Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Best and Worst B+B's and hotels in the UK

This year, I have spent most of my time in bed and breakfasts and hotels across the country, plus a number of Travelodge’s and the like. Some are fairly forgettable, others are memorable for all the wrong reasons. Then there are some places which are heaven on earth (metaphorically speaking). Most places fall somewhere in between but generally I would happily stay in most of the hotels/B+B's I've been to.

This list shouldn't be taken as gospel for a number of reasons, mostly because of the nature of my work I don't really stay in towns and cities very often and it's mostly rural settings where I do my day job. I haven't worked in Scotland or Northern Ireland this year, just England and Wales (and it is balanced, one good and one bad for Wales). I often work in more southern parts of the UK (despite being based in Yorkshire), plus I don't often get to choose where I stay! However, all of these places were affordable at under £100/room/night, sometimes under half that price. I've stayed at each of these places for at least one night often for 3 nights or more (with the exception of one place on this list), and hopefully you'll have an even better (or at least passable) experience than I had at these destinations!

So the top 5 places I've stayed in this year are:

1. Trelough House, Herefordshire. Is this possibly the best thing in Herefordshire (maybe aside from the cathedral)? Everything was brilliant except for trying to find the house (it's tucked away on a parallel side road behind some trees)! There was even a full cookie jar on arrival to my room. A FULL COOKIE JAR. With actual cookies. Very welcoming and conversant host who even allowed us to use their downstairs TV to watch Bake-Off! Ideal for a mini break.

2.  Gable Lodge, Lynton, Devon. A close run thing between this and Twitchen Farm, this is situated just outside the heart of the village, but it doesn't feel like it as all facilities are seconds away! The bedroom was excellent and in spite of the lack of a cookie jar, everything else was there that you need for a great stay.

3. Twitchen Farm, Challacombe, Devon. While it doesn't look far from Lynton, the long winding roads means that it will feel like forever! However once you are here this is a fantastic little working farm, with (naturally) welcoming hosts and a lot of walks and things to do nearby. Don't forget the Black Sheep pub down the road! This only comes third because you really do need a car to get here and its location appeals mainly to those who want an active weekend away.

4. The Bell Inn, Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire. If Carlsberg did pubs... this is probably the best pub, but between Gloucester and Stroud you are spoilt for choice for great pubs, each with their own distinct character. This one I recommend because it's based in a quiet village with the distinction of having the longest green in England and it's not far from the Severn, so if you want to go surfing this place is quite good for staying over then heading our early for the bore! The food and variety of ales is pleasant without being overbearing. Great as a base for the Cotswolds or for business (if you don't mind travelling for about 1/2 hour for Gloucester or Bristol).

5. Brandon House hotel, Brandon, Suffolk. This hotel stands out for being very accessible to both Brandon and Thetford Forest. The dinner is delightful, the breakfast was great and the staff were very helpful. However some of the rooms were at a bit of an angle (nothing serious) and strangely enough no bath towel was provided, although everything else was there, including some very nice shower cream! Ample parking too. Great for business/work trips. 

Special mentions go to:

Waverley Hotel, Workington. Although the rooms are sometimes small and the town itself is not great, the staff are brilliant, bath robes were provided (none of top 5 on this list did that!) and I enjoyed the rooms and the food (both breakfast and dinner). If you ever find yourself in this part of the world (i.e. west of Cockermouth), this is the place to stay on a budget.


 The Hand Hotel, Llangollen, Denbighshire. What a location!!! While the rooms are somewhat cramped and the room extras were a bit limited. The breakfast was memorably delicious, but I remember this place more because of Fouzi's cafe and bar and pizzeria. This is the best Italian restaurant I have ever visited in the UK. Their pizzas are amazing! Afterwards I discovered Castel Dinas Bran by foot and some other brilliant walking routes around this very quaint little town. Come for the food, stay for the scenery and history. Recommended during the summer months.

The pretty little town of Llangollen from one of the many hills surrounding it.

And the bottom 5 (although it's only the bottom 3 that are REALLY bad):

5. Rowe's Farmhouse B+B, Berkshire. Actually not that bad, it had everything you would expect from a B+B. Breakfast was BYO (some frozen toast and conserves for the brave are available free of charge), and there are some nice places to eat nearby. However, I'm fairly sure the host had a vendetta against men (or might even be a misandrist)! They inspected everything when you left for the day, even what you put in the rubbish!! However this could be explained by the health centre being next door. Don't go on a Monday if you are of a nervous disposition because that's when the centre is open. However, they keep the noise down (but parking becomes a premium). I'd recommend it only for a business trip and even then I'd send your cleanest, nicest employees who can withstand the rigours of the half an hour long health and safety talk after work.

4. The Buck Inn, Northallerton, North Yorkshire. OK, hands up, I didn't actually stay here but I nearly did. Didn't look great on the inside, standard pub affair on the outside. But based on this extract of the conversation I had with the bartender, I think I dodged a bullet...maybe would have scored worse if I had stayed?...
Me: “Hi, we've got some rooms booked for X ltd."
Bartender: "Ok, let me check the book... no, I don't have you under here"
Me: "But I booked the rooms for today last Friday! I'm sure I spoke to one of your colleagues over the phone about this"
Bartender:(after consulting with manager)"Right, what's happened is that one of my colleagues put your booking that was meant to be for today in the entry for last week."
Me: “So we don't have any reservations then?"
Bartender: "Yeah. Sorry!  But we can still give you a room"
My colleague: "But we need 2 rooms."
Bartender: "Oh. Well let me check if we have some other rooms free"
[After this my colleague rang the office and discovered our other colleagues had found somewhere much better and we decided to leave as soon as politely possible]. 

What could have been...

