Leave it to the British to come up with a new twist to lure overseas visitors.
About two dozen former country rectories and vicarages in England and Scotland offer bed-and-breakfast accommodations. A few offer dinner, some by candlelight. Expansion plans call for additional operators in Wales.
Overseas guests are quick to recognize the attraction of low-cost, comfortable accommodations in pretty communities "far from the madding crowd." They have learned that the personal attention and tender loving care extended by hosts can add measurably to any vacation. The rectories, vicarages and manses already are popular among holidaying Britons.
In bygone days, the rural rector and vicar were provided with roomy and elegant houses set in lush and secluded grounds, so today's guests may stay in unusual houses built for large families. Domestic staffs lived in them, too, and there had to be large rooms for visiting bishops. Every home had its individual character.
Members of the Old Rectory Association have banded together to produce free brochures with details on individual establishments, nearby places of interest and costs. A recently formed centralized service simplifies both bookings and brochure information. (Information: Christine Swainson, The Old Rectory, Old Rectory Lane, Alvechurch, Birmingham B48 7SU, England; telephone 021/445-5144, FAX 021/445-6136.)
Ms. Swainson pointed out that an increasing flow of businessmen with their families makes the establishments of particular interest since the bed-and-breakfast facilities generally have large rooms in houses situated on large grounds.
The accommodations range in age from Norman to Edwardian. All are located in picturesque villages, many close to larger metropolitan areas.
The association makes available 14-night package tours with minibus and driver for six or more people. On such tours, costing a minimum of 350 pounds per person, accommodations are reserved in at least six member rectories and vicarages.
Most guests, having made reservations, arrive by "hire car," but a few arrange for pickup by association members at local airports or train stations.
A visitor might choose, for example, the Old Vicarage at Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland, 45 minutes from Newcastle just off A696, the Newcastle-Edinburgh road. This Northumberland landmark was built in 1244; additions were built in 1760. Operated today by artist Tim Wells and his wife, Hilary, the vicarage features a sunny dining room with a stone fireplace.
Walled gardens, sweeping lawns and majestic trees grace the exterior. Rates are low (16 pounds per person is the top price) for twin- or double-bed accommodations and hearty English breakfast. Dinner, by arrangement only, is 7.25 pounds and packed lunches are available. Children (half price) and pets are welcomed.
Reputedly the oldest still inhabited small medieval house in England is the Old Parsonage at West Dean (Seaford, West Sussex), built by monks from Wilmington Priory in 1280. Its external walls are of flint, with green stone dressing; internal walls are symmetrical blocks of chalk supporting huge oak beams. There are two stone spiral staircases. A Victorian extension was added, as were servant's quarters.
This B&B is near Rudyard Kipling's home at Batemans, handy to the Chalk Cliffs of the Seven Sisters and to Beachy Head. Costs are about average for association inns: 29.50 pounds per person with private bathroom. Only breakfast is available, but interesting pubs and restaurants are nearby.
One of the newer is the Old Vicarage at Beaminster, Dorset, dating from 1859-1860. Featured in a Thomas Hardy novel and situated in lovely walking country with Iron Age settlements and Roman hill forts, this picturesque vicarage enjoys a reputation for its family atmosphere.
The Old Rectory at Byford, a rectory from 1830 until 1960, is near the internationally known bookshops at Hay-on-Wye and the cathedral cities of Worcester and Gloucester. Art galleries, castles and old churches are in neighboring Hereford. The Georgian house was built as a rectory on a direct route to Fishguard (terminus of a ferry to Ireland) and anywhere else in Wales.
In the heart of the Scottish border country, nestled between three lochs in the hill country, Magdalene House is in Lochmaben, in the village of Annandale. It was built in the 18th century as the Lochmaben minister's manse. Robert Burns was a frequent visitor and wrote one of his poems there.
The 14th century village was home to Scottish kings (the ruins of Lochmaben Castle can still be seen). Extras at Magdalene House include guided tours and -- if you wish -- transportation in ++ a seven-seater luxury car that belongs to Lady Hillhouse, the proprietor.