Britain is celebrating its Bed and Breakfast places with the first national day this month. James Ruddy reveals the highlights of a night at one of the new breed of historic and luxurious manor houses, near Margaret Thatcher’s birthplace.
Remember those fearsome landladies who would serve up a huge fried breakfast, swimming in melted lard and tinned tomato juice, before booting you out into the rain?
Many of my 1960s summer holidays were spent in fear of the reign of terror that existed behind the chintz and lace drapes of guest houses from Blackpool to Skegness.
But how things have changed in Bed and Breakfast Land.
Nowadays, you may still find the odd tartar and tyrant, but modern demands have forced up the quality and services, to a level that surpasses many hotels.
To put the theory to the test, my partner and photographer Sue Mountjoy and I tested one of the new generation, Allington Manor, a few miles North West of Grantham in Lincolnshire.
Neither of us has ‘done’ a B&B for years, nor had we ever considered a stay-over at Margaret Thatcher’s birthplace, which has always appeared pretty down-at-heel whenever we passed through on the way from the adjoining A1.
But we were so wrong. The old town oozes history and enough Georgian streets and buildings to keep visitors interested for days, coupled with plenty of nearby stately homes, gardens and public footpaths.
Curiously, the ‘Iron Lady’ proved such a controversial political figure in life that her memory has been largely hidden away. Fears over vandalism have blighted the campaign to erect a public statute and even the grocery shop run by her father – former Grantham Mayor, preacher and politician Alfred Roberts – wasn’t preserved for history: it’s now a health and beauty centre.
Some of her old clothes, pictures and bedroom furniture are to be found in the quaint town museum, based in the lovely Guildhall designed in the 1860s by local architect William Watkins and, thankfully, saved from threatened demolition a century later.
Inside today there is a thriving arts centre, as well as the museum which displays such curiosities as the university gown and suitcases employed by Britain’s first woman Prime Minister when she went up to Oxford as a young student. Her Spitting Image puppet, however, is back in the archive as, staff informed us, it’s beginning to fall apart.
Other sections recognise the town’s most famous son, Isaac Newton, who is said to have discovered the physics of gravity after observing the fall of apples whilst staying at his mother’s house, Woolsthorpe Manor. Rumour has it that the young genius carved his name into a wooden sill at his local school, King’s School, although visits are by appointment only.
One of Grantham’s lesser-known claims to fame is its place as the headquarters of RAF No 5 Group, which directed the Dambusters’ Raid in World War 11, an event which is also explored in one of the museum’s exhibits.
Curiously, another son of Grantham, Nicholas Parsons, the 94-year-old actor and radio and TV presenter (notably for Just a Minute and Sale of the Century) is also not given a display, despite his father, a local GP, said to have delivered the baby, Margaret Thatcher. Less surprisingly, though, another Granthamiam without a museum display is the notorious serial child-killing nurse Beverly Allitt, currently residing at nearby Rampton Secure Hospital.
By following the pleasant Town Trail, we were able to savour the ancient streets, crowned by the glorious St Wulfram’s Church, boasting the sixth tallest spire in England and a mixture of Gothic, Norman and possibly Saxon architecture.
The friendliness of the locals was shown by a priest and a church warden, who both gave their time to point us toward some of the town’s hidden sights, including classical Wesleyan-style Methodist Chapel where the young would-be PM, Margaret, spent her Sundays (a lectern devoted to her father’s memory stands in the porch).
An entrance stone at King’s School, records where the young genius, Isaac, enjoyed his early education. Sadly the glass and concrete 1980s shopping centre erected in his name lacks the majesty of his school and the ancient streets nearby.
It was a delight, therefore, to pull up in the late afternoon at our chosen Bed and Breakfast, Grade 11 Listed Allington Manor, just a few miles north of the town, and be mesmerised by the classical lines of this Jacobean beauty, which has become one of Lincolnshire’s top wedding and private party venues.
Behind the heavy oak door, we were met by our youthful and charming host, Leo Vincent, who has lived there all his life (in fact he and his co-owner Amy were married there last year) and, in true B&B fashion, take a close hand in everything – from creating two new bedrooms and cooking the breakfasts.
One thing about a stay at Allington is its closeness to history: original oak beams carry carpenter signatures that are centuries old, antique arms and armour stare out at you, amid the stone floors and sweeping staircase and landing.
Our huge corner room, Lords as it is known, boasts a free-standing roll-top bath in the room, lit by candles, as well as sumptuous Egyptian cotton bed linen, heavy silk drapes and tiebacks masking tall windows overlooking a paddock with horses and the nearby Saxon village of Allington itself.
Total relaxation sprang to our minds immediately, as we sank into the bedroom settee and enjoyed a warming coffee and gentle music on the digital flat screen TV as the coal effect gas fire twinkled in the 17th century stone-surround open fireplace.
That evening, we had a choice of eateries and watering holes within a few miles. We selected the Welby Arms, just 200 yards from the front door, where a good range of gastro food was available as well as an eclectic crowd of warmly-welcoming locals at the bar.
After a deep night’s sleep in the six-foot Bateau bed, breakfast came in the beautifully quirky morning room, overlooking the rear patio and fields beyond.
Leo prides himself on his Full English, which include locally sourced Lincolnshire sausages and bacon, delicately cooked Portobello mushrooms and vine-ripened tomatoes, coupled with free-range eggs, and his own home-made seeded wholemeal bread.
His young trainee waiter was on his first day and couldn’t do enough, In fact when he asked if we wanted more, Sue requested ‘three more Lincolnshire sausages please’ and he was heading for the kitchen not realising it was her attempt at a joke!
If we had wanted, we could have taken one of the manor’s popular Afternoon Teas (the Welsh Dresser was packed with the requisite plates and cups) and even a beauty treatment, which Amy delivers in her spa room on the top floor.
Instead, we headed off, hoping to beat the oncoming Mini Beast from the East blizzard, and were certain that we would be back again for another stress-free and fundamentally relaxing stay.
It was a long, long way from the days of Mrs Scoggins at the Sunny View in Skeggy.
Tell me more about Allington Manor
Allington Manor room rates, including breakfast, start at £70, singles, Sunday-Thursday, in the Maids and Butlers rooms up to £125, doubles, Fridays and Saturdays, in the Lords, Ladys and Garden rooms.
Afternoon teas are also available on various days and locations, including the Manor Garden when the weather permits.
Tel: +44(0)1400 282574