(This is second in a series: see The Full English for a description of the great British breakfast. Note: Photos courtesy of Mrs Beverly Snudden of Verwood B&B, Niton Undercliff, Ventor, Isle of Wight)
When I first encountered British B&Bs, a typical host provided beds in whatever rooms happened to be empty, with a shared bathroom (often with the toilet in a separate room entirely) down the hall or possibly down the stairs. Some landladies—B&Bs outside urban centers seemed usually to be run by stay-at-home mothers or grandmothers—took pride in doing up the guest rooms with bedspreads that didn’t clash with the wallpaper and other niceties, but just as many used rentable rooms as places for odds and ends, for furniture that would otherwise be relegated to the loft (UK: attic) or given to Oxfam (US: think Goodwill). I’ve encountered many a wobbly bedside table and any number of lamps with iffy switches, but the variety—in amenities and in the people you meet—is always interesting, the hosts’ local knowledge can’t be beat, and the welcomes tend to be enthusiastic.
When we first travelled over here, the US didn’t yet have many (or any?) B&Bs; it was a British and European phenomenon. When Americans started opening B&Bs it seemed they’d missed the point. UK B&Bs offered the basics at low cost; American B&Bs were the luxury option, too expensive unless we were splashing out for a special birthday or anniversary. Eventually budget hotel chains—Travelodge and Premier Inn—invaded Britain, and B&Bs responded to the competition by going upscale, but I rather miss the old days when our money went farther and we stayed in quirkier, more memorable, places.
On Yell, one of the Shetlands, we spent our days walking around the island when our landlady wasn’t spoiling us. On the first night, arranging our wet clothes over a peat-burning stove to dry out, she gave us directions to the island’s only restaurant—including “turn left at the cattle grid”, because the place didn’t even have a sign—and asked what we’d like for dinner. We said we liked local specialties; she said locals produced lamb and salmon. We picked lamb; she picked up the phone to tell the restaurant we were coming. Her end of the conversation went like this: “Do you have the lamb on the menu tonight? Oh, you don’t. Well. Could you put it on the menu?” And they did, and it was great, and we went back the next night and had the salmon.
In 1988 we toured parts of England with my parents, who were skeptical about B&Bs at first. Tootling around with no fixed plan like we always did, turning off at a sign for a stone circle or Roman ruins, not knowing where we’d sleep that night, wasn’t their style. Late on the first afternoon we stopped at a house with a B&B sign and asked to see the rooms, but the place turned out to be impersonal, more like a hotel, so we thanked the lady and left. My folks stewed in the back of the car as it got darker, afraid that we wouldn’t find a bed, suggesting we go back.
But eventually we found another B&B, on a farm. The landlady couldn’t accommodate my mother’s request for decaf coffee and skimmed milk—the local shops had closed and we were miles from the nearest supermarket—but otherwise my parents were happy (and relieved) we’d found it. After tea and biscuits, we put our bags in our rooms and went out with the family for the evening ritual of shutting up the poultry; the chickens, geese, doves and female turkeys could all put themselves to bed, but the rather stupid male turkey had to be reminded every night, so we took torches (US: flashlights) and joined a weird parade, herding one enormous tom turkey to its roost.
Back inside, we complimented their new piano, which the landlady said she regreted buying; her son took lessons, but wouldn’t practice. Now, my mother could play the piano like nobody else. She sat down and rolled out any number of classical pieces, songs from musicals, tunes of the forties, and ended up with some ragtime before we left for dinner. In the morning, the landlady said her little boy had practiced the rest of the evening and had to be forced to stop at bedtime. And skimmed milk and decaffeinated coffee magically appeared on the breakfast table, too.
In all our years of travel, we only failed to find a B&B once. Our luck ran out in Gloucester, where we got the last vacant room in town, at a down-at-heel hotel with a desk clerk who could’ve played Uncle Fester without makeup. The room slept five, every bit of floor space occupied by saggy beds, and we tried them all, looking without success for one with clean sheets. We had to keep feeding coins into a meter to keep the electricity—and therefore the heat—on, and ran out of coins in the middle of the night. Not fun.
That was far and away the worst, and it’s not like it killed us; other B&B experiences more than make up for the rare failure. We still laugh about the place with stretch nylon bedsheets, orange on the bottom and purple on top, or the room in the loft (US: attic) where we had to go up and down a ladder to get to the bathroom. In Skibbereen in County Cork we landed at a B&B decorated in a wonderfully over-the-top style difficult to describe; I’ll call it turn-of-the-century brothel-esque, the mannequin on the landing—complete with past-the-elbow gloves and feather-plumed hat—being particularly memorable. At the other end of the scale, a scrubbed but almost bare farmhouse in Wales showed us what those newspaper articles about hard times in rural communities really meant. Their sort of rustic minimalism had nothing to do with style; a glimpse into the farmer’s bedroom as we passed his door showed a single bed, a single chair with a pair of jeans slung over the back, and nothing else.
We’ve stayed in a converted windmill, in a house with a moat, and once in a lighthouse. We saw the light that used to burn there, now at a nearby museum, but we had the lamp room as our private sitting room, with a 270-degree view of the Welsh coast and the sea.
And we’ve met any number of interesting people. We’ve rented a room from a well-known retired radio announcer. We’ve stayed up into the wee hours discussing the Irish constitution’s roots in the American constitution with a tremendously well-read landlady of almost 90. We stayed with an Englishwoman who hated living in Scotland and couldn’t imagine why anyone we would voluntarily go to there on holiday (US: vacation), managing to work into the conversation, apparently to impress us, her singing lessons, her husband’s shooting (US: hunting; hunt here means riding to hounds), and her children’s private school. The pervading scent of this posh lady’s house, alas, was pig manure being spread on the neighbor’s fields. We’ve shared breakfast tables with vicars, dairy farmers, tourists from uncountable countries, female Morris dancers, and once an apprentice blacksmith.
Then there’s the B&B that got away. Finding a place at Christmas in London wasn’t hard; we booked Christmas Eve through Boxing Day with Hindu proprietors who didn’t mind feeding guests on Christmas morning, but in the countryside in the last few days before Christmas, finding lodging was hard. We stopped one evening in Oxfordshire (or was it Berkshire?) at a thatched-roofed cottage with a B&B sign, where a beautiful dark-haired woman in a profusion of skirts and shawls opened the door. She had one of those romantic-sounding names that’s nothing special here but is unusual in the US: Saskia, maybe, or Siobhan. Oh, she said, she’d forgot to take down the Vacancies sign. We could see past her to an enormous fireplace with a huge log. Bundles of herbs and lavendar hung from low beams. Something warm and yeasty and cinnamony in the oven smelled exactly perfect for the place and the season. We thought we’d found the ideal, the consummate, the quintessential English country-cottage B&B—and they couldn’t put us up; it was too close to Christmas.
Maybe someday we’ll find that one again. Just one more good reason to keep tootling around the British countryside.