Q&A with Sarah Bell, Castle Chase Cottages

Sarah Bell is an independent advisor, agricultural consultant and partner in the family farm in the village of Ayston, Rutland. Her key principle is “Farm profitably and tread lightly” and she applies this approach to all parts of her work.

Castle Chase Cottages is one part of the business, offering high quality, accessible self-catering accommodation in a beautiful rural location. Below she explains the story behind the cottages and what she wanted to achieve from the website.

Why did you need a website?

In 2019, we bought a number of dilapidated farm buildings in a rural location near to our family farm and converted them into two accessible self-catering cottages. When they were completed in 2022, we needed a website to promote the accommodation and accept direct bookings, as well as a space where people could place online orders to buy food from the farm.

What did you want to achieve with it?

We needed a website that offered more flexibility and interactivity than standard accommodation booking sites. From the outset, I had three main requirements that needed to be met:

  1. A flexible, yet functional design
    The cottages are designed with accessibility built in from the beginning. It is important for guests to view and read about the different features, so that they can be sure they meet their mobility needs.

    As a family, we have seen lives changed by disability, both in childhood and later years. We understand that everyone’s needs are different, but that small things can make a massive difference to make sure people have a wonderful family holiday.

    In terms of the look and feel, it was also important that the website reflects both the high quality accommodation offered and the branding and design work delivered by SMC Creative. We want to make sure that people have a seamless experience when they interact with us – be it on the website, visiting our pop-up shops or buying produce directly from the farm.

  2. The ability to accept and manage bookings
    The ability for us to be able to accept and manage bookings directly was very important to us. We wanted to avoid the fees that other booking platforms charge, so that we can pass the savings directly onto our customers.

    We use a tool called SuperControl to manage bookings for the cottages and it was critical that this could be integrated into the website. We would like as many bookings as possible to be made directly via the website. It allows us to offer better rates as we don’t need to account for additional fees from other booking platforms.

  3. A space for our online shop
    Castle Chase Beef isn’t just about the farming, it’s also about the eating! We sell produce from the farm and occasionally host pop-up shops. Depending on seasonal availability, people can order beef, lamb, eggs and bread for in-person collection. For guests staying in the cottages, we deliver the produce directly to their fridge. As well as space for the online shop, we wanted the opportunity to tell the story behind the products as well – the way we farm and how we’re looking after both our animals and our land.

Why did you opt for a Wagtail site rather than another platform?

To be honest, I had never heard of Wagtail. I did have another site built in Wordpress and mentioned to Chris that I didn’t like it, it was really difficult to use from a content management perspective. So when he suggested Wagtail and explained the differences, I was happy to give it a try.

It has proven to be an ideal platform to manage both the back-end admin area - to be as simple and straightforward for me to update the website - and showcase our design to our visitors on the front end. We are in the process of building another cottage, so will be adding more properties to the portfolio. We also want to share images and stories about what’s going on in the area, as well as adding new items to the shop as they become available.

How did you find working with Chris?

I’ve really enjoyed working with Chris on this. He talked me through the structure but also advised on the approach to take from a user experience perspective. There were also lots of practicalities such as hosting and domain registration to set up and he gave really good advice and support to make this happen.

Were there any problems during the build process?

The only problems were due to me tracking down domain hosting details and similar technicalities which Chris really helped me with. Chris was really patient, there was no such thing as a silly question and he talked me through the things needed to get the site live.

Has the Castle Chase website achieved what you set out to do?

Yes absolutely, we now take over 40% of bookings directly via the website and the balance is building.

I’m delighted with how easy it is to update. So much so that I’ve since asked Chris to switch my other website to Wagtail too. The process in the admin area is really clear and the content easy to update. I also find the live previews very helpful, so that I can review what things will look like before I hit publish!

Were there any things that worked particularly well or better than expected?

I enjoyed working with Chris very much and went in with no expectations. We have landed at a point of having a strong and long term working relationship which I really value.

Were there any things that didn’t work as well as you hoped?

Everything has worked really well, there was a small issue with settings which Chris responded to fast and changed from his end. The fact Chris is in Bristol and we are in Rutland hasn’t been a barrier in any way.

Would you use Wagtail again?

Yes and I already have. When my agri-food consultancy site came up for renewal in WordPress, I got back in touch with Chris to ask if he could rebuild it using Wagtail instead. It was so difficult and cumbersome to update and I’m glad I did. The new site is faster, easier to update and performs better, benchmarking shows a 17% increase in the Google PageSpeed ranking. The performance on mobile devices is even more pronounced, as this shows a 24% speed increase.

farmer examining crops in field
Sarah Bell on her farm in Rutland