The British B & B goes to finishing school

The seaside landlady no longer holds sway. Now it's all en suite bathrooms, four-posters and scintillating dinner-table conversation. Carol Wright on the grown-up way to stay
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The Independent Travel
An Englishman's home may be his castle, but drawbridges are being let down for B & B visitors. In B & B land there are now ever expanding choices from castles to crofts and manors to mills, all far removed from the seaside landlady image of greasy spoon breakfasts and undue canniness with the bath water.

The recession, Lloyd's losses and the need to maintain old or extensive properties have propelled many into the B & B business. Malcolm Gage, the RAC's chief inspector, says redundancies and enforced early retirement plus the empty nest factor have also been a factor. "What's more, improvements have been imposed by the higher expectations of guests. The private en suite bathroom is now commonplace."

B & B offers privacy, security and is popular with single women. London specialists, Uptown Reservations, report 55-65 per cent of clients are women. Hosts provide not only local know-how on eating out and shopping, but also books, magazines, television and often a garden or private sitting- room for relaxation. There are still "house rules" - no finger-clicking at hosts for a G and T, respect for smoking restrictions and agreed times of arrival and meals - but the tone is different.

Idiosyncratic

The proliferation of B & B properties means guests can virtually pick a place to suit their personality. Quirky, eccentricity characterises Distinctly Different's listings. Founder Peter Roberts, a former government irrigation engineer and his teacher wife, Priscilla, include their own home, Bradford Old Windmill, at Bradford-on-Avon, where circular 1806 three-foot thick walled rooms have round and water beds, whirlpool bath and a room with a minstrel's gallery for children. Priscilla cooks aromatic vegetarian meals from recipes picked up around the world.

Distinctly Different's B & B choices are mainly in former industrial buildings: mills, oast houses, Victorian village lock-ups, bakery, schools and post offices. At the Bolebroke Mill and Miller's Barn in East Sussex (pounds 22.50-pounds 36 per person) guests sleep around old mill workings and en suite baths are in old grain bins. The Honeymooner's Hayloft has a four-poster made from haywagon timbers and Emma Thompson slept in it during the filming of Carrington. The old lamp room at the lighthouse on Great Orme's Head 370ft above the waves has only glass between you, the sea and the setting sun. Florence Nightingale's Onion Store in Hampshire is now a "tented boudoir" with a bath in the Grain store. The adjacent host house has conservatory, pool for candlelit swims. The Boatman's Brothel, Ironbridge, was built as a brew-and- boarding house for the men who, in the 18th century, moored their boats at the foot of the garden. The 44ft long dormitory and individual brothel cubicles are now genteel rooms with patchwork quilted four-posters.

Singing for supper

Wolsey Lodges, a non-profitmaking organisation, is named after Cardinal Wolsey who on his 16th-century tours expected the best hospitality. Wolsey term their stays as "social experiences" available in 220 independently inspected houses. All except one provide dinner, eaten en famille, and conversation can be enlivened by the hosts' expertise - Brian Thomas at Turleigh Combe, Wiltshire, is a retired opera singer; Lesley Berry at The Manor House, Flamborough, is an expert on knitting fishermen's sweaters; Lord Hothfield of Drybeck Hall is an authority on real tennis and an LTA coach, while David Carter of Horsley Manor can regale guests on the techniques of manufacturing shaving brushes. Prices vary from around pounds 20-pounds 40 per night with dinner pounds 15-20. Old houses are Diane Morley's Knights in Britain speciality. Her 200-plus inspected houses include a 1583 house in Scotland built by a friend of Rob Roy's friend and near Abergavenny, a 16th-century house which stored extra armour for Charles I during the Civil War. Knights in Britain acts like a tour operator with advance payments for bookings and complete itineraries arranged, which is useful for exploring unknown areas and includes Ireland. Prices per night from pounds 25-pounds 45 , single supplements pounds l0.

