It is unlikely that you will have got this far into the website without realising that we have won a very important national tourism award as the best place to stay in England and are now up for another one on top of an already impressive array of other gongs which are now hanging from every limb.
Augill Castle is now officially the Enjoy England Awards for Excellence Bed & Breakfast/Guest Accommodation of the Year 2009. It’s a bit of a mouthful and even more of a misnomer. We are clearly so much more than a bed & breakfast but there is nothing else in the English language to succinctly describe what we do. The French have chamber d’hotes which is closer to the mark. But Wendy wouldn’t hear of us mixing English and French. ‘Very gauche,’ she says. Hmm.
So, it is that we are England’s best B&B (with bells, whistles and knobs on). Reg, to whom you were introduced last month, is one of the first to congratulate us on our return home clutching what has to be one of the ugliest award trophies ever designed. ‘Ah sar thee an Border crack an deekaboot.’ I know that he is congratulating me because he is shaking my hand and grinning, two things Reg does not exert energy doing without good reason. I have no more idea that I ever had what he is talking about, wondering if the Border Crack is a reference to some symbolic geographical line between Scotland and England akin to that drawn by southerners just beyond Watford Gap to keep the northerners at bay. Anyway, for now, I take the congrats and smile appreciatively making a mental note to make enquiries about whether there is indeed a large chasm the other side of Hadrian's Wall.
Awards are of course a great pat on the back and I defy anyone not to be seduced by them, particularly if they are yours. A regular guest who happened to be up for a tourism award alongside us last year didn’t attend the ceremony. She stayed with us a few weeks later and said she’d spent so many nights at awards she couldn’t face it. Can success really become that tedious? I hope not.
Whilst not yet jaded by the whole self congratulatory jamboree of award giving and receiving, we are, nevertheless not strangers to national awards ceremonies.
It’s 2002 and we have been running the castle as a B&B for four years. We have recently joined an illustrious marketing brand and have been invited down to London for the annual awards ceremony.
We are both pretty lousy at networking so as soon as we arrive in the Four Seasons Hotel on Park Lane we grab drinks and hide behind a large arrangement of exotic foliage. From here we can see all the goings on through a gap in the leaves, through which Wendy is also able to extend an arm to grab champagne glasses at regular intervals from passing waiters with such lightning speed and dexterity they hardly notice us. She’s like a venus fly trap in a posh frock. But they do notice and after a while adjust their route around the room to include us, we’re obviously looking in need of further refreshment.
Eventually, after what seems hours, we are called to dinner. Wendy’s dexterity didn’t extend to replacing the empties back on the passing trays and we’re genuinely taken aback to notice at least a dozen glasses scattered around the base of the plant display. ‘Shmall glasshes’ whispers Wendy who is leading us into the dining room. This is a mistake as she has no idea where she is going as she was unable to focus on the table plan by the door. Having successfully hidden ourselves throughout the drinks reception, we’re now stuck in the middle of the room surrounded by two hundred odd people all taking their seats. It’s like an Alice in Wonderland version of musical chairs because all the chairs, the people and, for that matter, the room itself, won’t stay still. Eventually, we are the only couple left standing (just) and it’s only because the occupants of a table right at the front near the stage are gesturing so wildly to us that we conclude we must be with them.
We find ourselves seated between a journalist from the BBC and Ruth Watson, later to become television’s The Hotel Inspector, but for now grasping at the first rung of the ladder of fame having just published a cookery book. Ruth and her husband David are delightful company and we share more than a decent portion of cynicism together as the meal wears on. The journalist proves to be positively repulsive.
Unfortunately, Wendy, fuelled by an ever flowing supply of red wine, tells him that the BBC is a broken and irrelevant organisation and that most of its employees wouldn’t last five minutes in the real world. While he is still reeling (deservedly) she turns her attentions to a chap opposite whom she discovers is the chief executive of the whole organisation of whom we are guests.
This is the point at which we should realise that we are here as more than just award nominees. But we don’t. Wendy takes it upon herself to tell our host that she doesn’t much like the design of his guidebook and that our entry is peppered with typos. She goes on to say she is less than impressed that it is far too big to fit in her handbag. Surprisingly, he takes this all with very good grace, agrees that there have been some design problems with what is, after all, the first re-launched edition and by the end of dessert has successfully steered Wendy off the subject and into conversation about what she’s been doing in London all day. This proves to be a grave error on his part. In a single movement Wendy pushes back her chair swings out her leg and plants her foot in his lap, exclaiming, ‘Shoes! Look at my fabulous shoes, a girl can’t come to London without buying shoes’, and the whole table has little option but to admire Wendy’s new red snakeskin stilhettoes. I can hardly bear it. I can’t blame Wendy. The waiters haven’t left us alone and their eagerness to refill our wine glasses every time we drain them borders on harassment. I have partaken of my fair share but have also managed to keep my shoes firmly on the ground which is just as well as the room is starting to spin in a very unpleasant manner.
Salvation comes swiftly in the form of the compere for the ceremony, one of those annoyingly familiar minor celebrities who recognises himself much better than the rest of us do. Thankfully, as the room settles down to attend to the business of the evening (although the spinning doesn’t come to a complete stop for some time), the waiters stop bringing more wine and Wendy has started gulping down water as nerves take over. ‘I think we might be up for a prize’, she whispers.
‘You think? What category?’ I ask, barely disguising my irritation because I am horribly intolerant of anyone more drunk than me.
‘Lush of the year for me and stuffed shirt of the year for you,’ and we both fall about failing miserably to stifle the giggles. Ruth Watson tells us we should be quiet, although I think she is secretly enjoying our irreverence and is clearly delighted that we are annoying the repulsive journalist who is puce with rage.
There are regional and national awards in each category and we end up walking, well barely staggering actually, away with both for, you’ve guessed it, B&B of the year. Thankfully there is no acceptance speech required.
Seven years on, in York, we have brought along a posse of staff to share in our hoped for success plus a couple of very good friends who started out as guests at our very first Christmas and have seen the whole thing evolve with us.
To get as far as the national finals is an achievement in itself, having had to have won a local and regional award and then to have been shortlisted as a finalist. And we’ve been mystery shopped for all of them. I give the staff a pep talk along these lines telling them how proud we all should be and whatever the result we are already winners. I don’t believe a word of it, of course, and neither do they.
I’m sorry to say that Wendy has again been out buying shoes and is again very proud of them. Half way through dinner I turn to tell her something and she’s disappeared. She has spotted Neil Morrisey on a neighbouring table. Surely she doesn’t think he’s going to be interested in her shoes. Luckily she decides to keep her feet on the ground but her current mission is only marginally less embarrassing: she’s collecting an autograph for 'her friend' who happens to be called Wendy and is married to another Simon.
Eventually, after what seems like hours of eating and drinking (oh the hardship of it all), the awards begin. Our category is near the end which helps to build the tension and it gets too much for Wendy who decides to order several bottles of champagne. ‘If we win we’ll share it, if we don’t we’ll just get plastered.’ She’s ever practical.
Well, of course we do win, don’t share the champers and do get plastered. The award itself, which can be best likened to a large Babybel cheese now has pride of place in the hall at the castle. I suspect that eventually, just as a previous award trophy found a new lease of life as an olive dish, the Enjoy England award will one day make a superb doorstop but not until we have stopped basking in its glory which won’t be for some considerable time yet.
* I discovered that Border Crack is the local colloquialism for the region's ITV Border News and Deekaboot, or Deekabout, is what they call the TV news magazine programme Lookaround. Personally I rather liked the image of a gaping Border crack between here and Scotland.