That is the question... More than half of us hanker to ditch the daily grind and set up a rural B&B. But is it really a dream lifestyle? Catherine Gray finds out
Photography: Mark Harrison
It’s 8am, Tuesday, and time for work. I spring out of bed, don my yellow apron and make fresh coffee before heading out to the meadow – sorry, garden – to pick the flowers in bloom. The next hour or so is spent arranging them in vases while Nina Simone sings quietly from an old wireless. My guests, still snoozing upstairs, will be down to order breakfast soon so, humming happily, I prepare the tables. With the window open, the sun hits my face as my hair, falling over my shoulders, catches the breeze. A bluebird lands on my shoulder and we begin to sing together in perfect unison…
OK, so perhaps my picture-perfect set-up wasn’t entirely genuine. In fact, the whole thing’s an elaborate fantasy, one I’ve rehearsed for many years. I drop everything – my job, ‘modest’ one-bed flat, overflowing inbox and the 16 days a year I (statistically speaking) spend commuting – and run away to the countryside to set up a bed and breakfast.
It’s a dream I apparently share with the masses – escaping the rat race for the idyll of the country is, according to research, the quintessential city worker’s plan B with 57% of us citing this as our ultimate life goal. Among harassed Londoners, that number rises to 64%, says recent research by Dorset Cereals B&B Awards. And a third of us believe that B&B-ing would be easier than our current job. Seriously, how hard could it be?
I decided to find out – for two days, I would run the beautiful Huntstile Organic Farm B&B, in Somerset. It’s a hotchpotch of rustic loveliness, with duck ponds, vintage furniture and country folk in wellies. What could possibly go wrong?
Nothing, or so I thought, as my taxi bumped down a lane and I caught my first glimpse of my new workplace. It sounded like a doddle: long, sun-filled outdoor lunches replacing the Pret wrap I usually wolf down at my desk; chasing chickens instead of tricksy corporate clients. I suppress a voice in my head reminding me that I’m more slapdash than shipshape (I still ‘steam’ my dresses in the shower to avoid the iron). I’m determinedly euphoric about this assignment.
When I arrive the big-hearted, instantly likeable owners of the B&B, Lizzie and John, talk me through the next two days. If I had any hopes of an easy life, they’re quickly being dashed. “I normally start work at 6am and finish by 10pm,” Lizzie explains casually, oblivious to my saucer-wide work-shy eyes. “I take half an hour for lunch.”
She shows me around the farm’s eight bedrooms and two kitsch log cabins, plus a gypsy caravan and a tepee. The couple were losing money on the farm, which has been in John’s family for generations, so they began B&B-ing the two bedrooms in the main house 11 years ago. Now there are 22 beds in all. The communal areas are filled with family photographs and heirlooms. Already I’m tensing up at the thought of my stuff being touched by strangers. She shows me a kaleidoscopic Tiffany lamp with a chunk of glass missing, courtesy of a sozzled guest.
I go to bed feeling apprehensive but happy. No ear plugs needed here. It’s crazy quiet. But my mind is racing over what’s in store for me during the days ahead…
6am: I normally get up at 8am but today, it’s 6am. Sharp. The shock of the early rise is subdued somewhat by the fact that a guest is sleeping right above the kitchen, so we have to whisper. I wish everyone whispered in the morning. In a sublime juxtaposition to sardine-ing myself on to the tube, I find myself picking wildflowers to start my day. Half an hour in, and the fantasy doesn’t feel so unattainable.
We’re doing made-to-order breakfasts this morning as we only have eight guests, which is normal for a weekday, but half of the usual weekend footfall. I take an order at 7.30am from a smart, smiley businessman. “Would you like your bacon crispy, or… [scrabbles around brain for the adjective for non-crispy bacon] bendy?” He is puzzled, but good-humoured. “Bendy, please.”
One breakfast at a time is no sweat, but it’s when a family descend that I lose my cool. All I have on my notepad is “veggie, mush, tom”, for one breakfast. She wanted lots of one and none of the other, but I have no clue which. I guess at lots of mushroom and no tomato, watching her face closely as I give her the plate. I got it right, phew.
10am: I’m shaky with hunger, having motored through the past four hours on an apple and a bit of pineapple too ugly to serve the guests. On a normal day at home I’d have eaten my second breakfast by now, given my Hobbit-like appetite. I fall on my full English, finally, with the table manners of a coyote.
I’m also desperate for a sit down. While I normally bemoan being trapped at my desk, right now I would gladly pay £20 to sit at one for an hour, and end up sitting on the loo for longer than is necessary. I normally make a to-do list and truck through it, ticking things off, but here that’s unthinkable; you just do in B&B world. What needs to be done is obvious, and there is a beauty in that.
12pm: It’s time to clean the rooms. Lizzie now employs a full-time cleaner, but in the first few years she did it herself. I do two rooms and five beds and it’s back-breakingly hard. It’s a different buzz to that of cleaning your own house. You don’t get to lie star-shaped on the clean sheets, or recline in the bathtub admiring the shiny tiles.
After the cleaning, we sit down to do hours of office admin in the afternoon: handling booking enquiries, tending to social media, answering on average 60 emails and 40 calls a day. My visions of spending the day outside have been torpedoed.
5pm: I have a cup of tea and a lovely chat in the fragrant garden with a pretty thirtysomething guest who’s lived all over Europe. We swap lost-in-translation tales. I may not have that holiday feeling, but all of the guests do and they’re super-friendly, unlike the scowling Londoners I normally jostle alongside.
