Eight Keys to the Kingdom

Sophy Roberts goes in search of the perfect house to rent. What she finds is everything from stately Scottish castle to cozy cottage in the Cotswolds.

Sometimes it's not just a room with a view we want but an entire house of our own. Especially in places like Dorset, North Norfolk, or Caithness, Scotland—remote, out-of-the-way spots where a good hotel is hard to find, and where we're looking for a completely different experience. Luckily, there are quite a few private houses to rent throughout the U.K.—and very good ones at that, whether rustic and simple or grand and baronial.


Best for Large House Parties

Ackergill Tower, near Wick, Scotland What makes Ackergill so different from the rest of the castles-for-hire is not so much its impressive historical credentials but the fact that it is run by an ambitious entrepreneur rather than an impoverished aristocrat trying to commercially justify his unwieldy birthright. Service is fastidious: Each of the 60 staff members knows you by name. Kilts are carefully laid out on the bed when you arrive. Should you wish to shoot grouse or duck, you'll be provided with everything, right down to Hunter Wellington boots and flasks of sloe gin. This kind of attention to detail makes Ackergill the finest castle for rent in the British Isles.

It's also one of the most private. "We try hard to ensure that not everyone knows about us," says owner-manager Ian Richards. Of course, it helps that Ackergill is set on the wild, remote coast of the North Sea between Wick and John O'Groats. To the north lies a seven-mile curl of powdery sands backed by lichen-green dunes. Winters are desolate, but in high summer the flat, treeless landscape is bathed in sun (you can play a round of golf at midnight). The tower is a brooding 15th-century keep with turrets, battlements, and high, narrow windows. When the weather turns, its base is often battered by waves; at calmer times, fishermen haul in lobster pots before the retreating tide.

When the Richards family bought Ackergill 16 years ago, they also acquired its contents, from gilt-framed portraits and walnut fourposters to Victorian photographs and a collection of pin-speared beetles. Since then, they have painstakingly restored the tower, adding such five-star flourishes as large en suite bathrooms in all 25 rooms, Colefax and Fowler wallpapers, and a mini opera house. There's also an 18-hole golf course two minutes away.

Kevin Dalgleish, one of Scotland's finest young chefs, prepares light-handed seasonal fare with exceptionally fresh ingredients (diver scallops and Orkney oysters reach him three days before they do London). Service, though superb, lacks the formality found in a hotel: no room service, no concierge, no locks or numbers on bedroom doors. The staff will happily park your car or, say, fetch a Havana at midnight. This gives Ackerville a very individual spirit: a private house that's grand without being pretentious. "Of course there's always a little bit of theater," says Richards. "Ackergill just isn't real life for anyone these days."

My only complaint was the excessive heating; the sweaters I brought sat unused during my stay. This must be the coziest tower in Scotland, which, as any local will concede, is as contradictory as mixing whisky with Coca-Cola.

Rates include meals but not alcohol. $450 per person per night. Minimum party of 16, maximum party, 48. Near Wick, Caithness, Scotland; 44-1955-60-3556; fax 44-1955-60-2140; www.ackergill-tower.co.uk.

ALSO RECOMMENDED Castle Ashby Northampton, Northamptonshire Built between 1574 and 1640, this glorious, stately home is presided over by the seventh Marquess of Northampton. Reynolds, Raeburn, and VanDyke portraits line the walls of the reception rooms, and a few of the 26 bedrooms feature fourposter beds said to have been slept in by James I and Charles I. There is also an addition designed by Inigo Jones and a three-mile allée (the longest straight driveway in England).

$ Rates: $52,800-$97,000 per week. Northamptonshire; 44-1604-696-696; fax 44-1604-696-516; www.castleashby.co.uk.


Best for the Style-Conscious

The Samling, Cumbria When Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were living in London, their flight from the paparazzi drove them to some of Britain's finest country rentals. Among their favorites was The Samling in Wordsworth's beloved Lake District. The gabled house overlooks Lake Windermere, a lozenge of dark-blue water buffeted with bulrushes and dramatic russet fells (at their prettiest in the fall). It is assistant manager Fiona McPharlane—an old-fashioned mother hen in knee-length skirt with a lilting, laughing voice—who makes the place. She will fix you up with everything from a stiff Bloody Mary to a helicopter charter.

The Samling is very personal and warm, with chenille-covered winged chairs, slate baths, Ralph Lauren linens, tweeds, Blackwatch tartans on the walls, and fires blazing year-round. There is no lobby or bar; should you want a scotch, you simply help yourself from the drinks cabinet. Breakfast is served in bed, if you prefer. Afternoon tea with scones, jam, and clotted cream appears before you have to ask for it. The coffee tastes as good as it does back home, and the food, should Michelin make a visit, would be worthy of at least one star. (The chef, Chris Meredith, came from Gordon Ramsay's Aubergine in London.)

