10 of the best hotels in Britain and Ireland | Travel

Forty years ago, an article in the Observer by literary agent Hilary Rubinstein gave birth to The Good Hotel Guide. Readers responded with such enthusiasm to his plea for recommendations that the first edition had more than 300 entries. Since then, the hospitality industry has gone through radical change. The word “boutique” was unknown, hotel food was usually dire, gastropubs unheard of, children and dogs unwelcome and the internet a mystery known only to a handful of boffins.

What has not changed is the guide’s ethos. We do not accept hospitality or payment for an entry in the print edition, inspections are anonymous, and reviews from readers remain the lifeblood of the guide. “You can corrupt one man, you can’t bribe an army” was Raymond Postgate’s philosophy when he set up The Good Food Guide. That’s our philosophy, too.

What makes a great hotel? The 10 hotels and B&Bs I have selected to celebrate the guide’s 40th anniversary are not just outstanding; they have set the pace for a new generation of hoteliers. They range from budget to pricier, but all stand out for their character and charm. They are all places I would love to go back to.

Sheer comfort

Hotel Endsleigh, Milton Abbot, Devon
Olga Polizzi, the daughter of Charles Forte, has hotel-keeping in her DNA. Her Regency fishing lodge, built for the Duchess of Bedford, stands in 100 acres of Arcadian parkland created by Humphry Repton, with champion trees, a fountain and follies, the UK’s longest herbaceous border, and the River Tamar running through the grounds. Its laid-back luxury captured me within minutes. The interiors have a chic simplicity, with antiques, fresh flowers and log fires. Chef Jose Graziosi cooks modern dishes with local produce – perhaps sea bream, parmesan gnocchi, crab bisque. B&B from £190 (hotelendsleigh.com)

Old-world charm

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, Devon

For sheer romanticism, this sets a high standard and only those with a heart of steel could resist. I certainly couldn’t, though I failed to put on the required black tie for dinner. Deborah Clark and Anthony Orchard’s art deco extravaganza is berthed like an ocean liner on a tidal island off the Devon coast. It has entertained such guests as Edward VIII and Nancy Cunard. A sea tractor ferries visitors there through the waves. Cocktails are served beneath a glass ceiling in the bar, a formal dinner is held in the ballroom, with a live band two nights a week. You can go for a pint at the 14th-century Pilchard Inn and stay in the Beach House, where Agatha Christie wrote two of her whodunnits. If you fancy a swim, there’s an amazing natural rock pool at the side of the hotel. Dinner and B&B from £400 (burghisland.com)

Great value

The Ceilidh Place, Ullapool, Highland

A soft seating area in Ceilidh Place.

Jean Urquhart’s hotel, café-bar, music venue and bookshop occupies a run of whitewashed cottages in a fishing village on Loch Broom, warmed by the North Atlantic Drift and a spirit of joie de vivre. There is a lot to be said for the simple life. The business grew out of a café opened in the 1970s by Jean’s late husband, actor Robert Urquhart, as a place where musicians could sing for their supper. Effie, the manager, and her locally recruited staff are friendly and bantering, the atmosphere is bohemian. Rooms are simple and comfortable, supplied with radio and books. If funds are tight, you can rough it with a bunk in the Clubhouse for £24 and eat at a budget price from the all-day menu. B&B from £132 (theceilidhplace.com)

The quirky B&B

The Old Railway Station, Petworth, Sussex

A bedroom in a train carriage

This B&B rings my every bell and whistle. Owners Gudmund Olafsson and Catherine Stormont spent seven years restoring one of Britain’s most beautiful railway stations. Built in 1892, for the Prince of Wales to visit Goodwood, the station fell under Beeching’s axe in 1966, but the guest today is transported to a more elegant age. Check in at the parcels office and ascend a spiral staircase to your bedroom, or sleep in Pullman carriages with Edwardian fittings. The carriages are surprisingly comfortable. Breakfast is served in the station waiting room, which is elegantly furnished with leather armchairs around an open fire, or on the station platform. All this is pure delight for a transport nut like me, but the Old Railway Station is not just for anoraks. Anyone who is at all nostalgic for the past cannot fail to be charmed by being transported back in time to a far gentler age. B&B from £130 (old-station.co.uk)

Gastropub with a difference

Kylesku Hotel, Kylesku, Highland

Kylesku hotel on the edge of the water, mountains behind

In a remote fishing hamlet on the sea passage, Tanja Lister and Sonia Virechauveix’s small hotel impresses with its mix of professionalism and informality. A former coaching inn on the shores of Loch Glendu, the hotel overlooks the old ferry slipway, which is still used by creel fishermen. In fine weather, you can eat alfresco as grey seals bask on the rocks and wild stags roam the rugged garden. Where else can you do that? The bedrooms – some of which are compact – are in the main house and in purpose-built Willie’s Hoose; seven have a superb loch view. The dining room has a pleasing, stripped-down simplicity, with wooden floorboards, bare tables and a wood-burning stove. The shellfish are a must. Do not miss the rope-grown mussels or diver-caught scallops. B&B singles from £72, doubles from £110 (kyleskuhotel.co.uk)

Urban retreat

Artist Residence, Pimlico, London

A long row of tables and chairs alongside a soft seating bench beneath a window at the Artist Residence London.

