Britain’s B&Bs offer weary travellers reliable rest stops along quaint rural routes, writes Harvey Grennan.
Over the years, I've travelled many a winding British road, stopping to rest my weary head at a bed and breakfast. The beauty of a self-drive B&B holiday is that it allows you to get up close and personal with a place and its people, all at your own pace.
Outside the picture-postcard village of Milton Abbas in Dorset, my wife and I enjoyed the magnificence of the 14th-century Milton Abbey in solitude; not another tourist in cooee. On a remote back road on the Cornish coast we passed within arm's length of actor Martin Clunes, laughing as he filmed an episode of the TV series Doc Martin. At Stourhead, we stopped to spend an afternoon smelling the roses in one of the world's most breathtaking gardens.
If you've ever wanted to visit Britain, now is the time. While dollar for pound it may still be a tad more expensive than travelling around Australia, it's light years cheaper than it was a few years ago, when an Aussie dollar bought just 40 pence. Now it buys about 56 pence, or 40 per cent more. And, as airlines continue to outdo themselves with low-cost long-haul airfares, European travel is achievable for most budgets.
Once there, staying in bed and breakfasts will further ease the strain on your hip pocket. B&Bs are a well-established tradition in Britain, and the industry is a well-oiled machine. Ranging in size from cottages to castles, B&Bs are found at almost every turn of the road. Their proliferation means that if you like, you could embark on a spontaneous trip, going wherever the journey takes you, and be sure of a place to stay at day's end. While it is possible to find a room at a B&B on arrival in quieter winter months, it's wise to phone ahead about midday, using one of the many B&B guides available. Be warned that in peak periods, such as July and August and on long weekends, you will need to book in advance.
While every B&B is unique, three in particular stand out in my mind for delivering a quintessential British experience, in addition to their full English breakfasts.
Melon Cottage B&B is a historic farmhouse set in a vineyard in the village of Charlton, Somerset. It started life as a medieval cottage before being extended in the 17th century. Sensitive renovations since have preserved its character. In the village, our host recommended an old local pub, where we dined on wild boar pie to the strains of Van Morrison, sung by an ageing rock muso on electric guitar. Melon Cottage is just over 14 kilometres from the city of Bath, with its stunning limestone architecture, Roman baths and the city's oldest pub, Saracens Head, where Charles Dickens completed The Pickwick Papers. Nearby, you'll also find Lacock Abbey; its 11th-century basement cloisters were used as a set in the Harry Potter films. About $90 ($108 with ensuite) per couple per night. Call +44 1761 435 090.
Gorse Farm House Bed & Breakfast is another restored farmhouse, which sits among the rolling green fields of Blackmore Vale, near Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Resident pheasants, ducks and the odd inquisitive roe deer roam the grounds. The village is a walker's paradise and one of Britain's unsung treasures. Dinner at the nearby pub, The Plough at Manston (thought to be more than 400 years old), was delicious local smoked trout. Eleven kilometres away is Milton Abbas, England's first example of town planning. Its rows of thatch-roofed, white cottages were built by Lord Milton, Earl of Dorchester, in 1780 to replace the existing village, which, he said, spoiled the view from his new mansion. From about $110 per couple per night. Call +44 1258 475 343.
Cann Orchard in Bude, Cornwall, is where Royalist Commander Sir Ralph Hopton spent the night prior to his battle with Oliver Cromwell at Stamford Hill in the 16th century. The delightfully restored, heritage-listed farmhouse is nestled in one-and-a-half hectares of gardens on the quiet north coast of Cornwall. From there, you can drive the narrow road along the rugged Cornish coastline, through spectacular Crackington Haven, to the old fishing villages of Bocastle and Tintagel, the fabled clifftop residence of King Arthur. $80 to $115. Call +44 1288 352 098.
Before you goTo see the best of Britain, and save some cash in the process, join the National Trust. Annual membership is $95 to $120 per couple, depending on which Australian state you live in. This gives you free admission to National Trust properties in 18 countries. www.nationaltrust.org.au.Get a guidebook, such as Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay: British Bed & Breakfast (Alastair Sawday Publishing, $35) or Best Bed & Breakfast 2009 (www.bestbandb.co.uk, about $45).To book ahead online, try the London Bed & Breakfast Agency (www.londonbb.com) or Bed & Breakfast Nationwide (www.bedandbreakfastnationwide.com). For something a bit different, go to www.uniquehomestays.com.
How to get thereSearch Webjet (www.webjet.com.au) for the latest flights to London. You can hire a car from Hertz (www.hertz.com.au) online and pick it up from Heathrow Airport. Expect to pay about $260 a week (plus insurance) for a small hatchback, such as a Ford Fiesta.
Local tipA host of B&B booking booths can be found at London’s Victoria Station, a major transport hub in and out of the city.