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Interview with Helen Howitt, Co-Founder of Sheepskin

Helen Howitt is co-founder, with her partner Adam, of Sheepskin, a small collection of unique holiday properties located in inspiring landscapes throughout the UK. Prior to forming Sheepskin, they both worked in international product development. They left corporate life to pursue a love of travel and a passion for discovering beautiful and unusual places. Some of the most awe-inspiring places they found were in the UK and Sheepskin was formed from a desire to share these with others. Since Sheepskin launched they have continued to add unusual, carefully selected properties to their collection. Sheepskin’s collection now includes 12 properties in Wales, four in the West Country and one in the Peak District; in 2011 they will expand to the Cotswolds and hopefully into Scotland. What is it that you do exactly?
We are a small, close-knit team at Sheepskin, so on a daily basis I get involved in everything from helping guests organise their stays at our properties and putting together their tailor-made guides, updating our website, blog and social media pages, planning and implementing marketing and PR activities, responding to specific requests from the press with editorial and images, continuing the search for further unique properties to add to our collection and liaising with their owners. Many weeks I travel out of the office to visit new properties. We only include places where we would love to stay ourselves (in fact we do stay in every one before they join the collection). I work with every owner to ensure that our guests will get absolutely the level of comfort, service and experience that they expect when they stay there. Then I re-visit with our photographer, we take a portfolio of honest yet beautiful images and whilst I am in the house I write the details to represent the house on our website. Any spare time; I try to spend thinking about where Sheepskin can go next as a business; Sheepskin Snow is next on our list.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
When I am ‘off the map’ on a dirt track somewhere following the owner’s directions to a great new property I think I have the best job in the world but this would leave me feeling a little empty if it wasn’t for hearing how our guests enjoy staying at these places. It’s the best feeling and best part of my job when guests tell us how much they enjoyed their time away and appreciated our help. You know that you have helped someone find a great place to relax and escape for a while and have a holiday that they will remember.
What would you say are the 3 best places you’ve ever stayed?
My 3 places are all ‘best’ for very different reasons; 1. During our travels in South America, Adam and I drove into the Andes, off the tourist trail to Laguna Santa Rosa. We had a tent with us which we tried to pitch in the hard, salt crusted earth by the lake as we watched the flamingos but as the sun started to set it soon got very cold at 4000m and we resorted to bedding down in the wooden refuge hut. A two room cabin which at a push would accommodate 10 on the floor but it was only us that night (and for some nights before it seemed from the visitor book). With the exception of altitude sickness, this location is one of the most stunning and memorable places I have ever had the privilege to visit and stay. In the middle of the night, we thought about packing up and heading to lower altitude but we persevered and gradually acclimatised and we were glad we did. Sun rise over the lake, surrounded by salt beds, sandstone craggy hills and Llamas was spectacular, we woke early and saw Flamingos bathing nearby in the cool waters. We were sorry to leave but didn’t want to stay another night in case someone else wanted to enjoy the peace and solitude of this beautiful place. This was luxury of a kind that you do not find in many places on earth! 2. Jnane Tamsna and Eco Lodge outside Marakech We left work on Friday afternoon and late that night we had been transported to another world in a guest house in the Atlas Mountains perched on a hillside at the edge of a village. I don’t normally like these types of places where a hotel is built in the middle of a rural village as it is normally only the owner and the guests that benefit from the arrangement. This place was different though; local villagers had been involved in the restoration and are now involved in running the lodge from the man who meets you at the village café, puts your luggage on a donkey and leads you up the hillside through walnut groves with a tin lantern to light the way, to the people who cook your wonderful meals and the guide who can walk with you into the Atlas mountains each day if you wish. We were sorry to leave but after 3 relaxing days exploring the mountains it was time to experience Marakech. Wanting to enjoy the hustle and bustle but be able to escape it we had booked Jnane Tamsna in the Palmerie. None of the places here are in the most stunning locations but stepping inside was like a gateway to another world. The eight individual and traditionally furnished rooms where all off the cool, shaded porticos around the inner courtyard. On the night we arrived we didn’t realise that we were the only guests, we came out into the courtyard for dinner to find one table, places in the centre of the courtyard, lit by tens of candles all around it. Day or night it was a tranquil place to relax and unwind. We couldn’t stay still for long though and didn’t need to with Marakech just a few minutes away. 3. I have to mention one of the properties in our collection (and I promise I am not being biased). Adam and I fell in love with Lletty, in the Brecon Beacons, the first time we saw it. We stayed there with friends over New Year and it really is just an idyllic place. All the creature comforts you could want, peace and tranquillity, a private view of the Black Mountains and a real sense of home. On our previous visits we had ensured that the beds were all very comfortable and made extremely cosy with faux fur throws and our Sheepskin bathrobes were all in place. We had picked up a goose on the way from the local butcher so we had everything we needed for a quiet but completely indulgent New Year’s celebration. At midnight we took the Sheepskin rugs outside and sat on the deck watching the fireworks against the inky black, night sky across the valley.
What’s been your most memorable dining experience to date?
Oh my, that’s a difficult one. Food is one of the reasons I travel, to experience the different cuisines of the countries, I keep a food journal whenever I travel. Normally I would say that the food is more important than the surrounds (you don’t look for air-conditioning and table cloths if you want great, local food in places like Kuala Lumpur for instance) but the meal I will choose was lunch during a trip around South Africa. Near Franschoek we spotted a tiny sign for a vineyard (it wasn’t in the official list but we thought we’d have a look). On the vineyard they had a small restaurant where for some reason we were the only guests. At first we were a little apprehensive particularly with the quite limited menu. But we had a table in the sunshine on a terrace overlooking the vines stretching across the valley so we chanced it and were glad we did. We had, possibly the best fish and chips (no ordinary fish and chips for sure!) I have ever tasted and a magnificent, oaked Chenin blanc all sitting looking out over a tranquil valley under a perfectly clear blue sky. Simple but wonderful!
Have you rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, either through your work or your travels?
A couple of our property owners are, not quite rich and famous but well known in art and media circles though I do not want to encroach on their privacy by saying more. Mariella Frostrup stayed at one of our properties for the Hay Festival this year though all was organised via her agent so we didn’t exactly rub shoulders.
What currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?
I’d like Adam and I to ride our motorbikes from the UK through Europe and eventually into India. Two things are in the way at the moment, first the time it would take is way longer than we wish to be away from Sheepskin at the moment and secondly we would want to do it in style. We’ve done motorbike holidays before, camping on the way, it’s fantastic for a week or so but after that it gets a little tiresome so we’d be searching for great places to stay along the way this time.
Thank you for taking part in our interview, Helen.  Regular readers may recall that we ran a special feature on a Sheepskin property – the Music Mill in the Peak District – earlier this year. If you would like to be interviewed on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Daily Telegraph.

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