Surprisingly for an August Bank Holiday weekend, I found several B&Bs in Dorset with rooms available. No doubt many would have set high standards, but I could not be more pleased with the one I chose for a weekend break.
The Old Rectory, sitting snugly in the village of Winterbourne Steepleton outside Dorchester (aka Casterbridge to fans of the local literary hero, Thomas Hardy) is a quintessentially English bed and breakfast run by the charming and helpful Mrs Caroline Wakeford. What makes Mrs Wakeford’s establishment stand out from the crowd is her attention to detail, taste and refinement, of which there is much evidence to be found.
The first step to success was in selecting as the family home and business premises such a perfect old rectory. From the outside I can’t imagine a building more redolent of its past, but the elegance and fine proportions make it such a fine contender for an upmarket bed and breakfast establishment that owner and home seem made for one another. From the Old Rectory website:
The Old Rectory dates back to 1850 when Reverend Martin Green and his family lived here for nearly 30 years while he was vicar of St Michaels Church next door.
However, this was a B&B before, though the fittings and decor were long in the tooth and well overdue a refresh, judging by the album of photos Mrs Wakeford proudly displayed. The skill in adapting it with subtlety and skill for 21st Century visitors requires fine judgement.
After a sympathetic conversion we retain much of the old building’s charm and original features while benefiting from all modern luxuries!
The work conducted by her builders included creating en suite rooms, where previously occupants had to dive across the hall for loos and showers, a less than edifying spectacle and unbecoming to those seeking privacy for their ablutions. Fit and finish are first class, but best of all the modern light fittings, basins, shower and other components have that reassuringly solid quality feel, function well (even if the direction for turning the shower knob seemed unintuitive to my companion), and blend with the fabric of the building.
The work is not yet complete, since the courtyard conservatory, the usual breakfast room, was occupied instead by supportive scaffolding pending roof work commencing in September, so instead breakfast was partaken in a snug room adjacent to the kitchen, of which more anon.
I mentioned Mrs Wakeford’s taste and refinement, for which I recommend you look at the pictures above. The choice of carpets, fabrics and colours suggest her previous career might have been in interior design. Rarely have I seen rooms with more exquisite and thoughtful accessorising, not that men are supposed to notice such things (no, I’m not gay either!) Pictures, mirrors and other wallhangings are well-chosen, neither overdone nor of the vague impersonal style so popular with international hotels; in fact a few Wakeford family portraits adds a personal touch in the downstairs rooms.
The pièce de resistance is however the grandfather clock in an alcove in the entrance hall, which could almost have been built specially to accommodate it. It is truly a splendid clock, fits perfectly in the house. Credit to our hostess, who was able to provide a potted history of the piece, including that of Queen Caroline and the depiction of the four ages of man.
Our room, named like all after Dorset towns, was the Sherborne. Third out of four in price (£90 a night) but is still equipped with a comfortable king-sized bed, a handy desk and splendid en suite. I love the thick, soft towels, a class above most B&Bs and certainly a step above most B&Bs.
The only item for which we marked down the facilities were the drink sachets and provision of UHT milk, not my companion’s first choice. Her considered view is that it would not be much more effort to provide a small jug of fresh milk, and mine that a small cafetière would have been a nice touch (ground coffee can be provided in similar sachets.) Maybe a touch nit-picky but this merely demonstrates how little there was to criticise in an otherwise comfortable and delightful room.
So to breakfast, the making and breaking of many a B&B. I’ve never understood why some stint on or even omit breakfast to save a few quid here and there. Maybe some customers would sooner do without but surely the vast majority revel in having a fine English breakfast cooked, the best meal of the day. Even that is not obligatory – you could get by on juice, cereals (and fruits and yogurts in this case), toast and tea or coffee if you wanted, but good nutrition demands that you refuel early and expend energy during the day rather than flagging early and grazing all morning and afternoon.
At any rate, we are happy to make the most of Mrs Wakeford’s Aga-cooked breakfast (regular readers will know that as a fellow Aga-owner I am endeared to anybody sharing the same enthusiasm), comprising well-cooked and tasty back bacon, a true butcher’s sausage, sautéed mushrooms, a perfectly roasted and sweet-tasting tomato, plus the old favourite Heinz 57 (aka baked beans.) My companion’s poached egg was not as runny as she would have liked (unlike the one I cooked her the previous day), but overall the quality was well in-keeping with the establishment, so the bar is set high.
Of course there are other skills in being a successful hostess. Mrs Wakeford came up to scratch in local knowledge, particularly of places to visit and indeed to eat, and enthused us both with her self-evident love of Dorset.
If you are prepared to pay for really good service and classy accommodation, the Old Rectory hits the mark. Warmly recommended.