen with a massive oven and a huge table plus a cinema upstairs, are still there. I had made it a bit more “me” and a bit more keeping with the barn’s style. I opted for more Victorian, french vintage style, exposed wood. There was a lot of trial and error. There were a lot of things I bought on Etsy or Ebay that I had to sell on again.
Can you tell me a bit about the decorating process? How did you create this homely atmosphere inside the barn?
I got stuff from Etsy and Facebook Marketplace was also a huge resource for me. I basically spent a lot of time on Pinterest and Instagram with stuff I really liked the look of and then tried to replicate that by buying second hand. Or if I saw something brand new online then I was searching for something similar on eBay.
With a holiday letting, it is other people’s space, it’s not your space. You don’t want to alienate people and make them feel like they don’t wanna touch anything, because it’s all brand new and sparkling.
It needs to look a little lived- in and I think that getting things that had many homes before is a really nice thing to do, especially for a place that is so old. I was talking to my dad about the barn recently and how old it is. There is speculation that it was built using materials from other buildings and that was possibly from the times when Henry VIII was king and got rid of all the monasteries. It’s possible that when they were being taken apart, all the stones were used for different purposes. So the barn had a life before, then it was a cowshed and it’s now a house, so it’s nice to have pieces that also had many different lives. Even all the books I got for the barn, recipe books, they were all bought second hand. If you’ve got somewhere that’s really old, filling it in with new things just doesn’t feel right.
Apart from buying second hand, have you thought about other things to make the business as eco-friendly as possible?
I did. All cleaning products, hand sanitiser: all that is natural and I buy it in massive containers and have glass bottles that I refill. I hate having plastic everywhere. We also provide recycling facilities for everyone and we have a composting bin.
We’ve got two polytunnels and quite a big veg patch, a flower bed and herb garden.
We have a patch for berries too, with raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, strawberries growing. People can always help themselves. We also have fresh eggs from the chickens. Everything else I buy for the barn, like milk, it’s all local produce from a farm shop down the road.
I’m really interested in starting to grow flowers because for every new guest I bring the cuttings in from the fields or from the garden. Throughout the year, as different things bloom, I can put out different flowers in the barn. By no means is the barn perfect: in winter we have to heat with a coal burner so I’m planning to change that in the future.
Apart from those upgrades, what are your plans for the future?
I’m building a website because I really want to come off AirbnB. I think it was absolutely seminal in what it did, how it changed the way people holiday, but itself it had just become a massive brand and I think it’s a little bit soulless. I’d like to step away from it. Eventually, I’d like the same people to come back every year- I really like the idea of returning. The people who came this year had already been here before, they already booked for the next year and that really loved the idea that we’ll see them again, we’ll welcome them back. I’m also converting another barn into my house, so eventually down the line, if I move back to the main house, that could be another space people could stay in so you could combine the two and perhaps have two families or two sets of friends staying in two different barns on the same bit of land.
What can people do when they visit the Barn and Cornwall?
When the weather is great, you can go to the beach, explore cycle trails. You can walk into the town in about 20 minutes, where there are many pubs, new restaurants, the Eden project is nearby. Or you can just sit in the private garden. If the weather is terrible, the cinema upstairs in the barn is just amazing cause you can just camp out and watch films or cook.
There’s definitely something for everyone as St Austell is quite central to Cornwall. Cornwall is an amazing place to explore and even I haven’t seen most of it yet.
The Cob Barn, St Austell