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Whitby, North Yorkshire. The Hotel at the Hawsker Highlights Lighhouse has been voted as one of the top ten hotels of the decade in the Gaurdians hotel review section.
What a difference a decade makes. It’s almost safe to say goodbye to Brit Grot. I’m talking about the kind typified at a Lake District B&B I booked nearly three years ago (the only one within reach of a remote wedding). Carpet tiles (yuck) in a shared loo (yuck) which reeked of damp, and food worthy of a Bushtucker Trial. It was all the more shocking because in the last 10 years I have witnessed a new era dawning in which, finally, independent accommodation, food and service often exceed expectation, and sometimes even deliver levels we’d forgotten we deserved.
These days, disappointment no longer lurks around every corner. For each establishment still loitering in the dark ages, I have stayed at scores that set their sights sky-high.
The country house hotel deserves much of the credit for dragging standards up. Take Babington House, the Somerset outpost of private London club Soho House, a country pad which opened its doors (to all, not just members) at the close of 1998. Zoe Ball and Norman Cook famously picked it for their wedding reception in 1999. Their guests enjoyed dramatic style in the bar and drawing room and understated sumptuousness in the bedrooms. Brit-luxe had arrived.
That same year, Hotel du Vin opened its third property. Not, as the first two, a Georgian townhouse in the stockbroker belt, but a bold warehouse conversion in Bristol. With clubby chic and bistro dining, Egyptian cotton sheets and fabulous bathrooms, HduV brought Brit-luxe to an urban setting.
Fast forward to 2005. By now, Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines had picked up the baton and launched ABode hotels with a millionaire business partner. He observed the affordable room rate mantra (even now you can get change from £100 a night), but brought fine dining to his hotel restaurants and even created a sexy subterranean bar for ABode Glasgow, befitting its central location near Sauchiehall Street.
Into this maelstrom of activity dived Yo! Sushi entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe, with Yotel – minimal, pod‑chic bedrooms at our airports – and Pret A Manger co-founder Sinclair Beecham, who slid a tasty filling into London’s East End regeneration with his Hoxton Hotel, whose booking system mirrors that of many budget airlines so that room rates are frequently offered at single-figure prices.
As the internet revolutionised how we choose and book accommodation, hoteliers had to wake up and smell the coffee (being brewed at home in Alessi cafetières by a discerning public wanting visual reassurance via a website before parting with any cash).
The wider tourist industry has taken its cue from the innovators, translating and reworking Brit-luxe on a small, individual scale. In 2009 I am no longer gobsmacked to find a monsoon shower or antique bath in a B&B, and those who do not keep up standards are quickly outed on the net – either by a poor website or consumer reviews.
Crack open the Bolly. The writing is on the wall for grim cottages – champagne glasses, thick towels, smart decor now come as standard. In a recession, Brit Grot simply cannot survive. These are my seminal stays of the past decade.
My favourite hotel. First visited in 2001, when I fell in love with its hillside setting overlooking Windermere, suites in converted stone outbuildings, unstuffy atmosphere, discreet service. I worried it would all change when the von Essen hotel group took it over in 2008, but all’s well. At the start of this year I found a daringly minimal new room (The Dovenest), and ate elegant modern food – the sort which makes me want to beat doubters of British restaurants with a big stick. It’s a massive treat, the website doesn’t do it justice – must have a word . . .
• 01539 431922, thesamlinghotel.co.uk. Winter midweek special, from £140pp pn including breakfast and dinner.
For me, the self-catering revolution started here, in 2003, when designers Russell Hall and Shaun Clarkson converted a barn in Narborough to an eight-bedroom getaway complete with use of a beach hut at Old Hunstanton. Board games, bunk rooms, farmhouse kitchen for kids’ meals, hot tub and sauna for shattered parents, and an interior – wagon-wheel chandeliers, cowhide and plaid aplenty – straight out of the High Chaparral. At last, a house in which humour didn’t come courtesy of creaking beds, thunderous plumbing and lacy horrors at the windows. Clarkson and Hall have not stood still; last year they opened Carrington House in Snettisham, which takes the wild interior to a new level.
• 0870 850 5468, cliffbarns.com. Sleeps 18, three-night weekend from £3,290.
In the past decade, 27 former lighthouse keepers’ cottages have become holiday lets through Rural Retreats. Sad though I am that the lighthouse keeper is no more, I can think of no better way to celebrate our coastal heritage than by staying at one. I have tried two – at North Foreland near Broadstairs in Kent (the last lighthouse to be automated, in 1998), and Whitby in North Yorkshire. They are at the simpler end, for what is a very upmarket cottage company (the standard of welcome hamper you now find in all sorts of places were once only to be found in Rural Retreats’ properties), but you come to these places for isolation, magnificent seascapes, the eerie lighthouse beam at night, and clifftop or shoreline walks.
