STAYING IN THE VICAR'S HOUSE SOMETHING SPECIAL IN VACATIONS Former British rectories are bed-and-breakfasts


Leave it to the British to come up with a new twist to lure overseas visitors.

About two dozen former country rectories and vicarages in England and Scotland offer bed-and-breakfast accommodations. A few offer dinner, some by candlelight. Expansion plans call for additional operators in Wales.

Overseas guests are quick to recognize the attraction of low-cost, comfortable accommodations in pretty communities "far from the madding crowd." They have learned that the personal attention and tender loving care extended by hosts can add measurably to any vacation. The rectories, vicarages and manses already are popular among holidaying Britons.

In bygone days, the rural rector and vicar were provided with roomy and elegant houses set in lush and secluded grounds, so today's guests may stay in unusual houses built for large families. Domestic staffs lived in them, too, and there had to be large rooms for visiting bishops. Every home had its individual character.

Members of the Old Rectory Association have banded together to produce free brochures with details on individual establishments, nearby places of interest and costs. A recently formed centralized service simplifies both bookings and brochure information. (Information: Christine Swainson, The Old Rectory, Old Rectory Lane, Alvechurch, Birmingham B48 7SU, England; telephone 021/445-5144, FAX 021/445-6136.)

Ms. Swainson pointed out that an increasing flow of businessmen with their families makes the establishments of particular interest since the bed-and-breakfast facilities generally have large rooms in houses situated on large grounds.

The accommodations range in age from Norman to Edwardian. All are located in picturesque villages, many close to larger metropolitan areas.

The association makes available 14-night package tours with minibus and driver for six or more people. On such tours, costing a minimum of 350 pounds per person, accommodations are reserved in at least six member rectories and vicarages.

Most guests, having made reservations, arrive by "hire car," but a few arrange for pickup by association members at local airports or train stations.

A visitor might choose, for example, the Old Vicarage at Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland, 45 minutes from Newcastle just off A696, the Newcastle-Edinburgh road. This Northumberland landmark was built in 1244; additions were built in 1760. Operated today by artist Tim Wells and his wife, Hilary, the vicarage features a sunny dining room with a stone fireplace.

Walled gardens, sweeping lawns and majestic trees grace the exterior. Rates are low (16 pounds per person is the top price) for twin- or double-bed accommodations and hearty English breakfast. Dinner, by arrangement only, is 7.25 pounds and packed lunches are available. Children (half price) and pets are welcomed.

Reputedly the oldest still inhabited small medieval house in England is the Old Parsonage at West Dean (Seaford, West Sussex), built by monks from Wilmington Priory in 1280. Its external walls are of flint, with green stone dressing; internal walls are symmetrical blocks of chalk supporting huge oak beams. There are two stone spiral staircases. A Victorian extension was added, as were servant's quarters.

This B&B; is near Rudyard Kipling's home at Batemans, handy to the Chalk Cliffs of the Seven Sisters and to Beachy Head. Costs are about average for association inns: 29.50 pounds per person with private bathroom. Only breakfast is available, but interesting pubs and restaurants are nearby.

One of the newer is the Old Vicarage at Beaminster, Dorset, dating from 1859-1860. Featured in a Thomas Hardy novel and situated in lovely walking country with Iron Age settlements and Roman hill forts, this picturesque vicarage enjoys a reputation for its family atmosphere.

The Old Rectory at Byford, a rectory from 1830 until 1960, is near the internationally known bookshops at Hay-on-Wye and the cathedral cities of Worcester and Gloucester. Art galleries, castles and old churches are in neighboring Hereford. The Georgian house was built as a rectory on a direct route to Fishguard (terminus of a ferry to Ireland) and anywhere else in Wales.

In the heart of the Scottish border country, nestled between three lochs in the hill country, Magdalene House is in Lochmaben, in the village of Annandale. It was built in the 18th century as the Lochmaben minister's manse. Robert Burns was a frequent visitor and wrote one of his poems there.

The 14th century village was home to Scottish kings (the ruins of Lochmaben Castle can still be seen). Extras at Magdalene House include guided tours and -- if you wish -- transportation in ++ a seven-seater luxury car that belongs to Lady Hillhouse, the proprietor.

The Old Rectory at Campsea Ashe, Suffolk, is a 17th century home on four acres of quiet gardens. Close to Orford's castle, the music of Snape, Framingham's castle and Long Melford, this is a highly popular area where many Londoners in finance and law live year-round with their families, commuting to the City via BritRail. It's also a popular holiday spot for affluent Londoners.

Gissing, near Diss in Norfolk, has an Old Rectory that is an 1874 Victorian house. Nearby is the Fox and Goose, last of the British church-owned pubs. Gliding, trout-fishing excursions and private aquarobic-aerobic classes can be arranged during your stay, with per-person rates starting at 20 pounds.

