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Love those multi-dog friendly cottages in Durham...

It's mostly true in life that you don't really know where you are heading, but when you look back, you can see how all the steps along the way have joined together and made a very obvious path. That's how it was for Mandy and Marcus Bainbridge when they set up Colliewobbles back in 2001 after the Foot & Mouth outbreak had forced them into a corner, followed by Laverock Multi-dog Friendly Holiday Cottages in 2009. They say that every cloud has a silver lining and five fun filled years later, Mandy tells us a bit about their award-winning venture.

At the time that foot & mouth blighted our lives and business 13 years ago, we lived at the time on a rented farm near Barnard Castle. I'd previously taken a puppy down to the local dog club for socialisation were we found out about Flyball. We joined the team with reasonable success, competing at the Crufts Flyball Finals for four years in a row. From that we found out about agility and began to rub shoulders with a lot of people with collies.

During that time, we had moved farms and set up our own mail order business called Colliewobbles which we ran this alongside the farm. When people began to ask about working their dogs on sheep, we decided to run some Sheepdog Days where people could see if their dog would have made a sheepdog or, in some cases, wanted distraction training to keep their dogs off sheep. These days grew in popularity and, as more multi-dog people wanted to come, we simply could not find anywhere they could stay the night with more than a couple of dogs - before or after.

Meanwhile on the new farm, we had inherited a shed which was derelict, falling down and had a huge slurry tanks underneath which kept filling with water when it rained! We knew it would only be a matter of time before a sheep, dog or child fell in with horrendous circumstances but the quotes to fill in the tanks and concrete over the base were 15-20,000! At that time, we knew the nearest indoor place for agility/flyball was one hour away in Middlesbrough so we wondered if it was worth borrowing a lot more money to finance a great indoor building to hire out for agility and flyball purposes which would eventually pay itself back over 15 years.

With two buildings on the farm only used seasonally and still trying to find dog friendly accommodation locally, the agility arena soon proved to us that there was a huge need for real 'dog friendly' accommodation - the type where owners would not be horrified when visitors turned up with one or more dogs. So, after submitting plans to the Council and having them approved we made the difficult decision to sell our Colliewobbles business and use the money as a deposit for the cottages. We prepared reasonably optimistic cash flow figures for the bank which were finally agreed, especially when we had a lot of interest in Colliewobbles and agreed a sale fairly quickly.

As you all know, nothing in life is ever simple and after two lots of builders, planning nightmares and the cost estimate nearly doubling, we finally opened the door to the first cottage in May 2009. The second followed three months later. We had often watched the programmes on telly where people had bought holiday homes abroad to do up and were seen meeting people at the airport whilst they had no toilets fitted! We vowed nothing like that would ever ever happen to us but, we must admit that as the first people came up the drive, I was still on my hands and knees with the hairdryer trying to dry the varnish on the floor!

So now, five years on, we are still loving every minute of our cottages and visitors. Non-doggy people are often literally horrified when they hear we take the first four dogs free and often have six, seven or eight staying. They have no idea that most multi-dog people are very clean and organised probably because they they have to be to cope with so many dogs!

Being dog people ourselves, we designed the cottages to blend having a relaxing holiday with easy to look after, hence enclosed gardens, hot and cold water outside and our 'piece de la resistance a 6ft square doggy shower / wetroom with half stable door so muddy little guys can be washed down and dried by the radiator whilst still smelling tea cooking. Easily washable, non-slip Indian stone floors - and no Ming vases at happy dog tail height - we have been delighted with 99% of our visitors who have so appreciated being able to bring their dogs that they have looked after the cottages well.

The worst case we had was when the local tourist board rang us to see if we would take a one dog family for three days. As the cottage was unusually not booked that week we said yes. Sadly, when they left there was dog poo on the stairs and wee all up the wall. Apart from a Labrador who had been sleeping in the bed under the sheets (and the bed had been neatly made up again so we nearly didn't notice) we really love - and appreciate - the fact that all our visitors are so nice. We have made loads of friends and get loads of re-bookings.

Visitor highlights
Our of our most amusing incidents include when one poor guest was accidentally locked out of the house at 3am in the snow, in her nighty, while enjoying a quick fag. We made front page news in the local paper when the Search & Rescue team had to be called to rescue a holidaying dog who had been swimming in the river and then got stuck on a ledge on the other side.

Then there were the poor people who had booked an agility lesson at 5pm then didn't get back until 9pm as they got lost in Hamsterley Forest and had been walking for 10 hours. Not surprisingly didn't want their agility lesson on their return! and not so funny was the cry of help from some of our poor visitors who had been into 'Englands last Wilderness' when the snow came really quickly and they were stranded up there.

One of the cottages is 'wheelchair friendly' so we were not surprised when gentleman rang up to book the cottage with his wife and four dogs. He said he definitely required the wheelchair friendly cottage so I was fussing around making sure everything was in place for his wife. We had a lovely ramp ready for the small step from the pavement into the cottage. The people drove in and I stood eagerly anticipating our first disabled visitor to the cottage. Out jumped the man and then out jumped his wife! I was a bit confused as I knew there were only two people and the dogs. The man then went round to the boot of the car and lifted out a most gorgeous little Collie who had lost the use of her back end and so had one of the little carts fitted with wheels. She was our first disabled visitor!

We have also hosted a lot of top agility trainers from the UK and overseas as well as international visitors including the whole of the Japanese Sheepdog Trialling Team for two weeks when the World Sheepdog Trials were being held in the Lake District, just one hour away). One of Britains best Flyball teams came for a week of practice in the winter, and we've had two and four-legged visitors from Norway, Sweden, Belgium, France and Switzerland.

Trainee vets and their dogs have stayed here, getting valuable hands on farming/lambing experience before their exams, while Search & Rescue dogs have put our eight year old son to good use, finding him hiding around the farm. We've even welcomed a house cat and a parrot who thought they were dogs!

Having a lot of 'regulars' now, it has been sad that some people have 'passed on' in between stays, and it's been a privilege to welcome back their families who have returned as they have many happy memories of their stay here with their loved ones. In the five years we have been operating, we can count on our fingers the number of weeks which were not filled so as many of our visitors are Agility people we would like this chance to say thank you.

Along the way, we won the 2012 Kennel Club Open for Dogs Award for Best Place to Holiday in the UK with your Dog competition. This was especially nice as we knew half our visitors said they loved Laverock so much they wouldn't vote for us as they didn't want anyone else knowing about us as they struggled to get in anyway!

So, with 2014 now booking up nicely and 2015 already on the site we look forward to another fun filled and busy year meeting loads of lovely four and two legged new visitors and welcoming back our returning friends.

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About the author...
Mandy Bainbridge lives with her husband and two sons on their farm in Co. Durham. Originally from Cumbria, she mover over the county border 18 years ago.

She has always loved Border Collies and breeds the occasional litter under the 'Comebyanaway' affix.

She currently competes iin agility with Border Collies Red (G7) Red's son Pip (G65) and is currently training Red's youngest daughter Lucy (age 1) in agility and sheepwork.

First published 28 January 2014



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