When Kate Simon helped to judge the AA Landlady of the Year Award, it wasn't the house that counted but the welcome

As I picked up my case to leave home for the airport, the phone rang. It was the landlady of the Scottish b&b where I was due to stay that night. "I'm terribly sorry, my husband has had an accident," she said. "He's in hospital a couple of hours' drive away ..."

As I picked up my case to leave home for the airport, the phone rang. It was the landlady of the Scottish b&b where I was due to stay that night. "I'm terribly sorry, my husband has had an accident," she said. "He's in hospital a couple of hours' drive away ..."

My heart sank. I could see she was going to cancel. Normally this would just be an inconvenience. In my case it was more awkward than that. Because I was heading there as undercover judge of the AA Landlady of the Year Award. The b&b was on the shortlist. I had to visit. But wouldn't re-booking arouse suspicion?

It's a tough job being an undercover judge of the AA Landlady of the Year Award. It requires the utmost discretion - and duplicity. And I'm not much cop at either. I soon became amazed at the unflappable good humour of the landladies I met, and increasingly in awe of the professional inspectors who do this for a living. It's not a job for someone who wants to be liked.

The challenges came thick and fast. Early on, I thought the whole project was going to go pear-shaped. I had called one of the b&bs only to discover that the landlady was on holiday. But not to worry, said the voice on the other end of the phone, the b&b was still open for business. Well that was no use to me, I needed to meet the woman herself. But to ask when she'd be returning might make me sound like a stalker, and the voice was giving nothing away. I dithered, saying I'd call back, and fell on the mercy of my masters at AA HQ who agreed to do some sleuthing. Clearly, I'm not spy material.

On another occasion my resolve was tested by an unexpected hitch. Some of the finalists I was due to visit lived in fairly close proximity. A cinch. I carefully worked out a grand circuit to take them all in, timing flights from London, where I live, and figuring out driving routes. With just one call my plans were thrown into disarray. "Any vacancies on Sunday night?" I asked. "Certainly, how many for, what time will you be arriving, can I take your name..." Once the details of my booking were complete, the landlady announced that it was such a shame but we wouldn't meet as she had been invited to a function at a hotel that night and would be staying over. "Oh dear. But how nice for you. Have a good time ..." I replied. I put the phone down, put my head in my hands, painstakingly rearranged the whole itinerary and called back to book a different night, excusing myself as an idiot who couldn't get her dates right.

So what about my landlady with the injured husband? Never mind my disappointment, the poor man had suffered a rather nasty accident. Yet it turned out the landlady hadn't called me to cancel, she'd rung to explain that a friend would be there to meet me ... that she would be back later in the evening ... that I must make myself at home ... that a table was booked at the local pub for dinner... This was one consummate hostess. She wasn't going to let a personal crisis spoil her guest's arrangements. I felt such a cad. Had I been a real punter, I would have surely cancelled my visit in sympathy with her unfortunate circumstances.

But this is the kind of rare quality that I was charged with hunting out. Forget about the décor, how good the breakfast is, or what little extras are put in the room, this award is all about personality. And that's a toughie, because it's so subjective: what might appeal to me may not appeal to you, after all. Fortunately it wasn't all up to me. The quest to find a worthy winner begins back at the AA, where thousands of potential candidates are whittled down to hundreds and eventually to the final few. These are put through their paces: their patience, flexibility, their very nerves, are all put to the test.

These landladies are tough nuts to crack. And my natural reticence about causing too much inconvenience was a hindrance. I turned to a colleague and former judge of this competition for advice. She had really gone to town - setting challenges such as chucking mud over her clothes and demanding hotel-style valet services. This sounded like a good ruse, and I was about to do the same at one b&b when I saw in the house handbook that they offered a laundry service. A laundry service in a b&b? I thought I was lucky to get a kettle.

At one b&b, I pulled an aerial out of the TV socket at breakfast time and demanded it be fixed, while my son joined in the hullabaloo, howling for the children's programme he'd been watching. No problem. The landlady came immediately and got the TV going again with a smile and without even burning the bacon.

At another I sent my son to cause havoc in the family garden, uninvited. But he was befriended by the owner's two young children. Their dad - one of three landlords on the final shortlist of 20 for Landlady of the Year - seemed totally unperturbed. Foiled again.

At yet another, I was contemplating what task to set when there was a knock at the bedroom door. It was the landlady, and she was offering to videotape a crucial episode of Coronation Street for my mum while we were out at dinner. (She had learned that my mum was a big fan in a conversation earlier that afternoon). I was stumped. Beat that for initiative!

I learned quickly that to be a successful landlady or landlord of a b&b you must never be fazed by your guests' demands, whether they're just tiresome or downright odd. But some other special qualities are required, too: a genuine desire to meet people and a talent for delivering consistently attentive yet seemingly effortless high-quality service. You can't be half-hearted about this job. Anything less than genuine enthusiasm will be obvious, and the guests will just feel ripped off. In any case, you wouldn't last long because you have to really like inviting people into your home, which is what most b&bs are. One of the landladies I visited slept in a room across the landing from her guests. That wouldn't be my idea of fun.

As for the landlady who dashed up and down the Scottish countryside to be at her husband's side in hospital and attend to her guests, her dedication was finally rewarded. Last Wednesday Elizabeth Gradidge was named the AA Landlady of the Year 2005. During my incognito visit, she had told me that she'd been nominated for the prize, and was surprised because she had only been a landlady for five years.

Having spent a night under her roof, I wasn't. The final decision wasn't mine, but I'm glad the professional judging panel concurred with the opinion of this rather amateur temporary addition to their numbers.

Independent on Sunday readers can buy the AA Bed & Breakfast Guide at 20 per cent off the recommended retail price (£12.99) plus free p&p (worth £2.99). Simply call the AA Travel Bookshop on 01206 255 800 and quote Independent/ B&B offer. Please have your credit card details to hand when calling. This offer ends 31 August 2005. Terms and conditions apply. Visit www.theAA.com/bookshop or call 01256 491524


More country retreat than b&b, Ruthven House is a gloriously romantic Victorian pile just outside Coldstream in the Scottish borders. Owners Francis and Elizabeth Gradidge (below) bought the house in 1999 and embarked on a successful new career in the b&b business. Their endeavours having been rewarded with five diamonds from the AA, its highest accolade for a b&b.

This recognition is well deserved. The Gradidges have created a homely atmosphere in their extraordinary property, not least by filling it with family pictures and comfortable, quality furnishings. But it's as much to do with the fact that visitors are treated like private house-guests rather than strangers renting rooms for the night.

Guests are accommodated in three twin bedrooms, all with private bathrooms. A full Scottish breakfast is served in the dining room. Dinner is available by arrangement, or you may be directed to the Wheatsheaf Inn in nearby Swinton, a truly exceptional pub restaurant.

But the highlight of any stay must be to sit for a while at the window-seat in the drawing room, looking out across the lawn and fields to the Cheviot Hills beyond. Breathtaking.

Twin rooms are available from £60 per night, minimum two-night stay. Call 01890 840771 or go to www.bordersovernight.co.uk.