There are five suites in the main house, another five in cottages nearby. There is also a staff of 14, with someone on call to attend to your needs round the clock. When I forgot my walking boots I was immediately provided with replacements and a map.

McPharlane left a note under my door after midnight with the forecast: "Cloudy. Heavy showers at times; chance of a thunderstorm (watch out!). Few sunny intervals, but some fog (blimey, I should be on the telly doing this). Moderate winds."

Though the staffing at private British rentals might be steadily improving, when it comes to the weather, it seems there is less hope for change.

Rates include meals and alcohol. $4,620 per night for up to six couples; $770 for each additional couple; two-night minimum on weekends. Windermere, Cumbria; 44-15394-31922; fax 44-15394-30400; www.thesamling.com.

ALSO RECOMMENDED Place, Cornwall This lovely manor house has serene views across the tidal water toward St. Mawes. Frequented by A-listers, it sleeps 12 and is as polished as a hotel, with en suite bathrooms and pale cream carpets. If you want a cook, they will happily arrange for one. Like the Samling, it treads the fine line between intimate and grand.

Rates: $7,000 per week during high season (June-August). Book through Blandings: 44-20-7947-3290; www.blandings.co.uk.


Best for Wilderness Seekers

Cawdor Cottages, Nairn, Scotland When a former Vogue fashion stylist and a New York-based architect returned to Scotland to take on the mantle of the latter's inheritance—the 60,000-acre, 14th-century Cawdor estate just east of Inverness—locals were suspicious. But Isabella Cawdor, 35, and her husband, Colin (the 25th Thane of Cawdor, the same made famous in Macbeth), immediately set to work converting five cottages on the estate into chic weekend rentals.

The couple approached the project with panache and applied a lighthearted touch. After they painted one of the cottages, Lochanshelloch, a bright Majorelle blue more appropriate to a Caribbean gingerbread house than to a centuries-old Highland retreat, a prankster painted a big white "X" on it during the middle of the night, replicating the Scottish national flag. The joke has since been painted over, and the cottage is now among the most sought-after on the property.

Achneim, the smallest of the cottages, sleeps two and has a view across farmland toward the Moray Firth. The evening I arrived, a smudge of dark-gray cloud hung low over the sea, which glowed silver in the late northern light. I was charmed by the simple, uncluttered rustic aesthetic: linen curtains, blue velvet armchairs, a pretty iron bedstead, sisal mats. There was no marble, and certainly nothing approaching a concierge (although maid service can be arranged). In fact, the woman who showed me to my cottage was so begrudging about supplying supper (a service allegedly provided) that I knew from then on I was on my own—but happily so. (Gordon Ramsay recently hailed the pub food in Cawdor village as being among the best in Britain.)

There is an alternative to Achneim's romantic austerity. Drynachan Lodge—"the jewel in the crown," as Isabella calls it—is a first-rate house that's attracted the likes of the Beckham clan, Annie Leibowitz, and Kelly Klein. Sleeping 20, with an efficient staff of five, it's sequestered on the banks of the River Findhorn. Nearby is a glen where the heather literally bristles with partridge, grouse, and hare. (You can arrange to go shooting in season.)

"In a place like this, all you need is really good food and really hot baths," says Isabella. "After that, it's the great outdoors." This is a conspicuous understatement. The eclectic look is immensely successful: A wood-paneled drawing room is stuffed with smart, plumped-up sofas and winged armchairs, Victorian line-drawing murals, and tartan carpeting. Fireplaces are flanked by trophies of salmon, stags, grouse, and pheasants with cascading plumage redolent of a Galliano show. The Cawdors have turned a Highland inheritance into the most fashionable private rental outside Notting Hill.

$ Rates for Achneim Cottage: $360-$560, according to season, for three-night minimum stay. Rates for Drynachan Lodge: from $8,700 per week for eight people. Cawdor, Nairn, Scotland; 44-1667-404-666; fax 44-1667-404-787; www.cawdor.com.

ALSO RECOMMENDED The Lodge, Argyll, Scotland Set on the shores of Loch Goil, this Victorian hunting lodge has eight rooms with en suite bathrooms. There's also a boathouse that sleeps two. Like Cawdor, the interiors are impeccably styled, with brass fourposter beds and huge roll-top baths.