3. Heritage Hotel, Narborough, Leicestershire. Simple hotel, according to Google. If by simple you mean basic! The rooms look like the builders had just been round and forgotten to apply the undercoats to the walls. The showers were not good. The TV was perhaps the only plus. The receptionist was not up to scratch if I recall correctly. We decided not to go the Indian restaurant next door in the end (I think it was too expensive for our budget, but it looked quite nice beyond the reception area).

2. Days Inn, Magor, Junction 23A, Monmouthshire. Only gets a stay of execution because it was a) near some pubs and b) at least the bedsheets were clean! Also not as near as you would think to a supermarket or major cities.

1. Days Inn, Watford Gap, Junction 17 of the M1, Northamptonshire. Hands down, this was one of the worst places you could imagine staying, even for one night. I'm not entirely sure the sheets had been changed and there was the smell of the motorway services coming through my window, and I wasn't even facing the motorway!! Very little on offer at the food court downstairs. Don't get me started on the outside lighting or the noise from the motorway! I recommend staying at the Travelodge on the A45 near Dunchurch if you can help it (at least there are pubs nearby and its only 10 miles away!).

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Stanwick Oppidum revisited

The Tofts in the middle of Stanwick Oppidum, previously surveyed and excavated on numerous occaisions.
I spent this morning (5th December 2015) in the company of Professor Colin Haselgrove in Middlesbrough's Dorman museum (a highly recommended museum), thanks to the Teesside Archaeology Society's annual Elgee Memorial Lecture. His lecture, "The rise and Fall of the Royal Centre of Stanwick Oppidum" (the largest Oppidum in Britain), summarised his work over the last 30 years at the site. His talk has shown how far the theories have come in such a short space of time! It also rendered my undergraduate dissertation (from 2012) as null and void, but we'll let that slide...however it was very nice to meet one of the people who volunteered to help with my geophysical survey at the lecture (thank you Geraldine)! So rather than write an essay on what was said at the lecture, I'll summarise some of the key points (without giving away too much, Colin is releasing his book on Stanwick next year).

Stanwick, in North Yorkshire, is an Oppidum which is free to visit. Oppida are Iron Age ramparts that enclosure a large space, which often contain large amounts of settlement archaeology. They are traditionally seen as "proto-towns" as the Romans refer to them as such; the name comes from the Latin meaning "town". In Britain and the continent many have some features that make them seem like a "proto-town" but Stanwick is almost unique in the huge space that seems to be empty and not doing anything! Usually they lasted for about 100 years but not Stanwick. The most pressing question has been to investigate why Stanwick appeared to be abandoned after about 30 years. Was it built to fend off the Romans? Or to impress them? While there is no definite account of abandonment it is probable that the Romans moved into the area at about the time when Stanwick was abandoned. This was based on Mortimer Wheeler's conclusions when he excavated the ramparts and he reckoned that the Oppidum met a violent end and wasn't used afterwards. However, Colin's research and excavations have demonstrated that Stanwick was in use well before the building of the ramparts, probably about 100 years before. But, the structures at Stanwick at this time were unlikely to have been permanent structures because the excavations showed rapid construction and demolition phases. The structures would be rebuilt over a number of years when they were being used. This is being seen in a number of Iron Age sites in Britain, and it is likely to have a religious or ceremonial function. Having said this there are permanent structures but they only arrive with the ramparts. The site was also likely to have been used after the abandonment of the site for its original purpose as a ceremonial space. Stanwick may also be the crossing point between the west-east route for the Pennines and north-south, roughly following the modern A1.

Wheeler also believed that Stanwick was heavily occupied with lots of housing. However, this has been thoroughly proven to not be the case. Even at the height of Stanwick's life there were only a few permanent houses on site. These also seem to coincide with the first trading links with the Romans, perhaps suggesting high status contacts or at least middle men, with artefacts travelling far and wide; some artefacts come from Africa! The evidence for agriculture comes after the abandonment in 70 AD, and is likely to be medieval, although a number of prehistoric field boundaries and houses have been found as crop and soil marks around Stanwick. The space made by the ramparts/earthworks has been shown to have been a largely boggy area, roughly where the Mary Wild Beck is today. There is a lot of evidence for Iron Age groups using water as a sacred space, and there are a limited number of depositional offerings around Stanwick. But, the biggest development in terms of archaeological evidence is the burials. These seem to have been interred in ditches in both the houses and the large ramparts. In particular skulls with weapons are being found in the ramparts. It has been estimated that the ramparts (8 Kilometres/ 5 miles in total!) could contain up to 500 skulls based on current excavation statistics! So could Stanwick be a giant graveyard? Or more likely, the ramparts are on the highest parts of land in the area, so the emphasis is on displaying the importance of the site.

Incidentally it has also been estimated that the ramparts probably took about 3-4 million man hours of moving clay to create the ramparts! This requires a lot of manual labour. So where did they all live? They were likely to be from the local area, and the archaeology so far supports this idea- there are lots of contemporary settlements around Stanwick, leaving Stanwick as a large open space in the middle of several large villages. So if the Oppidum is not a town, is it perhaps a giant park-cum-graveyard and major highways running through it?
Map showing a distribution of archaeological settlement evidence near Stanwick. Note the emphasis near Roman roads(the A1 and A66), which could be an artefact of archaeological investigations near modern roads!

Finally, this also makes archaeologists think about how Stanwick came about in the first place. With so many settlements nearby, we think that there were several origins (bear with me) for Stanwick, in a theory borrowed from human geography called "poly-focal settlements". This is where 2 or more settlements merge to form one cohesive unit. Stanwick in this interpretation could be created out of a collective decision to place emphasis on the site, rather than an individual decision.

And yes, we still think it is the capital of the Brigantes!