SOPHIA MONEY- COUTTS MODERN MANNERS I’m not on my best B&B behaviour I
Their owners insist you follow the rule book to the letter – but they’re one of the last bastions of old-fashioned eccentricity
n 1973 when Bill Bryson first came to England, he stayed in a sad Dover B&B. As detailed in his book Notes from a Small Island it was run by a landlady called Mrs Smegma who ruled her house like a female prison guard. The young Bryson got into all sorts of trouble – for leaving the water heater on, for ignoring his fried tomato two days running, for hair in the plughole – but the biggest offence was discovered when Mrs Smegma marched him to the bathroom one morning to point out “a little turd” that hadn’t flushed away. “We agreed that I should leave after breakfast,” writes Bryson.
I’ve been mulling over the etiquette of the B&B for the past few days since I’m staying in one in Sri Lanka. Situated on a hill just above Galle Fort, it’s run by a magnificent English lady who, as far as I can tell, is the planet’s closest approximation to a human unicorn. Wildly jolly at all hours, she loves wearing pink and covered herself in glitter for New Year’s Eve.
The house has multicoloured walls, psychedelic bedspreads and every spare inch is covered with a knickknack – a Tibetan singing bowl, a lava lamp – or jaunty sign or slogan – “Be a flamingo in a flock of pigeons”, “Magic is happening”.
The bedrooms are named after birds (on the basis the landlady is called Hen; I am in Peacock), my breakfast is served on a chicken placemat.
But although it’s like staying inside a kaleidoscope, there is still a code of behaviour that has to be followed. It’s far from the petty tyranny of Mrs Smegma, but certain rules still need to be upheld. That is the way of the B&B.
If you take a Lion beer from the fridge or make a gin and tonic at dusk, you must write it in the honesty book in the corner of the kitchen. In my shower, there’s a stern note about switching the boiler off after using it. If you go out late at night, you must take a key from a small elephant box in the sitting room. I failed to do this the other night but Ishan the security guard was sweetly understanding when he found me trying to scale the gate at 1.30am.
Some rules are unsaid. If you get back after a day on the beach and another guest is sitting in the communal area, you should chat politely about their day before excusing yourself for bed. Every morning, when I come down for breakfast, I feel vaguely guilty that I dodge the big, shared table and head for a spot by myself, but think it’s accepted that some of us need a moment of contemplation over coffee before any form of communication. Especially if they’ve been gallivanting over gates in the manner of an Olympic pole vaulter the night before.
And yet despite the rules, there’s a joy in the B&B that you don’t find in hotels. They often use automated sensors in their minibars now to detect when a guest has extravagantly ripped open a can of cashew nuts, as if the guest won’t be trusted to confess. But the other night, after pouring my third gin, I wrote “Sophia (AGAIN!)” in the honesty book and wobbled back into the garden, to chat to a lady who’d just arrived from Sweden and was sucking on a beer as if it had liferestoring powers. You don’t get that sort of thing in a Holiday Inn.