Review by Fiona Duncan, published 27th May 2007.
This year, I was asked to judge a new category in the AA hotel awards - Best Funky B & Bs. Perhaps funky isn't quite the word I'd choose but whatever you call the contenders - individual, imaginative, wacky, lively, different, fun - the AA is right to identify b & bs that break the mould.
Perhaps the establishments champion local artists, are proud to be green, or simply exude a sense of fun, but places to stay such as these are often hard to categorise and therefore neglected when it comes to accolades, and it's high time they were recognised.
Not that funky is always fab; indeed there are some truly cringe-making examples of the genre. I remember a guesthouse in Gloucestershire where a perfectly charming old Cotswold house had been painted unrelenting purple from top to toe, with wall mirrors at odd angles and only waterbeds on which to sleep. And another "holistic" farmhouse in Wales where the bedroom furniture turned out to be mainly packing crates and guests were asked to hold hands and chant before dinner. I shudder at the thought.
And what of the "themed bedroom"? It rarely works in my experience. Whether it's "Arabian Nights" or "African Jungle", the room may thrill the hotelier who thought up the unusual concept, but unless its decoration was carried out with style, panache and a bit of expense, it can have a completely negative effect on the unsuspecting guests - who are, after all, the ones who have to sleep in it.
How often does an extrovert theme, or off-the-wall decoration, mask a badly run hotel? Too many hoteliers think that it's enough to look hip, or go green, or stuff their hotel with peculiar antiques and bric-a-brac but it's simply not. In my book, any winner of a funky b & b award must display imagination, yes, but also high standards of hotel-keeping in equal measure.
And so, in judging the AA's five shortlisted hotels (I stayed one night in each of the hotels, anonymously), I looked for funky, yes, but also for comfort, professionalism, a warm welcome and value for money. If prizes were being handed out for second and third place, West Stoke House and the Mayflower would make worthy runners up.
As for my winner - is the Crazy Bear the Funkiest B&B in Britain? I think it would be very hard to beat.
The Crazy Bear, Oxfordshire
Is it funky? How else do you describe a reception that's a double-decker bus, or a garden that's full of palm trees, pastiche Classical statues and mannequins hanging in trees (plus a private dining room in a garden shed)? In the cosy bar, where oysters are served along with your Champagne, a large (and presumably crazy) stuffed brown bear dangles from the ceiling; up some steps in the English restaurant, padded pink walls, leopard-print carpet and wine bottles in rows lining the ceiling.
Down some steps in the exotic Thai restaurant: low seating, circular beaten metal tables and grinning gold masks embedded in walls of velvet. In your bedroom, along with much else of note, you'll find the bath, not in the bathroom, but at the end of the bed.
Bedrooms range from tiny Art Deco rooms to fabulous Infinity Suites, camp and kitsch in the extreme (one has jet-black, fake fur on the walls and white, padded satin on the ceiling) but also beautifully executed and not remotely tacky.
Though we had booked one of these standard rooms, we were given a complimentary upgrade on arrival to a beautiful peppermint green Garden Suite with large windows on two sides, a pair of throne-like, leaf-shaped chairs and a huge (and funky) arrangement of flowers.
Save for our Thai dinner, which was enjoyable if unexceptional, we could find no fault: charming service, a wonderfully comfortable bed and (even on a Monday night) a gently animated buzz. In the morning: a promptly served breakfast, with plenty of choice, which you can eat in the bar or in the softly lit, pink-padded restaurant.
Yes, the Crazy Bear, in a quiet suburban setting, is full of surprises, highly individual and, just as important, very well-run: a worthy winner.
• Bear Lane, Stadhampton, Oxfordshire (01865 890714; www.crazybeargroup.co.uk). Doubles from £125 to £380, including breakfast.
Moss Grove Organic Hotel, Lake District
"What do they give you to eat there, then, moss?" queried the taxi driver at Windermere station when my friend and I asked to be taken to Grasmere's first (indeed almost, but not quite, the UK's first) organic hotel. We smiled wanly. We were slightly worried ourselves. Nuts and more nuts, we assumed.
We pondered what an organic b & b might look like. As it turned out, a former run-down guesthouse in the centre of Grasmere has been given a terrific face-lift, its stone façade cleverly illuminated by special one-watt lilac halogen bulbs that, so they say, cost thousands to install but will - apparently - never need to be replaced.
Inside, everything - from the clay-based paint and hand-printed wallpaper to the locally made, sustainable-wood furniture and the sheep's-wool insulation - is organic. Even the tap water is specially filtered, we were told. "So the bath water's pure, is it?" we asked. "Try drinking it and see for yourself. You can drink the water from loo if you like."
The bathroom, as it turns out, was reassuringly normal, not to say luxurious, despite its much-heralded organic status. We didn't drink the bath water but we did appreciate the underfloor heating, spa bath, excellent separate power shower and the room's clean lines.
There were a few niggles: no wastebin, nowhere to put our washbags and no bath gel, just sachets of shampoo and a bottle of liquid soap (organic, of course) to share between shower, bath and basin.
The bedroom was similarly high tech (luckily, it would seem, you can be organic and still have a plasma-screen TV and Bose entertainment system). If you want to know what an organic DVD selection consists of, I can tell you: Basic Instinct II and Westerns.
