Let's hear it for landladies. On Tuesday, the AA will announce the name of its Landlady (or Landperson) of the Year award, an accolade awaited with bated breath among the ranks of that doughty breed.
Earlier this spring, the AA invited me to help judge its 2002 award, a task given to a different travel journalist each year. I would have to go undercover and make life difficult for the five finalists, awarding marks out of 10 for warmth, professionalism and general helpfulness.
We've all heard landlady horror stories: toenail-snagging nylon sheets; congealing fried eggs; the door shut firmly in your face early on rain-sodden mornings. All I can say is that the best of the breed are an unbeatable advertisement for British home-grown hospitality. This lot should be hung with garlands.
Travel assignments do not come much tougher. It takes a lot to faze a decent landlady. Previous finalists have put up with a guest mistaking his hostess's bed for his own; guests who leave behind their babies, wives, passports and prosthetic limbs; guests who bring along their parakeets, pythons, bats and, in one case, six llamas; guests who get themselves stuck in the bath.
Friends and family were not reassuring. "You'll be useless," they chorused when I relayed the kind of hurdles I might have to erect. One previous inspector had rung her hostess at midnight to demand a pair of black stockings. Another two, having turned down dinner in advance, changed their minds, refused to listen to recommendations of the local pub and ended up calmly eating their hosts' Valentine's night supper.
Colleagues amused themselves thinking up fiendish ploys. On sitting down to a beautifully cooked dinner, I could announce that I was a vegan. How about insisting on having all my bedroom furniture rearranged according to the principles of feng shui?
Contemplating these Olympian heights of disagreeableness, I knew I would never progress beyond the nursery slopes. I'm one of those tragic cases who go through life hoping people will like them. Besides, is the best landlady really the one prepared to put up with the worst a prima donna can devise?
A more realistic test, surely, would be a steady drip-feed of irritating demands. My cover, I hope, held good. I shall find that out on Tuesday. At any rate, no less than three of my five hosts told me that they could invariably identify a clandestine inspector, usually a person with a professional glint in the eye, travelling singly and out of season.
Thus primed, I buried my laptop on the back seat of the car under a load of Gore-Tex and opted for wittering incompetence. My husband, John, offered his services as a paid-up member of the awkward squad. That was the idea, anyway. Faced by a series of motherly ladies anxious to polish his shoes and feed him home-produced duck eggs, he rolled over like a contented spaniel with all four paws in the air.
My bumblings round the countryside signally failed to dent the patience of my victims. I changed the dates of bookings several times over, detecting not one flicker of irritation in return. I claimed to have forgotten my toothbrush; my first hostess went out at 8pm on a filthy night and bought me one, leaving it on my pillow with a compliments slip. I splashed my trousers liberally with mud before each arrival. Having returned them dried and cleaned, one woman did not even blink when I handed the same pair back to her an hour later, remuddied after a refreshing walk.
I developed pressing needs for shirt buttons and – oops, sorry! – a thimble, too; for migraine tablets; for blankets instead of duvets and duvets instead of blankets. I spilled glasses of water, which would have been wine had I not taken last-minute pity on a series of embroidered tablecloths. I arrived for meals an hour early; I required help with TV remote controls, central heating and window catches. We left John's size-11 shoes buried under beds and they came winging back by post with the reliability of homing pigeons.
The secret of great hospitality lies less, perhaps, in the way that a host deals with such annoyances as in the imaginative detail that goes into building the atmosphere of the house. You might expect a professional to provide a toothbrush or a thimble, but not necessarily a glass of sherry, gratis, by the fire before dinner; fresh flowers by the bed; home-made potato bread for breakfast.
Unlike a hotel, a b&b is usually your host's home. However commercial the basic transaction, I found this had an unavoidably modifying effect on the worst behaviour I could devise. The men and women in whose houses I was lucky enough to stay set standards of warmth and care way beyond the call of duty. One worked out that our late arrival would mean that we might miss out on a restaurant dinner, so rang in advance to offer to cook us a meal. Best of all, after the kindest of welcomes, she knew exactly when to withdraw and leave us in peace to enjoy this meal. Another had recently put a small guest's lost teddy on a flight to Paris.
The worst part lay in having to deceive people I liked and respected while deflecting kindly enquiries as to my profession. Sad to relate, I soon got rather good at it. Though, on recklessly promoting myself to the board of my late father's firm – a venerable tea company whose directors would have spontaneously combusted at the thought of a woman taking her place at the sacred mahogany – I nearly got my come-uppance. One of my hosts turned out to have run a commodities house himself and knew the business well. Served me right.
I salute my long-suffering hosts one and all. Given such a difficult task, I am mightily relieved not to have been the sole judge. I don't yet know who the winner is but I'm certainly looking forward to getting my feet back under that table.
'AA Bed & Breakfast Guide 2002', £11.99. For details of around 8,000 AA-approved hotels and b&bs, visit www.theAA.comReuse content