Where the guests like to be put behind bars

There is a hotel in Scunthorpe that will cater for your every need - if you're a budgie, writes Kevin Pilley
Hotel lounges are often sterile, silent and rather sad places. But not in south Lincolnshire. In the residents' reading room in Scunthorpe's best-known hotel, the atmosphere is always lively and conversation always animated. Long-term guest Charlie always has something to say for himself. Walter likes to sing most of the day while Alfie concentrates on the morning papers. He can't read but prefers to defecate on them instead. He pays for the privilege. When he needs something, he just rings the bell for Rita the bellhop.

Rita Cross, with her husband Barry, has made 70 Ferry Road one of the most famous addresses in Scunthorpe. It is more famous than Erworth, the village where Ian Botham was born and brought up. It is the site of Britain's first and so far only hotel for budgies. Rita doubles up as room service as well as porter and chef, cooking her small guests three meals a day. Her husband is in charge of the reception desk. He is also the entertainments manager. "Christmas and New Year are always busy. We usually have a bit of a party, all the birds wear paper hats," says Barry, a retired newsagent and highly respected prize-winning budgerigar fancier.

"A special function menu would be something like shredded tweet followed by prawn cockatiel, millet steak and chirps and a perch melba dessert. Afterwards, the birds can have nest cafe coffee. We read the birds their Christmas cards and messages from their owners. They also get birthday cards and presents delivered to them while their owners are away. Valentine's Day is another emotional time for the guests. No bird likes to be forgotten on 14 February."

For pounds 1 per day full board (everything thrown in), bird owners can book their feathered friends into the five-star deluxe aviary at the bottom of a garden in the backstreets of Scunthorpe. The unique B, B &B (budgie, bed and breakfast) establishment can accommodate a hundred birds at a time and business has never been better.

"We are booked solid," says Rita. "Our perches are reserved months, sometimes years in advance. Some owners insist on having the same position every year for their bird cage, some like to be by the window. One wanted it close to the television because the bird was a great fan of Newsnight. The budgie had a thing about Jeremy Paxman."

The budgie hotel is no gimmick. It is a response to a national need. There are six million cat owners and seven million dog owners in Britain. Nine million people keep caged birds as pets but they have nowhere to board their budgie or kennel their canary when they go on holiday or away on business.

In 1994 Barry, a budgie breeder and authority on caged birds, converted his potting shed and became a full-time professional budgie hotelier. Shot-putter and budgie enthusiast Geoff Capes performed the official opening ceremony. Home from home comforts like central heating, double glazed windows and wall-to-wall carpeting are provided for all guests. Cages are cleaned daily and cats are not allowed on the premises. The hotel is a guaranteed cat-free zone.

"I have heard of people setting up businesses to look after other people's terrapins, hamsters and even virtual reality pets. I have heard of a stick insect hotel in Devon. But these are mainly local small-time and temporary concerns usually set up by schoolchildren. We have people from all over the north of Britain coming to us because they know that their pets will be in safe and experienced hands. A lot of people can't go on holiday for any length of time without imposing on neighbours or friends, a lot of whom have cats."

Guests at the Scunthorpe Budgie Hotel at present include a canary called Walter, Wally the parakeet, Benjy the cockatiel, an Charlie the African grey parrot, and the budgies George, Oska and Tweety Pie. "They all behave themselves," says Mr Cross. "Although Benson the mynah bird can get a bit rowdy sometimes."

Recreational amenities at the hotel include an assortment of ladders and mirrors. The hotel also owns one table tennis ball which is available for hire for a maximum of a half-an- hour. Plans are afoot for two private suites to allow VIPs to stretch their wings." Barry and Rita Cross will birdsit finches and lovebirds. They also offer goldfish a unique bowl and breakfast accommodation.

"Birds are part of the family and much loved," says Rita. "We get postcards from abroad. We have to read them to the birds. They usually end - wish you were here!"

One lady hired a chauffeured limousine in order to drop off her bird at the hotel. She said that she could not trust the post and thought mailing the bird was cruel. All birds must register on arrival. "Sometimes it can get very emotional when an owner leaves their loved one with us. There are a lot of tears all round. We had one man who asked to be left alone for a few moments to say goodbye to his bird. He came out with his face all lined where he had been pressing against the cage. Birds mean a lot to people. It is a wrench to be parted from them."

Each resident must undergo a stringent medical test before being signed in. "We have only had one guest die while staying with us," says Barry. "It was very sad. An old lady brought us her budgie. It seemed perfectly healthy and passed the medical with flying colours. Then two days later it keeled over. It was heartbreaking having to break the news. I tried to break it as gently as possible. In fact, it was awful. But the lady was not the slightest bit grief-stricken.

"She said she has been expecting it for a long time since the bird had been diagnosed as suffering from lung cancer. Apparently the lady was a heavy smoker and had smoked up to 60 high-tar cigarettes a day for 10 years and the bird had developed an inoperable pulmonary cancer from passive smoking. Just like some people develop cancer through sitting around in smoky bars, so budgies sadly develop cancer by sitting all day in the corner of smoky living rooms. Cages offer little protection from nicotine smoke. We operate a strict non-smoking policy. It's a hotel. Not a hospice."

The Scunthorpe Budgie Hotel is the only place in Britain where guests pay to spend their holiday behind bars. You might say it is also the country's seediest hotel - but it revels in the description.

Scunthorpe Budgie Hotel, 70 Ferry Road, Scunthorpe, DN15 8QE (tel: 01724 859268).