10pm: I am totally banjaxed. I have a bone-deep sense of satisfaction at a day well done, but it’s physical triumph, rather than intellectual victory. Rather than having to meditation-app my way into slumber over 20 minutes, it’s as if somebody hits an ‘off’ button the minute I clamber into bed. Instant oblivion.
6.30am: I awake seven and a half hours later in the same position, as if I’ve been playing statues all night. Magic. Curious, I look at my pedometer app to see how far I walked yesterday: 11.5km.
It’s like an idyllic Groundhog Day as I set about the same tasks as yesterday, executing them with slightly more elan. Guests start coming down for breakfast an hour before they were supposed to. I feel a bolt of panic, but Lizzie takes it in her stride. “Expect the unexpected,” she says. As a control freak, that doesn’t sit well.
Breakfast is a physical grind. If you think 90 minutes of bikram is hard try carrying ten-high towers of hot plates up and down steps. I put said plates down with an almighty thunk, and scare a baby. The mother doesn’t hear my apology because she’s too busy bouncing her wailing child. Will this tiny oversight be blown up into a rude misdemeanour in her Tripadvisor review? Every little thing counts in B&B-land.
I’m gathering countless domestic shortcuts from Lizzie. Double-layering bacon in the frying pan. Dipping the ends of cut flowers in boiling water for 20 seconds rather than snipping them; bicarbonate of soda or Coke for stained toilets.
11am: Lizzie now pays a laundry woman and has invested in a £1,200 roller iron, which works much like a mangle. But in the first few years she did it all herself with a regular ironing board, so I give it a whirl on a king-size, 7.5ft wide duvet cover. Fifteen minutes in, I begin to suspect this is actually a parachute, rather than a duvet cover, given it seems to never bloody end.
Twenty minutes later the godforsaken item is defeated, while I’m hot-cheeked and looking longingly at the guests playing giant Connect 4 under a blue sky outside. For a break, I watch a YouTube video about how to fold a fitted sheet into a perfect square, which I can’t comprehend, despite watching it twice. But then I have a chat with an impish little sparrow who sits on the doorstep watching my laundry hell, cocks his head at me, chirrups, and everything is A-OK again.
12.30pm: I see an opportunity to snatch a rest as I’m cleaning one of the log cabins, and take it. I lie down on the sofa for three minutes. It feels delicious to be alone for the first time in six hours.
Before starting on the admin, Lizzie and I go for a walk. She picks organic apricots and blackberries. We also eat cornflowers, daylilies, marigolds and rose petals. This really is The Life.
5pm: There’s always something to do – cleaning, ordering food, meeting the needs of guests – and it all seems equally urgent. Lizzie and John give themselves two weeks off a year, during off-peak months from November to March. Given I took six weeks of holiday last year, I don’t know if I could hack that. “It’s hard to leave,” she admits. “For the first three days on holiday we just sleep. Then I start to make notes on what other hotels and B&Bs do, so that we can learn from them.”
9pm: We finish earlier today, so I go for a sunset run to a pagan stone circle up a mountain overlooking the farm. There’s nobody around for miles, so I pogo around and sing, watching a heart-stoppingly beautiful sunset. I couldn’t do this in Wandsworth Park.
As I get back to the farm and Rocky the labrador greets me, I realise that this is what we crave. The space of nature. The comfort of animals. And the B&B is a means to that end.
Except I want to go and read in the grand living room, but it’s filled with French teenagers who work on the farm in exchange for free digs. Lizzie and John have their own quarters, which, she says, are more humble. She doesn’t show them to me – evidently you might host the dream, but you don’t live it. I trot off to bed and realise I haven’t checked Facebook all day. It feels good.
Back to reality
As I’m preparing to leave, I reason that busy-ness should be measured in cold cups of tea you haven’t had time to drink. I’ve averaged four a day.
This has been an eye opener. The thought of obstreperous guests in my house ransacking my antique finds does not appeal. But I met some wonderful people. Such as the groom who confided he hadn’t slept the night before. Peekaboo with chubby-cheeked babies. Swap celebrity-sighting stories with guests, the best of which was about a mum on a flight with “a nice young man called David Booey, I think… A singer. D’you know, he has the same kitchen tiles as me.”
“You become a witness to people’s lives,” agrees Lizzie. “We have engaged couples who come back pregnant, then later with young families. If you don’t love people, don’t do this.” I muse on the fact that, back home, if I have more than four social engagements a week, I get ratty.
I’ve come to lionise Lizzie as an unflappable doyenne of domesticity who deigns to walk among mere mortals. It’s acutely clear there would be no point having a Netflix subscription.
If I ever do take the plunge, I’ll know running a B&B is not the time to chill. It’s relentless playing cook, barmaid, counsellor, cleaner, manager, laundry person, cleaner-upper, inventory-taker, admin assistant and interior decorator.
But getting up at 6am to make bendy bacon and iron parachutes/duvets may well be worth the reward of being able to live in such loveliness. My dream is intact. It’s just less Insta-filtered and a lot more real.
Huntstile Organic Farm Bed & Breakfast (huntstileorganicfarm.co.uk) in Somerset also hosts weddings and workshops. #OrganicSeptember, a celebration of all things organic, is now underway and run by the Soil Association. Dorset Cereals B&B Awards honour the best B&Bs in Britain