A couple of years ago, P and I went to a wedding on the North York Moors. We stayed in a rather faded (but decently-reviewed on Tripadvisor) hotel near the prom in Scarborough, and aside from a wobbly start when we arrived and discovered that the room had been cleaned but not the bathroom (eugh!) we had a perfectly pleasant stay for a couple of nights.
We barely spent any time there, just dashing in to shower and change outfits in between the social engagements which cluster around a wedding for old friends. But we made a point of having a decent breakfast both mornings, because you never know when you’re going to be fed at someone else’s nuptials, do you?
On the first morning, we showed up at the high-ceilinged breakfast room at eight, and were shown to a table in the window. Unsurprisingly for a hotel at the seaside on the first weekend in August, there were plenty of guests in residence, most of whom were already seated, in even-numbered clumps at tables adorned with white cloths and posies of plastic flowers in unnatural colours.
As we perused the menu, a man with a slightly Fawlty-esque moustache walked in carrying a pot of coffee. He approached the table to the left of us, which held two slightly rotund and red-faced couples wearing floral blouses (shes) and pastel polo shirts (hes).
“Right then, who’s for coffee?” the man with the pot bellowed
“Me please,” said one of the men.
“And me, Frank,” said his floral other half.
“Tea for me, thanks,” said the other man.
“Oh aye, I might’ve known there’d be trouble,” said the proprietor, “there’s always one awkward one.”
“If it’s not too much bother, Frank…” said the man who’d asked for tea,
“Bother? Oh no. It’s no bother to go all the way back to the kitchen for the other pot. Not with my bad knee; don’t you worry about it, Geoff. I’ll be right.”
“Well, while you’re there, how about some more toast?” asked the second floral woman.
“Easy there Margaret,” said Frank, “you’ll never fit into your bikini down at the beach if you keep eating at this rate!”
The table guffawed, as Margaret patted her stomach in a contented way. Frank, the coffee wielding owner, limped off in an exaggerated way, to retrieve a teapot from the distant kitchen.
P and I nervously perused the breakfast menu and wondered if we were brave enough to ask for a hot beverage if asked.
It was a warm day; we settled for orange juice from the buffet, somewhat relieved.
Last year, we visited Wensleydale for a few days and stayed a couple of nights in a converted barn B&B in the western dale. It was a lovely place and the owners were considerate and gracious hosts during our stay.
On the first night we were there, we were the only guests, and breakfast the next morning was calm and quiet. On the second night of our visit, two other couples were in residence, and the breakfast that followed was somewhat different.
“Hello there,” said the owner to the one of the other couples at their table, as he brought them toast, “sorry to miss you last night when you got here. Did you have a good meal? Find somewhere good? Marvellous.”
He turned to us and topped up the coffee in our cups, “more toast for you, too? Righty-ho.”
He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a toastrack, his wife behind him bearing warm croissants and pastries.
Just at that moment, the other couple entered the breakfast room.
“Oh no,” said Mrs Owner, “Not these two again.”
Mr Owner joined in “Can’t get rid of you, can we?”
As they took their seats, smiling, he turned to our table and said in a loud stage whisper, “We keep telling them we’ve moved in the hope that they’ll get the hint, but they keep coming back, the daft twats.”
This weekend, I had the good fortune to spend a night in a small village not far from Harrogate. When I arrived, the B&B hostess opened the door, looked me up and down, sniffed slightly and ushered me in. I went upstairs to the room she led me to, and she reeled off a list of rules and details which I didn’t really need to know given that I was only going to be there for less than twelve hours.
Aside from when I popped downstairs to return my what-I-want-for-breakfast form (really) and ask for the WiFi password (a request which, despite the generous gushings about its free and ample provision in the bound guest information folder upstairs, the proprietress greeted with the sort of face that implied I’d just asked if I could please poo on the bedspread) that was the limit of my conversation with her for the extend of my stay.
The next morning at breakfast, her husband brought me tea and toast monosyllabically as I sat alone in silence at a giant table set for three in the cavernous, beamed dining hall.
I sipped my tea and munched on toast and thought about the day I had ahead and the bossy little comic sans signs which peppered my guest bedroom urging me not to spill red wine on the bedspread (I don’t have any), not to smoke out of the window (I don’t), allow my children to make noise after 10pm (see my first point, above) or move the television from its position (move the table instead).
A couple of minutes later, the other guests came down the sweeping staircase and took their seats.
Mrs Owner came out of the kitchen as she heard their chairs scraping across the tiled floor.
“Oh good morning!” she gushed to the new arrivals, “how did you sleep?”
She fussed over to the welsh dresser and pressed play on a CD player, so a little light chamber music drifted out over the table.
“Now, for breakfast this morning we’ve got porridge if you like, and did you want a cooked breakfast? Don’t worry if you didn’t put it on the form last night. What’ll it be? Full Yorkshire? Or I could rustle you up some poached eggs if you’d prefer?”
I silently chewed my toast, and wondered what I had done wrong, to be treated with such disdain.
And on the train home, I realised that there’s a sort of universal northern theory of interpersonal relationships, which dictate the level of civility you can expect in line with the closeness of your relationship to someone.
It looks something like this:
If someone doesn’t know you or like you, you can expect them to be brusque (at best) and openly hostile (at worst). Once you become more familiar, this mellows into a studied indifference, and as soon as they get to know you and/or like you a bit, this turns into the genial chit-chat that you might expect to be the normal point of entry for social relationships.
And then, as your relationship deepens, there’s an uncomfortable bit of indifference again before it becomes open season on personal insults and the camaraderie of mutual abuse which indicates that you’re really good friends, in fact.
I’m sure this is true in various other bits of the country, but nowhere have I experienced it more than in Yorkshire and the environs, and specifically in B&Bs and hotels.
I suppose that the special relationships which come about from regular visits to a particular establishment must lead to a particular kind of bond, based on teasing, affront and mockery. But it’s bloody perplexing to figure out where you sit in the continuum and how to navigate its perilous course.