A couple who relocated from Hertfordshire to Norfolk say they're "living the dream" after converting an almost-derelict coach house into a boutique Airbnb.

Lots of people dream of retiring to a quiet village near the coast, but for Christine Elves and her husband, Simon, the last three years have been anything but.

Since moving to Norfolk in 2019, they have completely transformed an almost-derelict coach house into a unique holiday let, started renovating their Georgian five-bed and have settled into their new life in the village.

The couple spent over two years researching their move from Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire to Foulsham in Norfolk. For a while, they’d even considered a move to Devon.

“We did consider Devon but then decided it was too far away,” says Christine. “Having worked in London, you don’t want to be too far away if you want to back in to meet up with people or go to the theatre or something like that. Devon was just a little bit of a step too far.”

The couple had previously holidayed in Norfolk and loved it, she says. “We love the quietness of it. Compared to Devon, we love that Norfolk hasn’t got any major roads or motorways – so yeah, Norfolk was chosen above Devon and Cornwall.”

After settling on Norfolk, they spent a further year doing more research – this time on the ground. Part of their plan to move included setting up their own Airbnb or holiday let, which meant testing out lots of others. “The year before we moved, we did lots of Airbnb stays in Norfolk to get a feel for what it would be like to live here – and also to get some tips on how not to run or to run an Airbnb or holiday cottage.

“We narrowed it down after a few visits. We decided that we wanted to be north of Norwich, because we wanted to be nearer the coast but we didn’t want to be on the coast. For two reasons, really. We didn’t want to pay the Thornham-type property prices and also wanted somewhere with a community.

“We didn’t realise until we lived here just how many of the properties in some of the villages nearer the coast were actually all holiday properties. We wanted somewhere that obviously people wanted to come and stay in, but also somewhere that had that sense of community within a village.”

And in Foulsham they found it.

After narrowing their search to the west of Norfolk, rather than the east – “we think it’s prettier countryside,” says Christine – the couple “looked at lots and lots of houses”. They were looking for something that had character but also the potential for a holiday let, and eventually stumbled across what would later become their new home; it was a five-bed Georgian property with a separate cottage beside it.

Christine still says they were lucky to find it. “It’s within the grounds of our property so we’ve got the best of both worlds,” she says. “It’s completely detached and separate but it’s near as well. We had looked at barn conversions, where we would have had to have hived off a section of it, but I’m glad now that we’ve got somewhere completely separate.”

The only downside was that the cottage – actually a former coaching house, since named Carpenters Yard – was almost completely derelict.

They hired an architect who, Christine says, came up with a “completely different idea” to the vision they had – but just as work started, the pandemic did too.

“We’d barely started to get things underway and COVID came. It meant that it was difficult to secure builders and materials and so on, so the actual renovation of Carpenters Yard took longer and we went back to doing the house.”

But when they could do it, renovating the cottage was a major project. “It was stripped right back down to the basics. The floor was taken out, the roof was taken off – I think the only thing that remained was the basic structure, which is really the brickwork.”

It took around nine months in total, and included several compromises. Timber was a challenge to find during the pandemic, which meant that wooden windows became aluminium ones – although Christine says she’s grateful for that, now, because they love them.

Inside, she says it’s “like a new house”, and they’re so happy that they employed a good architect and builder. “Now that it’s finished, I’m so glad we got that bit right. The way that the light comes in and the sort of openness of it and how we’ve carved up the space – we’re very, very pleased.”

Before they bought the property, Christine says they had no real experience of doing any renovations. “The house we had before was a 60s-built semi in where we lived in Hertfordshire, so we were complete newbies! We learned a lot, and it does mean that you can actually get a building and a home that is perfect for what you want.”

The project has also enabled the pair to indulge new passions, too – which seems a world away from their office-based jobs in London. “Now it is kind of an opportunity for my creative side and also for my husband to buy lots of power tools and indulge his amateur builder side,” Christine says.

They started renting Carpenters Yard out on Airbnb in May of this year, and have been fully booked since. They’ve tried to be as flexible as possible, requiring just 24-hours notice and offer a flexible cancellation policy. It’s ideal for two and winter-proofed, featuring a cosy log burner and underfloor heating. But better yet, Christine says they’re loving running it.

“We absolutely love doing it and I’m fortunate enough to be married to a man that loves ironing duvet covers,” she laughs. “We’ve got a really good division of how we manage things in terms of when we do the changeover. Simon does upstairs, I do downstairs and the garden.

“I dress it like I would my home, partly because it’s next door, but I think if you stay somewhere – and we’ve stayed at lots of Airbnbs – that is maybe run by a letting company, you don’t get that sense that somebody has put a lot of love and attention into it. It can be a little bit soulless.

“A couple of people have said in our feedback that it feels like home from home, which I think is quite a compliment.”

Christine and Simon have also made the decision to welcome guests personally. “I kind of get a sense from them how much they want to engage,” she says. “We say if you need anything you can message us or just knock on the door,” and they’ve only had a couple of “strange” requests – including one for risotto rice. “Unfortunately I didn’t have any,” Christine laughs.

Now that they’ve lived in the area for around three years, they’re also able to offer personal recommendations for places to go. Nearby Heydon is a favourite, she says, particularly to overseas guests “because it’s about as British as you can get”, as are places like Holt and Thornham.

And settling into life in the village has also been important to the pair, who have now resumed work on their own property. It’s not quite as big a project as Carpenters Yard, mostly cosmetic rather than structural, but it’s clear they feel at home.

When we speak, Christine says she’s just entered some items into the local produce show and are soon heading to a quiz night at the local pub. “We’re fortunate that we have a pub and a shop,” she says. “A lot of the villages in Norfolk sadly don’t, now, and we’re glad – although it wasn’t top of our criteria when we were looking for houses.

“It’s a lovely community. We know lots more people now than we did when we were working and living in a town and there’s always something going on. We love it here.”

Find out more about Carpenters Yard, by searching Instagram for @bramblingshousenorfolk.

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