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In England, Lodging That's Wild and Wolsey

By Tara Mack
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page E02

It was one of the more bizarre dinner parties I'd ever attended. The two hosts and eight guests seated around the table at Beryl mansion represented a cross section of British society: Welsh middle-class, London nouveau riche, English old money. The conversation began as Eddie, my white-haired host, turned to me and said, "Where are you from, Madam?" It climaxed a few hours and several glasses of wine later with a minor tantrum from a man introduced to us as an expert on antique Queen Anne walnut furniture. In an impeccable accent, using language that cannot be repeated here, he maligned his arch rival in the business, pounding the table. The other guests responded by cracking jokes about walnuts, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts.

That's the deal with Britain's Wolsey Lodges: For better or worse, the place where you sleep becomes a part of, rather than a refuge from, your vacation. Beryl, a 19th-century Gothic mansion set amid 13 bucolic acres in southwest England, is one of 224 members of the privately owned network of B&Bs, united by a dedication to immaculate hospitality. The network does no advertising. "We don't need to. It's not the style," said Procter Naylor, the group's chairman. Guests "have this funny thing in common--they feel that they are a member of an elite group. To have a lot of paid-for advertising would ruin that feeling."

The pleasant surprise is that the lodges are not priced accordingly. For $35 to $80 a night, you get a bed, breakfast and some new buddies, who may give you a lecture on local history or let you relax in the living room where they keep the family pictures. For an extra $20 to $40 more, your hosts will even make you dinner and eat it with you.

All of which can be fun, because you meet people you wouldn't meet otherwise, and talk about things far removed from your usual conversation. As Mel, a London accountant and a fellow guest at Beryl, put it, "You have to have fun when you have dinner with a group of total strangers because you know something weird is going to happen. Even if everyone is boring, you still have fun laughing about it."

But depending on your mood, it can also be a bit of a drag, like staying over with your parents. You might have to endure a very long conversation about Colin Powell's autobiography when all you want to do is sleep.

The homes, settings and levels of formality vary widely. You can stay in a 16th-century castle, a 19th-century vicarage or a renovated barn. At one manor, "Horses are available for competent riders, or guests may bring their own." At another, "If the ladies prefer to come down in housecoats, then let them."

At Beryl, I strolled through cow pastures, woods and cornfields, frustrated that my leather shoes were not made for mud and tall grass. From the window of my room, I watched sheep graze. At another Wolsey Lodge, in Yorkshire, I took a walk through the grounds of a neighboring park before dinner. Deer darted through the trees, geese ruffled a placid pond and bunny rabbits hippity-hopped in the grass. It was almost unbelievably pristine.

The concern about creating a homey ambiance is reflected in the Wolsey Lodges booklet, which not only describes the different houses and amenities, but provides amusing nuggets of information about the hosts. Paul of Rushmere Manor is "a keen shot and a fluent French speaker." Richard and Sarah of Ribston House "enjoy showing their llamas to guests."

After my long walk around the grounds of Beryl mansion, I joined the other guests in the living room for a drink and a conversation about the Welsh health system before dinner. As we settled into the dining room, our hostess, Holly, rearranged a few people at the round table so that we were seated boy, girl, boy, girl. Dinner began with scallops and a salad prepared by her husband, Eddie, followed by a main course of roast duck and vegetables. A three-layer strawberry and cream tart was set out for dessert.

The conversation took wild turns--the plots of John le Carre novels, a woman who walked out on her husband one night because he kicked the cat, the Plaza Hotel in New York and the new German chancellor.

As I returned to my room, past the antique furniture and windows with Gothic trim, I noticed that the room next to mine was covered with Batman and Garbage Pail Kids stickers. This was, I later found out, the room of my hosts' son, an 18-year-old drummer and disc jockey, who has the words "DJ RAP" cut into the back of his hair.

In one final burst of hospitality the next morning, Eddie offered me tea or coffee while I waited for a cab, even though I had already checked out. Holly kissed both my cheeks as I said goodbye, her eyes nearly closed by the breadth of her smile.

Rooms at Beryl mansion (Wells, Somerset, U.K., BA5 3JP, telephone 011-44-1749-678738, fax 011-44-1749-670508) run from $55 to $72 per night, including breakfast; dinner is about $34 extra. For a free brochure, contact Wolsey Lodges Ltd., 9 Market Place, Hadleigh, Ipswich, Suffolk IP7 5DL, U.K., telephone 011-44-1473-822058,

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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