$ Rates: $2,745 for six people for two-night minimum stay. 44-1301-703-193; fax 44-1301-703-103; www.thelodge-scotland.com.


Best for Families with Children

Bruern Stable Cottages, near Oxford "Fran is a perfectionist," says owner Judy Astor of the indomitable Frances Curtin, who manages 10 cottages on this Cotswold estate. "She was trained by both Mrs. Bliss and Mrs. Booker, the family's housekeeper and laundry maid. They were trained by the awesome Miss Tans. Everything goes back to her. It's like the Apostolic succession, the laying on of hands." I search fruitlessly for dust under the bed. Sheets are creaseless. There's sponge cake on the table as well as a bottle of chilled Champagne in the fridge. That night, the Astors' chef, Colin Bolam, cooks a superb dinner. (You can order one of his meals when your desire to cook for yourself fades.) All three bedrooms have en suite marble bathrooms as good as those found in any Four Seasons. There are also fourposter beds, wide-screen televisions, and French windows that open onto an apple orchard bordered with irises and forget-me-nots. Beyond, a river winds through poplars and weeping willows.

Bruern Stable Cottages sit in the fold of the Evenlode Valley, a half-hour drive from Oxford. Bruern is a cliché of an English hamlet, with golden Cotswold stone, rolling countryside, and pheasants wandering with leisurely abandon across quiet lanes lined with cow parsley, campion, and ox-eye daisies.On one side of the property is the main house, Bruern Abbey, an 18th-century Baroque pile on the site of a medieval monastery; on the other are the cottages, which sleep between two and eight. Seven flank the stable yard; the rest are in converted barns and the homes of former estate workers.

This is not a place for minimalists; the aesthetic is all chintzes, ottomans, crystal sconces, club fenders (fireside benches), and Chesterfields. Each cottage is different. Shipton, with its white-on-cream and sky-blue interiors, is well-stocked for families, with cribs, babysitting services, even safety covers for electrical sockets. Best of all is the Wendy House, a tiny children's playhouse in a walled garden. Its Lilliputian bedroom is done up to a standard that will impress even the most precocious sybarite.

Rates: $1,150-$3,080 per week (three-night minimum). Red Brick House, Bruern, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; 44-1993-830-415; fax 44-1993-831-750; www.bruern.co.uk.

ALSO RECOMMENDED Combermere Abbey Cottages, Shropshire These 11 cottages are set in a Jacobean stable block. Like Bruern, they're well-equipped and good for children (though on a recent visit, the decor could have used a touch-up). The location is compelling: a little-visited part of middle England near a cluster of medieval market towns.

$ Rates: $525-$845 for three-night minimum stay. Whitchurch, Shropshire; 44-1948-662-876; fax 44-1948-660-920; www.combermereabbey.co.uk.


Rental Agencies

Reputable brokers can be as difficult to locate as road signs to the best private addresses. Those listed here, in our opinion, are absolutely first-rate:

The best agent is Warren de Long of BLANDINGS (44-20-7947-3290; www.blandings.co.uk). Properties range from actress Jane Seymour's Tudor pile outside Bath to family-size manors such as Place in Cornwall. De Long also offers high-end houses that sleep just four. If you need a cook, a driver, or a helicopter, just ask—with enough advance warning, nothing is impossible.

Ian Holmes of PRIVATE WORLD $ (44-20-7723-5599) has an impeccable—if limited—range of houses.

Susie Worthy of NOTEWORTHY EVENTS (44-20-7824-8995; fax 44-20-7824-8545; www.noteworthyevents.com) offers the most stately homes in England, including Castle Ashby and Somerley House in Hampshire, a Georgian mansion set on 7,000 private acres.

Robert Rattray at CKD FINLAYSON HUGHES $ (44-1738-451-600; www.sport.ckdfh.co.uk) rents wonderful Scottish sporting estates, including Mohammed Al Fayed's Balnagown property (where Di and Dodi reportedly hid from the press) and Affric Lodge.

The LANDMARK TRUST $ (44-1628-825-925; fax: 44-1628-825-417; www.landmarktrust.co.uk) rescues, restores, and rents historic estates. Of the 165 properties in the United Kingdom on its books, 24 are Grade I Listed. The Gothic Temple in Stowe, Buckinghamshire, sits on a hill in a Capability-Brown designed garden that's a kind of theme park of architectural follies. It is fantastic aesthetically, with a domed ceiling and circular rooms, but like many of the Landmark Trust properties, it wasn't really designed to be lived in. (For starters, there's only one bathroom.) The emphasis is on unique architecture rather than guest comfort levels, but the trade-off is a glimpse of 18th-century eccentricity.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.