Design on Wales

The 50 members in Wales's Great Little Places are there by invitation and prices start from pounds 38 per couple for bed and full breakfast. The range is rich; a vineyard, Tudor manor restored in authentic architectural detail where guests dine entirely by candlelight, medieval castle, and remote farmhouses. Among the hosts, Nesta Thomas of Lower Haythog Farm, Haverfordwest won the Taste of Wales Farmhouse food award last year (pounds 36-pounds 40 for two). Ex- designers Nancy and Tim Morrow have put their talents to work at Garthmyl Hall near Montgomery, a red bricked Grade II listed building (pounds 50-pounds 90 for two) and Marian Roberts who cooks her farm produce for guests at Plas Trefarthen on Anglesey is a noted soprano soloist who has performed all over the world with Welsh choirs and occasionally sings for guests after dinner (pounds 42 for 2).

Country cousins

The National Trust lists 70 of its tenants, mostly on working farms, who offer B & B from pounds 12 per person. Lake District properties make fine walking bases, as do those near Devon's coastal path. Statelier properties include Thorington Hall, a 17th-century house in Constable country from pounds 18 per person per night. In Kent, Sissinghurst Castle Farm is next door to the famous gardens and costs from pounds 23 50 a night, less in winter.

Horticultural heaven

Garden enthusiasts should try one of the 82 properties in Bed & Breakfast for Garden Lovers, which are choosen for the gardens not the region according to organiser Sue Colquhoun. The owners are like a friendly club and meet once a year in my village hall. The organisation is run on stamps sent in for our brochure. Thornhill Park, used for filming Far From The Madding Crowd has a five-acre garden, pounds 30. A stone cottage in Dorset has a plantsmans' garden inspired by Margery Fish. Avenue Cottage in Devon has 11 peaceful acres partly of listed 18thcentury landscaped park in the Dart valley. The twin room here has a wisteria clad balcony overlooking the garden ; pounds 22 50 per person.

And for the vegetarian

Vegetarian Visitor, an annual guide, lists hotels and restaurants as well as B & B's such as the Old Post Office, Llanigon, Hay-on- Wye, a 17th-century house with beams and oak floor boards and Invercassley Cottage in Sutherland with organic garden and loan of canoes and bikes .

Something in the City

"We are the quality alternative to hotels," says Keith Stables of Uptown Reservations. The nearer to Harrods the better is their location ideal with 60 properties available in Chelsea, Kensington, Knightsbridge, Bloomsbury and increasingly Holland Park and Notting Hill. While the average London hotel price is now pounds 97, Uptown charges pounds 70 double, pounds 55 single per person and they try to match guest to house. Hosts include bankers, a restaurateur, health food shop owner, university professor, titled ladies, dress designer, solicitor, actor and collage artist. The London B & B Agency also has interesting hosts including a musician in Acker Bilk's band and a parrot- owning artist. There are several properties in the Hampstead area including a penthouse in the late Peggy Ashcroft's former home. All are vetted by agency owner Julia Stebbings and cost from pounds 17 per person without a bathroom to pounds 35 in Knightsbridge with private bathroom .

Doctor in the House run by Tiggy Hooper and Sue Wainwright provides inspected, inexpensive home accommodation for medical people visiting London or Edinburgh. B & B with continental breakfast is pounds 28 single, pounds 42 double with reductions for longer stays. All rooms are suitable for private study.

FACT FILE

Cotacts

Distinctly Different, tel/fax 01225 866648

Wolsey Lodges 01449 741297

Knights in Britain 01747 871221/fax 01747 871281

Wales, Great Little Places 01686 668030/fax 01686 668029

National Trust Bed and Breakfast leaflet, PO Box 39, Bromley, Kent BR1 3XL (send SAE, A5 envelope with first class stamp)

Bed and Breakfast for Garden Lovers, Handywater Farm, Sibford Gower, Banbury ,Oxon OX15 5AE ( send SAE 22cm x 11cm envelope with four first- class stamps-loose).

Vegetarian Visitor pounds 2 50 or call 01689 870437.

Uptown Reservations, 0171 351 3445/fax 0171 351 9383

London Bed and Breakfast Agency, 0171 586 2768/fax 0171 586 6567

Doctor in the House, 0181 870 5949/fax 0181 877 3464

Further reading

RAC Bed and Breakfast 1997, to keep in car or brief case, the RAC B & B guide to Great Britain and Ireland lists over 2,000 properties graded in three categories pounds 5 99 from bookshops.

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