Cony­ers, county’s first B&B, still classy af­ter 30-plus years

Rappahannock News - - NEWS - BY PAM OWEN

When Nor­man and San­dra Cartwright-Brown bought their house in Slate Mills in 1979, they hadn’t planned to pi­o­neer Rap­pa­han­nock’s bed-and-break­fast in­dus­try. They just wanted a week­end re­treat.

That re­treat was a large house on five acres on Slate Mills Road, within com­mut­ing dis­tance, in a county they thought was “lovely,” San­dra says. The house was ac­tu­ally two four-story houses that had been put to­gether by Sa­muel Cony­ers in the early 19th cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to San­dra. In its early days it was a store, in the 1970s a “hip­pie com­mune” and then the res­i­dence of a se­ries of lo­cal fam­i­lies. When the Cartwright-Browns bought the house from the last owner, who had bought it on spec­u­la­tion but never lived there, it had a sep­tic sys­tem but no plumb­ing, and “a lit­tle elec­tric­ity.”

At the time, the Cartwright­Browns were liv­ing in Chevy Chase. Norm was in Nige­ria of­ten, work­ing for an in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment cor­po­ra­tion. Com­mut­ing from their subur­ban home when they had time, the cou­ple tack­led re­fur­bish­ing their “new” coun­try house. They left the in­te­rior rooms “as built,” with the ex­cep­tion of tak­ing out one wall in the store (now their li­brary), and built a three-story ad­di­tion. B&Bs were start­ing to pop up all over the coun­try, and San­dra be­gan to see the house’s po­ten­tial to be more than a pri­vate re­treat.

“The kids had gone off to col­lege, Nor­man was spend­ing months in Nige­ria, and I had never been to a bed-and-break­fast, but I thought it couldn’t be too un­like moth­er­hood – like manag­ing a house­hold,” she says. Since she grew up in subur­ban Mary­land, and Norm was from a town in York­shire, Eng­land, they “didn’t know any­thing about liv­ing out here,” she says, so they hung onto their subur­ban home for six years, rent­ing it out while they made sure of their de­ci­sion.

“The Cony­ers House Coun­try Inn and Sta­ble,” as the Cartwright-Browns dubbed their new B&B, opened in Oc­to­ber 1981 – one week be­fore the first guests ar­rived. It had five guest rooms and a cou­ple of shared bath­rooms. When any­one asked if there were pri­vate baths, San­dra says she would re­spond, “yes, when you’re in it – if you lock the door.”

Over time, the cou­ple added porches and decks along with two re­fur­bished out­build­ings, a new kitchen and a cov­ered drive­way en­trance to the house and filled the in­te­rior with fam­ily heir­looms, other an­tiques that San­dra had col­lected, books and art. The B&B now of­fers seven guest rooms, each with a wood-burn­ing fire­place and pri­vate bath­room. San­dra and Nor­man had trans­formed the plain, rus­tic house into a charm­ing old coun­try home that looks like it had been in the fam­ily for cen­turies, with a friendly dog or two to greet guests at the door.

But Cony­ers House of­fers more than a pretty view and nice fur­nish­ings. Un­til re­cently, San­dra cooked the “el­e­gant, six­course dinners” that dis­tin­guished the B&B from most oth­ers and did most of the main­te­nance on the gar­dens, which she de­signed. Norm cooked the break­fasts and mowed the grounds. San­dra says that, al­though they’ve al­ways taken a hands-on ap­proach, they’ve also al­ways had lo­cal staff to help.

Shortly af­ter pur­chas­ing the house, San­dra also took up horse­back rid­ing, ac­quir­ing a pas­sion for it. She bought a few horses and started to of­fer guests guided trail rides along the Hughes River, even­tu­ally of­fer­ing “hand­son” in­struc­tion on not just how to ride, but also how to get the horse ready. A mem­ber of the Thorn­ton Hill Hounds fox­hunt­ing club, she oc­ca­sion­ally takes guests along on fox­hunts.

As a court-ap­pointed Cel­e­brant of the Rites of Mat­ri­mony for the Com­mon­wealth of Vir­ginia, Norm is proud to have of­fi­ci­ated more than 120 wed­dings, some at Cony­ers House. With his voice now fail­ing, San­dra is con­tin­u­ing the tradition.

The open­ing of Cony­ers House kicked off the third “hos­pi­tal­ity wave” here, San­dra says. First came coun­try inns, in the early days of the county, and then the mod­est mo­tels and cab­ins that popped up along Rt. 211 when Shenan­doah Na­tional Park opened. None were still of­fer­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions when Cony­ers House opened, which turned out to be a plus.

A De­cem­ber 1981 ar­ti­cle about the B&B in “Rap­pa­han­nock News” “put us on the map,” San­dra says. In the ar­ti­cle, she had de­tailed the rugged as­pects of stay­ing at the house at that time, but that ap­par­ently didn’t daunt guests who were look­ing for ad­ven­ture.” And some lo­cal restau­ra­teurs also took notice-the day af­ter the ar­ti­cle ap­peared, the own­ers of The Inn at Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton, Patrick O’Connell and his part­ner at the time, Rein­hardt Lynch, showed up with a bot­tle of Cham­paign and booked a room for a guest. With no one else of­fer­ing overnight ac­com­mo­da­tions in the county at that time, the Inn kept Cony­ers House booked up for years, and loyal guests keep re­turn­ing.

Even­tu­ally more B&Bs opened, to­tal­ing 24 at one point, San­dra says. Cur­rently 18 are listed on the county’s tourism web­site (www.vis­i­trap­pa­han­nockva.com). Now there’s a fourth wave of hos­pi­tal­ity-busi­nesses, San­dra notes – guest houses, which are typ­i­cally small houses or cot­tages that own­ers have fixed up and are rent­ing out to guests.

With Norm now in his early 80s and re­tired from inn-keep­ing due to fail­ing health, the Cartwright-Browns have cut back on the num­ber of guests they take in and have fore­gone the elab­o­rate dinners. These days, San­dra says, she en­joys tai­lor­ing the B&B’s hos­pi­tal­ity to just a few care­fully cho­sen guests. Younger than her hus­band, and still slen­der and fit, she still takes guests rid­ing. While there was a note of wist­ful­ness in her rem­i­nisc­ing about the days when the B&B was full houses of guests, she was pre­par­ing elab­o­rate dinners, and Norm could be more in­volved, San­dra still en­joys the busi­ness and says they have no plans to close it or leave the county.

“I’ll run the busi­ness my way as long as it is con­ve­nient,” she says. Any­one who’s met her knows she’s tough, ca­pa­ble and op­ti­mistic enough to do just that for some time to come.

Photo by Pam Owen

Cony­ers House Coun­try Inn and Sta­ble, as it stands now in Slate Mills, al­most 31 years af­ter open­ing.

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