Review by Fiona Duncan, published 14th February 2010.
Problem. How will I force myself, after leaving this unforgettable, privately run guesthouse, to stay in a regular hotel, designed by committee, staffed by unsmiling, unengaged foreigners, again? Yes, there will be iPod docks and designer fabrics, but will there be a heart, a point to it all? And will there be real quality, where it matters?
Take coffee. The owners of Millgate House recently stayed in a nearby luxury hotel costing more than £300 a night. The coffee was undrinkable, they tell me, not because its quality was poor but because no one in the kitchen – usual problem – had the time, the attention to detail or the know-how to make it properly. Hotel coffee is almost always weak, burned or stewed. Here at Millgate House, just off Richmond's cobbled square, its production is an art form: ground by hand, the water left exactly 25 seconds after boiling. In a dining room gleaming with silver and mahogany, it accompanies an elegantly presented breakfast of fresh fruits, seeds, nuts, cereals and yogurts, while hot dishes are cooked to order in a proper, homely kitchen.
Am I in heaven? There's even an award-winning paradise garden that tumbles towards the River Swale and its waterfall beyond. As I write, I can hear the coffee grinder, and a cup is soon brought to me, with a local cheese scone, for elevenses. I'm tucked up by a roaring fire in a Regency drawing room densely packed with antiques and silver, porcelain and pictures, with whippets Bosie and Mr Pip curled up with me on the sofa. Yes, this is hotel heaven for me.
Proprietors Tim Culkin and Austin Lynch are just off to South America on holiday. Creative and cultured, but with a strong dash of northern grit, they are confidently leaving their home-cum-business in the hands of trusted locals, whose daily help ensures that the exacting business of running a busy hotel from their home remains a pleasure rather than a penance. Their calm authority (they are both ex-teachers) sets the tone: in 13 years they've not had one bounced cheque, one stolen tea cup or silver candlestick, one unpleasant incident. William Hague, the local MP, often entertains here (Austin cooks dinners only for private groups and house parties). Hague is evidently a fan; one suspects that Alan Bennett (like Tim and Austin, another grammar schoolboy from a down-to-earth northern background) would be, too.
Tim and Austin bought Millgate House (little changed since the early 19th century) in 1975. Eventually, they moved their quarters to the top floor and opened the six gracious principal bedrooms, with bathrooms, to the outside world. "Guests are like cushions," they tell me. "They arrive a bit pummeled, but we try to send them off plumped up again."
Millgate, Richmond (01748 823571; www.millgatehouse.com) Doubles from £110 per night, including breakfast). Not suitable for guests with disabilities. More reviews by Fiona Duncan at www.thehotelguru.com