There's no shortage of houses to rent in the United Kingdom, but few of them have managed to make the transition from crumbling ancestral pile to stylish country manor. At Bruern Holiday Cottages, the Astor family lifted their Cotswold home above the usual threadbare conventioneers' estates, and just north of the border, Isabella Cawdor, a former British Vogue stylist, turned a clutch of wee Scottish bungalows into chic getaways. Now England seems to have rediscovered its national treasures: The owners of several historic houses scattered across the provinces of Norfolk and Gloucestershire have begun renting to the public (a smart and discerning one, of course), having replaced the family heirlooms with a hip blend of modern and period furnishings.
Triumphal Arch This extraordinary 18th-century arch—originally the entryway for carriages—is on the south side of Holkham Estate in north Norfolk, a three-hour drive from London and 15 minutes from the postcard sands of Holkham Beach, which is featured in the closing scenes of Shakespeare in Love. The arch holds two one-bedroom rentals; the larger, the West Arch, is the one to book. It has a stone staircase spiraling up to a big bedroom and a sweet half-moon window that looks straight down the dramatic two-mile avenue leading to Holkham Hall. A claw-and-ball-foot bathtub stands insouciantly on the wood floor of the bedroom (a private shower is halfway down the stairs). On the lower level is a slate and marble kitchen, where you cook lunch and dinner for yourself. Not a house for kids, this is a place couples come to be totally alone (only the maid stops by), soothed by the sounds of pheasants, deer, owls, and migrating seabirds. $ Rate, $375, including breakfast; 44-1328/711-008; www.victoriaatholkham.co.uk.
Cliff Barns When Salman Rushdie sought refuge from the fatwa brought upon him because of The Satanic Verses, he holed up in the little Norfolk market town of Swaffham, a two-hour drive east from London. Had Cliff Barns been available then, what a hideout it would have made: a secluded 19th-century oak-and-stone barn right outside town. He could have thrown a huge soirée and never been discovered; that's what Cliff Barns is all about—it's a party house. Conceived by two London designers, it has six rooms (each with its own bathroom), a floor-shaking music system, wide-screen TV, sauna, open fireplaces, and outdoor hot tub. For the kids, there's a separate bunkhouse. The decor occasionally comes dangerously close to kitsch—the Texas hunting-lodge scheme pulls together stag-head trophies and ponyskin armchairs—but is saved by the sly combination of chrome lamps, tartan upholstery, antique chandeliers, and seventies wallpaper. $ Rates, $7,800 per week; cook and maid service upon arrangement. At Narford Rd.; 44-1366/328-342; www.cliffbarns.com.
Voewood This 1904 Arts and Crafts house, also in Norfolk, perfectly encapsulates its owner, the London rare-book seller Simon Finch: Both possess a raffish, eclectic, ultracool charm. In the village of High Kelling, a ten-minute drive from the coast, Voewood is made of red carstone and flint and has a highly regarded sunken garden (the stone used to construct the building was dug from its own grounds). Textile designer and artist Annabel Grey created the interiors, turning what had been a drafty mansion—Voewood sleeps 32—into a remarkably luxe, light-filled retreat. The drawing room, with its Steinway baby grand, is lined with deep, marshmallowy sofas and draped with animal skins and tribal-style textiles. The great hall is studded with a mirror ball and a frieze of Robert Dawson-designed tiles. And there's a study done in Portobello Road hot pinks, a kitchen in wedgwood blues, and a downstairs bathroom with a Rietveld chair. You could call the look Bohemian bling. Rates, $11,200 for three nights; cook and staff upon arrangement. At Cromer Rd.; 44-1263/713-029; www.voewood.com.
Berkeley House For visitors to London, perhaps the most appealing feature of Berkeley House, in the antiques-shopping town of Tetbury in Gloucestershire, is its proximity: a two-hour drive away. But the really outstanding thing about the 18th-century townhouse is its thoroughly anti-Georgian aesthetic. Owned by Swedish designer and photographer Lena Proudlock (she designed knitwear for Ralph Lauren), Berkeley is Scandinavia meets the Cotswolds: all-white rooms warmed up with rough wood floors, crystal chandeliers, venetian glass mirrors, fireplaces, and glamorous canvas-size family photos (Proudlock is also a former model). Stray splashes of color—perfectly chosen, as in the white lacquered sofas upholstered in lilac and black denim—interject a welcome note in the monochromatic simplicity. The seven bedrooms, four with double beds and three with twins, accommodate a family better than most private houses to rent. And there's plenty to keep kids and their parents entertained: a 42-inch flat-screen TV, broadband access, and, in the terrific walled garden, a grill and croquet course. Rates, $2,700 for three nights; cook and staff upon arrangement. At 16 The Chipping; 44-1666/500-051; www.lenaproudlock.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.