The bedrooms have Bose music systems and are furnished with Lloyd Loom chairs, while the beds are clad in Egyptian cotton. The bathrooms sport underfloor heating and fluffy towels. The views across to the Lakeland fells are breathtaking. All these and more are attributes of what is officially the new best B&B in England: No. 43 (01524 762761; no43.org.uk) at Arnside in Cumbria was announced winner of the "guest accommodation" category in the Enjoy England Awards for Excellence at a ceremony in Birmingham last night. Doubles at No. 43 cost from £120 per night including, unsurprisingly, breakfast – as do all other prices below.
This, of course, is the crème de la crème. Even so, what a contrast to the latter-day reputation of the British B&B. Remember the days when this type of accommodation was a budget option with a shared bathroom down a chilly corridor? Or the traditional image of the dour B&B landlady who would strike fear into anyone making a noise after 9pm? Today's bed-and-breakfast operators are increasingly earning accolades for their friendly-yet-slick professionalism. Many of their properties seem rather like boutique hotels, only without an attendant stream of staff.
The tourist boards of Britain officially define a B&B as "accommodation provided in a private house, run by the owner and with no more than six paying guests". But in much of the promotional literature there are areas of overlap, and indeed both B&B finalists in this year's Enjoy England Awards accommodate more than six visitors. "Basically any place of lodging that isn't a hotel is now classed as 'guest accommodation' be it a guest house, an inn, a restaurant with rooms or what might more narrowly be called a B&B," explains Pam Foden, of Enjoy England. "This accommodation is graded according to a five-star scheme, and most of it is in the three- to five-star bracket." Steadily growing competition among owners keeps raising the bar on standards, she says.
Soberingly, the rise of the B&B in part reflects an increase in redundancies across the country. Karen Thorne is the owner of the three guest-bedroom Hopton House (01547 530 885; shropshirebreakfast.co.uk; doubles from £105), a luxury retreat in the Shropshire hills near Ludlow. She also runs courses in B&B management (bedandbreakfastacademy.co.uk). Over the past two years, she has seen a notable increase in enquiries from potential B&B owners who have been made redundant and whose former employers are offering to pay for retraining. "Running a B&B has become a very professional business," she says. "Many people buy properties to make their living from operating them as B&Bs. I don't offer lessons in cooking breakfast or in bedroom design; my classes are about financial planning and marketing."
Julie Easthaugh has been a pioneer of contemporary-chic B&B style: 14 years ago she bought The Rosemont (01822 852175; therosemont.co.uk; doubles from £55) in Yelverton, Dartmoor, after she and her husband were made redundant. They acquired the property as a going B&B concern and altered it radically so as to provide en-suite accommodation throughout (in the days when such facilities were not necessarily expected) along with stylish comfort. With six guest rooms, it is a successful business that they enjoy running.
So what, in her view, makes a good B&B? The basics need to be right, says Easthaugh. "Price, cleanliness, the look – a B&B can be bohemian in style but it mustn't be tired. And there must be a very personal touch, too. This isn't just a bed for the night – you'll get that from Travelodge. There needs to be a lot of local knowledge. But perhaps most important of all is the welcome: the B&B owner really needs to enjoy other people."
Take me to the seaside
The new wave of chic B&B accommodation is much at home in St Ives in Cornwall. What else would you expect in a town that has it all, from beaches and surf action to two major art galleries (the Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum)? Near the centre, 11 Seaview Terrace (01736 798440; 11stives.co.uk; doubles from £95) is airy, stylish and with superb views. Like most upscale B&Bs, it has a dedicated guest sitting room and offers Wi-Fi throughout the property. The extra appeal here lies with the two terraces, front and back, and the local art on the walls.
If you'd prefer a country setting close to the sea – and with miles and miles of beaches, too – head to Westfield Farm near Burnham Market in Norfolk. Here a series of barns set around a courtyard has been converted into enchantingly pretty B&B accommodation. The rooms at Norfolk Courtyard (01362 683333; norfolkcourtyard.co.uk; doubles from £80) have exposed beams, limestone floors and even roll-top baths in some of the en-suites. The grounds are beautifully planted, while chickens and waddling ducks add to the bucolic atmosphere.
For a hip take on seaside life, make for the north coast of Wales and Llandudno, which is home to fun and funky Escape Boutique B&B (01492 877776; escapebandb.co.uk; doubles from £99). The nine bedrooms here are wonderfully whimsical, devised along themes such as "Retro Red" complete with old telephone box emblem and a 1970s look, and sleek "Urban Cool" in greys counterbalanced by rich chocolate shades.
Up on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland you'll find old-fashioned prices – and old-fashioned style, too – at Berabhaigh (01471 822372; isleofskye.net/berabhaigh; doubles from £56) in the coastal village of Broadford. This former croft house has been owned by the Macmillan family for a good 150 years and now offers two simply furnished guest rooms.
Chic city pads
Friendly insider knowledge can make all the difference on a city break. And you'll often find that a centrally located B&B offers better value than a formal hotel. In the heart of Knightsbridge in London, for example, 37 Trevor Square (020-7823 8186; 37trevorsquare.co.uk; doubles from £160) is run by interior designers Margaret Palmer and Holly Price and has three beautifully decorated guest rooms.
For a less hectic break in the capital head over to west London, where The Wellness Home (020-8995 1053; thewellnesshome.co.uk; doubles from £85) at 75 Thornton Avenue, Chiswick, has been devised as a soothing, stress-free space with two guest rooms and a sitting room furnished on feng shui principles.
