Great Britain has perfected many things: tea, beer, royalty – and for the weary and frugal traveler, lodging with personality. Now, this is not the point where I reel off the list of multi-starred hotels I’ve enjoyed- such a list would be embarrassingly short. Rather, I mean the guest house, the bed and breakfast, the attic converted to a bedroom, the rooms closeted off or narrow hallway above the boisterous pub on the first floor…
Lodging options in the historic town of Wells
Of course, with a history of entertaining tourists, the British people excel at providing quirky accommodations at affordable prices, and often, the building themselves provide a sight for the senses (at times, the architecture outperforms the regalia of the full English breakfast).
“Guest houses” in London
My trip to Stowe, which is tucked away in Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, revolved around its reputation as one of the magnificent landscape gardens in Britain.
Dating from the late-18th century, Stowe’s “gardens” might mislead some American visitors. There are no elaborate perennial beds or rapturous pairings of bright annuals here.
Stowe instead provides a sense of how the English (the rich ones that is) manipulated their experience of the landscape through choreographed stands of trees, expanses of grass, water features and garden buildings.
I arrived prepared to wander about and appreciate the work of William Kent and Capability Brown but instead my fancy was first distracted by the restored New Inn.
The façade of the New Inn
The Temple family owned Stowe, and when they opened their garden to visitors in 1730, they built an inn to lodge those visitors (how else can you show off how fashionable you are in gardening circles?).
Of course, the really respectable and fancy folk were invited to stay in the main house. Sadly, Stowe House was closed for a wedding the day I was there, and I wasn’t able to go inside, but it is a magnificent building.
The house dates from 1677-1683
The New Inn was quite possibly England’s first tourist hotel. Conveniently located at a major crossroads – rather like being at the junction of two interstate highways – the Inn was well-suited to entertain and house travelers even without the enticements of the gardens.
The two-story brick building has a central carriage opening – almost like having the garage in the middle of your hotel today. The first floor houses public rooms including the tap room.
Restored tap room at the New Inn
In addition to housing the well-to-do who could travel to gawk at gardens, the New Inn was the local pub for the workers at Stowe and nearby residents.
The layout of the inn, around a central courtyard, was a common practice in rural England. Numerous buildings either clustered around the inn or were attached to it, including barns, a dairy, and a small brewery.
A view of the New Inn by Jean-Claude Nattes, 1809, in Buckinghamshire County Museum, photo courtesy of the National Trust