Charlotte and Justin Salisbury have hit the hotel scene like a rocket with four buzzy hotels in London, Brighton, Penzance and Oxfordshire. Their London hotel, situated five minutes from Victoria Station, in an area of white stucco terraces and garden squares, is as sharp and welcoming as its smart red and white awning. It has character by the bucketful with a shrewd mix of auction finds, original art and recycled industrial materials. Some of the 10 bedrooms are small, but all have aircon, bespoke and vintage furniture, a Roberts radio, quirky style to make you smile, a fully stocked mini-fridge, often an espresso machine and, perhaps, a rain shower or roll-top bath. Locals pile in for Sunday brunch or for cocktails in the basement bar under a ceiling of tin tiles. If you fancy a game of ping-pong there’s a table in the Club Room. It’s a splendidly informal place to stay. Rooms from £210, breakfast from £8 (artistresidencelondon.co.uk)

Family values

Ballymaloe House, Shanagarry, County Cork

The Georgian frontage, covered in ivy, of Ballymaloe House

This is one of only four hotels that have had an entry in every edition of the guide – a remarkable achievement. Hotels run by the same family for generations are unusual and Ballymaloe sets a high standard. I especially like its uncommercial spirit. What other hotel would have a local artist blocking a bedroom corridor for a whole weekend as he completed a mural? It is more than half a century since Myrtle and Ivan Allen opened a modest restaurant in their Georgian house. The enterprise has burgeoned but traditional values still prevail. Public rooms are filled with flowers from the garden, bedrooms range from the snug to the light and airy. Chef Jason Fahey uses locally sourced produce, fruit, vegetables and herbs from the walled garden and home farm, and fresh fish delivered daily, in such dishes as escalope of John Dory, garden herb relish and pak choi. The hotel’s cookery school attracts budding chefs from across Europe. Not surprisingly the food is exceptional. B&B from £195 (ballymaloe.ie)

Classic country house

Hambleton Hall, Hambleton, Rutland

A landscaped garden set around a water feature at Hambleton Hall with Rutland Water in the distance.

If you want to be cosseted and pampered, this is the place I would head for above all others. Tim and Stefa Hart transformed this Victorian hunting box, which was built for a wealthy brewer, into a classy hotel 40 years ago. It runs as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce, from the attentive but unobtrusive service to the Michelin-starred cooking. Aaron Patterson, head chef here since 1992, works with local and home-grown produce, giving a modern spin to the classics in such dishes as lamb, piperade and rosemary sauce. The ambience is one of restrained luxury, with designer interiors by Nina Campbell and by Mrs Hart herself, along with comfortable lounges, open fires, antiques and paintings. The well-tended landscaped gardens are bordered by the shimmering expanse of Rutland Water. Noël Coward came here for house parties in the 1920s. It’s still a ball for anyone who would like to be indulged. A fine example of how luxury should be done. B&B from £280 (hambletonhall.com)

Trend setter

The Pig, Brockenhurst, Hampshire

The stone facade of The Pig at Brockenhurst.

Robin Hutson co-founded the Hotel du Vin chain, the prototype boutique hotel which he sold for £66m. Then he worked his magic with celebrity hangout Lime Wood. And now, with his litter of five Pig hotels, he is setting the trend yet again in re-imagining the country house hotel. Hutson makes hospitality look simple, but the secret of his success is his ferocious attention to detail combined with a shrewd eye and excellent taste. This first Pig, a former Georgian shooting lodge in the New Forest, has open fires, oil paintings, books and board games. I love its relaxed, rustic, family-friendly atmosphere. Hutson cares about good food, which he rightly says should be at the heart of any hotel. The conservatory restaurant showcases delicious food from local suppliers, as well as produce from the kitchen garden and the local smokehouse. Rooms from £155; breakfast from £10 (thepighotel.com)

Five star B&B

Bryniau Golau, Bala, Gwynedd

A bedroom with a four-poster and decor in orange hues at Bryniau Golau.

Photograph: Good Hotel Archive

The best B&Bs are hard to beat, but this one stands out from the pack. There are just three guest bedrooms at Katrina Le Saux and Peter Cottee’s Victorian house, situated in landscaped grounds on a hillside overlooking Bala Lake, within Snowdonia National Park. All three rooms have lake and mountain views and such welcoming touches as fresh flowers, home-baked biscuits, books and magazines. There is a log fire and an honesty bar in the sitting room, and a terrace on which to sit and watch the sunset. Breakfast is served off fine china, at a long table in a room with a baby-grand piano. With the full Welsh breakfast comes homemade bread, freshly squeezed orange juice and honey from the owners’ hives. B&B singles from £90, doubles from £110 (bryniau-golau.co.uk)

For more details go to goodhotelguide.com. The Good Hotel Guide to Great Britain and Ireland costs £20. To order a copy for £17, go to guardianbookshop.com

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