• 01386 701177, ruralretreats.co.uk. From £494 per week low season.
The first time I stayed in an aparthotel (on Tenerife) I thought it a brilliant discovery – kitchen and plenty of space, plus hotel facilities (the bar, rather than pool, coming into its own when rain set in for two days). The next time, it was a bank holiday in Lamorna Cove, Penzance. Sun blazed, I swam outside with uninterrupted views of the sea, ate warm croissants delivered each morning to my whiter than white contemporary apartment, and strolled along fragrant garden terraces. To date, I haven’t found anywhere else like The Cove in the UK. Family friendly (stay outside school hols if you want peace), with 15 rooms, restaurant and tiny spa.
• 01736 731411, thecovecornwall.com. From £150 per night.
This is as far from one of those self-conscious arriviste pub-with-rooms concoctions – all shiny leather and overpriced food – as you can get. I have yet to find the perfect blend of pub/restaurant/room. The Saracen’s Head, a former coaching inn at Wolterton, doesn’t have much of the "pub" element, but it has the other attributes in spades. Unpretentious bedrooms, and two fingers up at po-faced menus (fricassee of wild and tame mushrooms, anyone?). Outside, a blackboard claimed to offer the last decent meal for 100 miles. Chef Robert Dawson-Smith wants to retire, but the lovely Saracen’s remains unsold, and he in the kitchen. So until further notice, it remains in my top 10, as an antidote to bland conformity.
• 01263 768909, saracenshead-norfolk.co.uk. From £90 per night B&B.
Remote, romantic, but most importantly, proof that style and a stunning setting can be enjoyed in winter in the middle of nowhere. It was a wrench (after two short midwinter days) to turn my back on the 180-degree view of Loch Torridon beyond the terrace of this two-bedroom cottage on the Torridon Estate. Contemporary open-plan living, two bedrooms (only one has Loch views) and a bathroom. The kitchen was a joy, but the estate’s former hunting lodge is now a hotel. Which meant a bar and restaurant were on tap for loch lobster, truffle-glazed Highland beef fillet, Scottish cheeses, homemade oatcakes and a whisky selection running into the hundreds – chuck in Berocca with the thermals.
• 01445 791242, thetorridon.com/boathouse. Sleeps four. From £825-£1,300 per week. Hotel closed January.
A respectable newspaper recently compared entering this B&B with "interrupting a séance". Made me hoot. If you don’t like fashionably dark paintwork then, yes, skip this entry, but my first impression was an interior soothing, stylish and packed with personality. Then I went to my bedroom, which had a Hypnos mattress, Ren toiletries, monsoon shower, beautiful linen and incredible attention to detail. "Landlady" James Gray has raised the bar by a mile this year, creating a "destination B&B". In other words, I’d revisit Lancaster for The Ashton, not the other way round.
• 01524 68460, theashtonlancaster.com. From £125 per night B&B.
Struggling to find an apt description for this bed-and-breakfast in Wigmore run by a Guardian-reading duo, I finally went for "gastro-B&B". This new genre is giving pubs up and down the country a run for their money. At Pear Tree Farm, you are being cooked for (as opposed to "Table Six, bad highlights, purple handbag"). My set menu made much of Herefordshire produce, and everything – from the candlelit dining room to the classical music, homemade bread and calming vibe – conspired to make it a night to remember.
• 01568 770140, peartree-farm.co.uk. Two-night minimum stay, £105 per room per night.
My list would not be complete without online rental company Under The Thatch, which has carved out its own niche in Wales. My favourite is Bryn Eglur, a 300-year-old cottage which has been rescued from dereliction and gently, sensitively nudged into modern use without travesties such as phone or telly being shoved in. A mark of our hunger for simplicity (as opposed to minimalism), it’s as much about what you don’t have as what you do.
• 01239 851410, underthethatch.co.uk. Sleeps up to four, but best for two. Three-night weekend break from £229.
This place is proof that the lines between hotels and B&Bs are blurring. Breakfast (freshly squeezed orange juice, perfect poached eggs) is served on lovely china before a crackling grate in a dining lobby; afternoon tea (finger sandwiches, scones, everything homemade) in the drawing room; dinner (a goat’s cheese tart perhaps, beef fillet or lamb shank, and hot chocolate pudding or poached pears) in the Chinese Blue dining room. The Bard himself stayed here (when it was a coaching inn), but now the sheets are Versace and Shakespeare House has made it into the pages of the 2010 Good Hotel Guide.
• 01296 770776, shakespeare-house.co.uk. B&B from £85.
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