For some the highlight is a chance to enjoy the renowned British cooked breakfast with all the trimmings and lashings of tea or coffee. To others it is the opportunity to stay in a comfortable private home, one of a select few guests and with a friendly host to greet them. There is no doubt that the British ‘bed and breakfast’ (B&B for short) is a style of accommodation that is often imitated around the world but rarely bettered. Wherever your travels take you, from deepest
Cornwall to the north of Scotland, you will find B&Bs everywhere and spoken of affectionately by visitors.
The quality of the best B&Bs has risen markedly in recent years, and national tourism agency VisitBritain has raised the game further by announcing that it now only promotes accommodation that has been inspected, checked and graded by an intrepid band of Quality Assessors. Also, the accommodation is being assessed and rated by all the main inspection bodies using a common set of criteria. This means that a B&B in say, York, will be awarded the same number of stars no matter who it is checked by, giving peace of mind to the traveller who finds it easier to compare places to stay.
Visit Britain has a team of 55 trained accommodation assessors working throughout England – and checking out B&B’s is a very important part of their job. Like a secret agent of sorts, they book incognito, study all aspects of a property, including cleanliness and customer service, stay overnight and eat all meals offered, including that special cooked breakfast. Only when they have paid the bill to the assessors reveal their true identity, when they spend time pointing out to the host anything not up to scratch.
Key to their role is being able to preserve their anonymity until check-out time. They have to look like a ‘normal’ guest and will vary their dress according to the type of accommodation visited – for example a business suit in a remote property used mainly by walkers or tourists would be a complete give-away. Only rarely are the host’s suspicions aroused!
So how does a B&B vary from a hotel in an assessor’s eyes? “At a B&B we put more emphasis on hospitality than attentive service – the people who run it are key to the whole thing. Taking an interest in their guests and making them feel welcome is so important. But cleanliness is paramount, just as in a hotel,” says Alison Barham, Quality Manager at VisitBritain and formerly an assessor for 10 years.
Informality is part of the appeal: the owner’s children taking breakfast orders would be ‘cute’ in a B&B but not necessarily in a hotel. The reactions from owners when assessors disclose their ‘true identity’ range from “I thought you were an assessor but I didn’t let on,” to one woman who passed out in the hallway on hearing the news. “My colleague was 6ft 7in tall, so maybe his mere presence was overpowering” says Alison.
At the end of the process the B&B will be awarded one to five Stars or Diamonds (this is a period of transition; Stars will replace Diamonds fully from 2007 and are already used exclusively in Scotland and Wales). This in turn provides visitors with the information to make an informed choice when booking their accommodation. Choose from one star/diamond for a simple, practical place with no frills; or five star/diamond for something rather special, with a degree of luxury. The more stars, the better the level of quality you can expect to find. Accommodation that has something extra special to offer gets the bonus of a Gold or Silver Award. With these, you can be sure your experience will be of the highest quality.
As with most areas of life, you get what you pay for with B&B and it is not necessarily a low-cost option. Though you will find pleasant, clean and comfortable B&Bs for as little as £22 per person per night, at some the cost heads skywards, such as at St. Ervan Manor in Cornwall, which charges from £70 to £215 per person per night. However, this is an exceptional place, the winner of a in the Enjoy England Awards for Excellence 2006 and boasting five stylish guest rooms and a recently added garden suite. Its fine Michelin-starred restaurant serves seasonal produce in an intimate setting. In the words of VisitBritain’s chief executive Tom Wright, St. Ervan “redefines the nature of the B&B.”
Other B&Bs are notable for their locations or unusual architecture. At the end of a sweeping drive in St. Osyth, Essex is Park Hall Country House, a 14th century former monastery furnished with oak beams, open log fires and lounges with a grand piano and chandelier. The property was Silver winner in the Enjoy England Awards for Excellence 2006. In Central England, the five-diamond Old Lock Up near Matlock, Derbyshire is another award-winning residence, originally a small jail and a chapel.
Once visited by writer D.H. Lawrence, it now boasts a double spa bath and the cell which once held convicted felons is a bar. The county of Kent – the ‘garden of England’ — has conical oast houses (once used for the drying of hops) converted into quirky B&Bs; while the five-diamond, silver award Beach Court on the Northumbrian coast provides superb views over a sweeping bay, and the master suite doubles as an observatory called the Crow’s Nest.
At the Old Railway Station in Petworth, West Sussex, guests can re-live the golden age of rail travel – including accommodation in Pullman carriages as used on the Orient Express – albeit without going anywhere. The midweek rates are particularly attractive.
Scotland is also a good hunting ground for B&B fans: you can choose from farmhouses, cottages, city mansions and country estates, all serving a hearty Scottish breakfast (often complete with oat-cakes and porridge). At Edgertson in the Scottish Borders guests can even ‘go back to school’. The five-star School House (built in the Victorian era, it last saw pupils in 1945) has been tastefully modified, with each room given a unique theme and set with period furnishings; breakfasts are served in a farmhouse style kitchen, plus there’s a minstrel gallery dining room. All from just £26 per night.
Farmhouses are another fine source of B&B accommodation: these are often buildings full of character and it takes a lot to beat a farmhouse breakfast. Wales is a country with plenty to choose from, such as 17th century Dove Cottage (five star) at Buckley, Flintshire, which is set in over an acre of lovingly tended gardens.
For many guests, it is the B&B hosts who really make their stay. These are people who are proud of their homes and neighbourhoods, know the best local pubs and restaurants, can point you towards the most historic attractions and the prettiest beauty-spots. In short, they are walking, talking mines of information and they are determined you will have a good time.
As someone once said, B&B is a little like staying with friends but you pay for the pleasure. Equally reassuring is the fact that someone like Alison (motto: “we check it out before you check in”) has been there first.