Taken in by the spirited sisters

Bed and breakfast in a working convent in York

Desperate to find some inner peace? Pack your bags and head for Bar Convent in York. But don't be fooled by the name. Sitting just outside the original city walls, the word "bar" refers to the toll gates that travellers once had to pass through - this is not the place to order a Scotch on the rocks. Bar Convent is, in fact, a most unusual bed and breakfast and the perfect place for a retreat, spiritual or not.

Desperate to find some inner peace? Pack your bags and head for Bar Convent in York. But don't be fooled by the name. Sitting just outside the original city walls, the word "bar" refers to the toll gates that travellers once had to pass through - this is not the place to order a Scotch on the rocks. Bar Convent is, in fact, a most unusual bed and breakfast and the perfect place for a retreat, spiritual or not.

This is a working nunnery, run by the order of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and is home to a rather gutsy bunch of nuns. Rather than plummet into debt, they decided to convert their fine Georgian buildings into a b&b, a café, a small museum and a conference centre run by a former manager of British Aerospace.

Bar Convent was founded on the deathbed of Mary Ward, a pioneering Catholic nun who petitioned the Pope to allow "Jesuitesses" to teach in the outside world as part of their vocation instead of being locked away, as nuns were in the 17th century. The convent and school were set up by Mother Francis Bedingfield in 1686, at a time when it was still illegal to be a Roman Catholic.It is thought to be the oldest working convent in the country. For 50-odd years the nuns pretended to be ordinary women who cared for the poor, their chapel appointed with a priest's hiding hole and eight exits should the King's soldiers storm the place. Indeed, Mother Francis was imprisoned three times for her beliefs.

The nuns continued to teach here until the early 1970s when they handed the school over to be run under the comprehensive system. When they shut their doors to their pupils, they reopened them to youth hostellers. More recently, the convent was upgraded to a bed and breakfast, with the financial help of John Paul Getty, a friend of Sister Agatha, Mother Superior at the convent until she began a six-month sabbatical in Canterbury last September.

Acting Mother Superior Sister Ann gives way to Sister Mary in March, but despite this rapid accession, there are fewer than a dozen nuns living at Bar Convent, all of whom are elderly. These days, most find it too difficult to climb the steps to the stunning neo-classical chapel and instead attend services in the adjacent church. It's a problem that the order is trying to address by appealing to nuns away on missionary work to return to the fold and try their hand in godless Britain.

The resident nuns go about their daily, domestic duties in a state of continual prayer. But they are quite approachable and more than happy to talk to visitors.

Sister Gregory is the sprightly nonagenarian archivist in charge of the museum, the library and all the convent's documents, including financial and cookery books which date back to the 17th century. She joined the convent after converting to Catholicism at university in 1920, although all the nuns here prefer to describe their faith as a life-long mission. She is pleased that there are visitors about the place. "We've always been used to having people about in the buildings, because of when the children came here to school. And now that we have so few young nuns around, it's nice to have young people coming in," she said.

Bar Convent is not the place to stay to be pampered. Despite the splendour of many of its public rooms, the 15 bedrooms are cell-like and probably not much changed from when boarding girls and teaching nuns slept here 300 years ago.

The decor is sparse. Most rooms have just a bed and hand-basin, with shared bathrooms, kitchens and living rooms down the hall. I stayed in the room reserved for visiting priests and bishops - a far more comfortable affair, furnished with some lovely antique pieces.

Breakfast is self-service and there are ovens and microwaves if you want to make dinner, although you can order a three-course evening meal when booking. Visitors who want to spend an evening out in the city will return with their own key to find the door locked by 9.30pm and the hospitable sisters all tucked up for the night.

This is accommodation for frugal travellers on a budget. You are requested to clean up after yourself - it would feel almost sacrilegious not to do so. After all, cleanliness is next to godliness.

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