You're spoilt for B&B choice in Edinburgh, which has a wealth of large, elegant properties. The Georgian glories of the New Town are easily explored from Number Ten London Street (0131 5560737; londonstreetaccommodation.co.uk; doubles from £100), which has two bright and spacious guest rooms. On the other side of town, about a 15-minute walk from Edinburgh Castle, The Townhouse (0131 229 1985; thetownhouse.com; doubles from £90) at 65 Gilmore Place is a former manse, or minister's house, with five pretty guest rooms.
There's an impressive choice of country properties under the Wolsey Lodges label ( wolseylodges.com). This is a portfolio of 151 beautiful B&Bs in England, Scotland and Wales, all individually owned and run – and many of them in old stately houses. For example, Maesmor Hall (01490 460411; doubles from £90) in Conwy, north Wales, is a big estate house set in sweeping parkland. The property dates back to the 13th century, although what you see today is principally a spacious Edwardian building. The interior is a treat, with a panelled hall and cosy fireplaces juxtaposed by luxury mod cons such as a sauna and a heated indoor pool. There are antiques throughout the house, including in the two guest bedrooms.
Or head for the glories of south Wales where, unaccountably, Carmarthenshire remains slightly off the mainstream tourist map. Top of the rural charm list here is Coedllys Uchaf Country House (01994 231455; coedllyscountryhouse.co.uk; doubles from £90), set among its own fields and woodland. You'll find flowers, magazines and chocolates in the three large guest bedrooms, all offering superb views. Well-behaved dogs are welcome and there's also an animal sanctuary.
For the complete country experience there are plenty of farmhouse B&Bs to choose from. Few, though, are quite as neat and luxurious as the only five-star farm B&B accommodation in Scotland, Millhill Farmhouse (01387 730472; millhillfarm.com; doubles from £80) near Dumfries. Susan and Tom Carr researched the market thoroughly before diversifying into B&B accommodation, staying at hotels and other B&Bs around the country to get a measure of the sort of style and ambience they could create. Then they built a separate wing for guests, its two bedrooms furnished in creams and offering a host of amenities from fluffy bathrobes to L'Occitane soaps. They still farm alongside – principally pigs, turkeys and chickens for free-range eggs. You can even bring your own horse here, with stabling and grazing available all year round.
There's more stabling for you and your horse at The Paddocks Stables (01323 482499; thepaddockstables.co.uk; doubles from £60) in the village of Jevington, East Sussex. Not that you have to have an equine companion to book in to this well-placed B&B. A wealth of activities is right on the doorstep, with cycling, hiking and riding trails along the South Downs Way just steps away, and the Seven Sisters Country Park and Arlington Reservoir nature reserve within easy reach.
Several enterprising B&B owners run classes and activities alongside their accommodation business. Hone your gardening skills at Kirklands (01383 852737; kirklandshouseandgarden.co.uk; doubles from £70) at Saline in Fife. The 1832 house sits in two acres of wonderfully planted gardens and has a further 20 acres of woodland. "Passion for Gardening" and "Vegetable Essential" day courses are run during April, May and June and cost £95.
Or head to Norfolk where Grove Farm (01692 670205; grovefarmholidays.co.uk; doubles from £60) in the village of Repps holds watercolour and oil painting classes with tuition by local artists. Two-day courses cost £120 including lunch.
A few miles further west, Carrick's at Castle Farm (01362 638302; carricksatcastlefarm.co.uk; doubles from £95) is a hive of activity. This five-star B&B not only offers four guest bedrooms but also provides bikes to borrow and can organise canoeing trips. In addition you can attend day cookery classes here from £140 per person including a CD with recipes.
Down in Cornwall there is more for foodies at Park Farmhouse (01208 841 277; park-farmhouse.com; doubles from £85), an appealingly mellow outfit near Bodmin, offering simple décor with hip flourishes in its guest room, plus a cookery school with classes overseen by the former head chef at Rick Stein's seafood school.
Dos and don'ts: A guide to B&B etiquette
"B&Bs don't suit everyone," says Pam Foden, of Enjoy England. "Some people might find the atmosphere too intimate. And while the hosts need to be gregarious types, the guests will probably enjoy their stay all the more if they are prepared to stop and chat."
As a basic guide, remember that you're in a home rather than a hotel. So, for example, by all means ask to borrow an iron, but don't expect someone to do the ironing for you. Former set designer James Gray has won numerous awards for The Ashton (01524 68460; theashtonlancaster.com; doubles from £128) in Lancaster and comments that "Sometimes guests, particularly those from overseas, get confused by the star system and think a five-star B&B is the same as a five-star boutique hotel. I've had phone calls for room service at 2am."
And his advice on how to be a good guest? "Book by phone rather than online," he suggests. "That way the owner will get an idea of your needs and expectations and will establish why you are visiting – if, say, you are on a walking holiday or a business trip – so that they can tweak things to suit your needs. Also say what time you'll be arriving. Most owners are pretty flexible about timing, but often they are sole operators and they need scope to be able to go out to the supermarket, pick up dry cleaning and plan their day.
"Where evening meals are offered, give the owner plenty of notice that you'll be wanting to dine in. But at the end of the day, most B&B operators are aware that they're running a business – and they don't want their guests to feel that they have to walk around on eggshells."