Superb beds: cotton sheets and goose-down duvets, of course. Breakfast was definitely funky: a varied and imaginative buffet with dishes that ranged from savoury tofu and walnut bread crostini to Mediterranean salads, plus - of course - plenty of nuts.
• Grasmere, Cumbria (015394 35251; www.mossgrove.com). Doubles from £125 to £250 per night, including breakfast.
The Gallery, South Kensington
Walk into The Gallery and you are in for a surprise - and a trip back in time.
Though you wouldn't guess it from the outside, this is no run-of-the-mill central London tourist hotel, but - as the brochure informs us - a recreation of a Victorian artist's residence.
The theme makes for splendid reception rooms: dozens of closely packed, ornately framed paintings crowd together on mahogany-panelled walls, while a fine Jacobean revival chimneypiece takes centre stage. Button-back chairs, velvet-covered sofas and tall, potted palms add to the feeling that Burne-Jones or Rossetti might appear at any moment, palette in hand. Downstairs is a cosy Arts and Crafts-style sitting room, decorated William Morris wallpaper, and a spacious, attractive breakfast room.
Though The Gallery's Victorian theme doesn't extend to the bedrooms, they do have a certain old-fashioned charm. Ours was fairly small, but full of gilt and silk, with draped curtains and canopied bed, polished granite bathroom and French windows on to a terrace overlooking a small mews and the backs of houses opposite. Despite its trailing, oddly unhemmed valence, the bed was firm and excellent, and the room cosy: we slept very well. Next morning, we descended in the amusingly minute lift and re-entered the artist's parlour. All in all, an unusual London hotel (with 24-hour room service for drinks and light meals, though slow on our visit) with delightful, quirky reception rooms. Perhaps though, as far as this award is concerned, The Gallery is more comfy than funky.
• 8-10 Queensberry Place, London (020 7915 0000; www.eeh.co.uk). Doubles from £145 to £275, including breakfast.
The Mayflower, Earl's Court
Having trudged past a series of dire budget Earl's Court hotels, my initial feeling on reaching The Mayflower was one of relief: its smart, freshly painted façade instantly put it in a league of its own. No disappointment, either, once inside: to the left, an airy bar/sitting room, with a bird trilling in its cage; to the right, a spacious reception area, calm and sophisticated. Despite the modest (for a central London hotel) layout of £95 for a mid-range double room I sensed that I was in good hands and ready to face what I knew would be a tiny bedroom with equanimity.
Tiny, but perfectly formed and, if you consider ethnic style funky, then funky, too. In a clever move that makes this budget address feel both hip and characterful, The Mayflower's owners have enlivened the rooms with oriental artefacts, carved wooden cupboards and mirrored bed heads, silk cushions and velvet bedspreads, plus attractive blinds and sweeping curtains at the windows. Give them individual doors instead of the basic ones that are there now and they would be even more special.
My room, No 17, was a small oblong, with no space for a bedside table, but a useful wooden ottoman at the end of the bed, plus a desk (with a folder of guest information and a complimentary copy of The Daily Telegraph) and chair, a huge blue urn on top of the cupboard, and a glass lantern that, as night fell, cast striped shadows on the walls, transforming the room into something like a Berber tent. It was minute, yes; with two of us it would have been even more cramped, but I couldn't imagine better use being made of its diminutive space.
By morning, the excellent breakfast - in the airy, stylish breakfast room - came as no surprise, and I reflected, as I left, that The Mayflower stands out like an Aladdin's lamp in a junk shop among inexpensive central London hotels.
• 26-28 Trebovir Road, London (020 7370 0991; www.mayflower-group.co.uk). Doubles from £89 per night, including breakfast.
West Stoke House, West Sussex
If like me, you can't imagine what's going to be funky about this large, white Georgian mansion in peaceful countryside near Chichester, you'll only have to wait long enough for the owner to greet you at the door and take your bags. Rowland Leach - rotund, wild-haired, bandy legged and dressed in baggy shorts and Chelsea boots all year round - is definitely the funkiest thing about West Stoke House. And if you are funky, then so, as night follows day, is your hotel.
A few years ago, Rowland found West Stoke House in a sorry state, personally renovated it and opened it, with his wife, Mary, as a b & b. Soon, however, they added a restaurant, installing Darren Brown, formerly of the Lanesborough Hotel, as chef.
On a Saturday night, it was packed with young and old, all enjoying the laid-back atmosphere and glamorous setting. In the large hall (for drinks): poster-red walls, red leather bucket chairs, yellow curtains across a wall of windows, an eclectic assortment of tables and lamps; in the lovely ballroom (for dinner): stripped wood floor, vast, colourful paintings and candlelight; in the dining room (for breakfast): panelled walls painted duck-egg blue and starched, white tablecloths.
The bedrooms are calmer: elegant spaces decorated with French antiques and unframed paintings by local artists. There are also fresh country flowers, plasma TVs, DVDs and huge beds dressed in Egyptian cotton. Ours overlooked the carefully tended garden, and had a large bathroom with a tub so deep that I had to be winched out. When we arrived, Rowland had whisked us up to it, merrily carrying our bags. In the morning, there he was again, still in his shorts, a cheery wave for all.
• West Stoke, Chichester, West Sussex (01243 575226; www.weststokehouse.co.uk). Doubles from £150 to £175, including breakfast.