19 May 1995

KEEP EM HAPPY

GLAD TO

Joan Gray enjoys her work, and it shows in the lovely home she has created, in her thriving bed and breakfast enterprise and the several tourism awards she has scooped. Ann Rogers reports

JOAN Gray takes pleasure in ensuring that other people enjoy their holidays, and her busy summer of 94, doing just that, brought her pleasure of the kind that comes with honours and feting.

Joan, of Middle Ord Manor House, Berwick-upon-Tweed, won the Pride of Northumbria award for her bed and breakfast enterprise for the second year running, and the grand award ceremony involved top chefs and Clement Freud. She was also one of two runners up in the b&b class of the England for Excellence awards (Farm-life, Mar 10).

These celebrations involved a trip to London in December with her husband, Geoffrey, to take tea at the House of Commons and meet, among others, fellow finalists in b&b and other categories. In January they headed to London again for the awards luncheon and an "English garden fete".

The grand ballroom at the Hilton on Park Lane had been draped marquee-style and setting and entertainments gave the occasion the feel of a country fete in high summer. Lucinda Lambton was the celebrity guest, suspense for the finalists was intense and, though they did not take top honours, the Grays had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

Now they are caught up in another busy b&b summer with plenty of bookings for the three double rooms they let. Two are en suite, the third is opposite a bathroom which no one else is likely to use. Joan has decided to leave this third room as it is because some clients prefer a slightly cheaper price to private facilities.

There is a gracious drawing room on the first floor at guests disposal – those who dont smoke, that is. Smokers can use the attractive ground floor lounge. Its lovely old fireplace flanked by built-in, glass-fronted display cabinets is a reminder of the houses Georgian origins. It dates from 1783.

Now it is a house of flowers – fresh, silk, dried or pot-pourried – with lovely drapes and a smiling, friendly hostess, who is very appreciative of the support given her by her husband. Geoffrey and their son Simon run the 223ha (550-acre) farm, which carries 350 ewes, 70 fattening cattle and 162ha (400 acres) of arable crops.

Many of their b&b guests are farmers, too. These include those considering buying property in the area eager to talk to Geoffrey about local conditions, and farmers from overseas also keen to talk shop.

Joan has been in the b&b business for 14 years now. She began taking visitors when their two children left home.

Taking guests filled up the family home again and helped with its upkeep. It takes care of any slack time Joan might have had, too, but it doesnt stop her off-farm activities such as supporting the Red Cross and being a keen member of the Northumberland branch of the Farm Womens Club. It was on the recommendation of a fellow FWC member that she joined the North Northumbria Group of the Farm Holiday Bureau a couple of years ago.

Despite years of experience in the b&b business, Joan says she has still picked up tips from FHB group members – the name of a good printer for one – and she enjoys the mutual support of members, whom she describes as "people who are competitors but not competing".

She thoroughly approves of the tourist board grading that the FHB now requires its members to have, though she had her doubts at first. "Job satisfaction" is the reason Joan gives for her determination to get the de-luxe label on her accommodation, though she was a little unsure of the investment needed for such things as en suite bathrooms.

But hers was the first establishment in the area to get the de-luxe grading and she is delighted to have it, not simply for prides sake but because it encourages people to make long-term bookings in advance rather than try out accommodation and then ask to stay longer.

She has picked up useful tips from the inspectors, too. This year she hopes to reduce her laundry work a little by asking guests to leave their towels on the floor if they want them washed rather than replacing all towels every day for guests who stay more than one night. Not all guests use the bath-robes she hangs in the wardrobes, so these are often washed unnecessarily. The inspector advised her to hang clean robes with sleeves folded and belts tied in a way unique to herself so that she could see whether they had been used.

Bathrobes are just one item on a long list of extras she puts in the rooms, which includes hair-drier, fruit, biscuits, mineral water, an attractively set teatray with kettle and a range of drinks to prepare, TV and TV guide, magazines, writing paper and toiletries.

Joan is happy to chat with visitors, teach them a bit about farming and draw their attention to the attractions of the area but she is aware that not all visitors would appreciate this. Some prefer to keep their quiet distance from the farm family. Judging which of these categories guests fall into is part of the art of the farm holiday proprietor.

Evening meals are not offered at Middle Ord Manor House. There are plenty of places in the area where these can be purchased. But the substantial breakfasts that Joan serves her guests – with local Craster kippers and Rington tea included on the menu – set them up well, whether business or pleasure be the order of the day.

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