Consider the Old Rectory at Martinhoe, near the southwestern tip of England's coast. This Devonshire house is early 18th century, with later additions, standing in three acres of gardens with lakes, streams, a putting course, a maze and Exmoor National Park all at hand in Lorna Doone country.

"Most of our guests require dinner, room and breakfast," said proprietor A. R. Pring, whose tariff begins at 36 pounds per person, determined by length of stay. All food is home-cooked, from soups and starters to puddings and cheesecakes.

The Old Vicarage at Morwenstow, Cornwall, has chimneys that are TV stars -- they've been featured on British "telly." Wine and predinner drinks are included in rates that start at 19 pounds, plus dinner charges. The vicarage is located near the western Cornish coast, an area of great natural beauty featuring cliff scenery and an abundance of flora and fauna.

On Cornwall's east coast, at St. Keyne, Liskeard, is the early-1800s Old Rectory Country House Hotel, hidden in a secluded three acres minutes from Plymouth (which is in Devon). The highly popular and picturesque holiday villages of Looe and Polperro are minutes away, as are safe bathing beaches and the Heritage Coast walking paths of north and east Cornwall.

A cheery log fire in a black marble fireplace is featured on cool evenings. Paneled doors and a handsome staircase with barley-twist balusters and velvet sofas bring a touch of elegance, and the price is right: 20 pounds and up per person, with special weekly rates, for B&B.; Home-cooked dinners are available.

One of the newest buildings among association members is the 1882 Old Vicarage at St. Weonards, Herefordshire, catering to non-smokers and especially convenient for motorists heading for Wales, which is minutes away. Twelve miles from Hereford, this Old Vicarage is near the market towns of Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth, this latter a particularly fascinating place.

Fabulous Tintern Abbey and the Black Mountains are handy. A day trip easily could include Laugharne (Dylan Thomas' home and museum, open to visitors) and Fishguard (where his "Under Milk Wood" was filmed). The Old Vicarage at St. Weonards is a B&B; only, the price per person 16 pounds (no other meals are served).

In North Yorkshire, Thormanby's Old Rectory offers self-contained cottages as well as spacious rooms in the Georgian rectory-farmhouse, built in 1737. Located between Easingwold (a Georgian market square) and Thirsk (James Herriott's Darrowby), Thormanby is 17 miles from York, where castles, the National Railway Museum and stately homes abound.

Rates there start at 30 pounds. Several eating establishments are nearby; only breakfast is served at the rectory.

The Old Rectory at Torver, Cumbria, was built in 1868 for a well-known rector and writer of his time, the Rev. Thomas Ellwood, M.A. It is in the Lake District, one of Britain's most favored holiday areas.

Nearby are Coniston Water, Ruskin's home at Brantwood, Hawkeshead and the home of Beatrix Potter, Wordsworth's birthplace and museum, and the majestic peaks of Coniston Old Man and Dow Crag. Tariffs start at 26.50 pounds for B&B.;

Whitherslack is near Grang-over-Sands, Cumbria, just south of Bowness near Windermere and Morecambe Bay. Two families -- escapees from the big-city rat race -- operate the Old Vicarage Country House Hotel, off the beaten track in the extreme south of the Lakes District National Park. The house is filled with antiques. Guest bedrooms have been recognized by several tourist guides and the dinners by candlelight are recommended by Michelin, Egon Ronay and others.

B&B; charges start at 35 pounds. Dinner is a five-course affair, priced at 35 pounds.

If you're on the trail of the Pilgrim Fathers, as many Americans are, the Old Vicarage at Wrangle is for you. With two double rooms starting at 22.50 pounds per person, this substantial Queen Anne house (from 1707) is of mellowed bricks handmade in local brick pits. Wrangle is near Boston, a Lincolnshire city whose St. Bartolph's Cathedral is known as "the Stump" because of its octagonal tower. Like Boston, many neighboring towns bear names brought by the Pilgrims to the New World, such as Rutland, Grantham, Yarmouth and Norwich. About 110 miles due north of London, Wrangle is not far from Lincoln and its beautiful cathedral.

The Old Rectory in Alvechurch, a suburb of Birmingham, is run by Ms. Swainson and Peter Cottrell, who are the directors of the Old Rectory Association. The house dates from the 15th century and is located in a rural oasis down a narrow, winding country lane. Legend has it that Cromwell slept in its chapel in 1651. Rooms overlook nine acres of gardens and woodlands. Such amenities as all-weather tennis courts and a heated swimming pool make this an unusual B&B.; Rates start at 30 pounds per person for en suite facilities, 27.50 pounds without.

Dinners are offered at 13.50 pounds. Snacks and packed picnic lunches are available. The place is convenient for businessmen visiting Birmingham who are traveling with or without family. It's not far from Stratford-on-Avon, Warwick and Worcester.

There are other B&B; rectories, vicarages and manses on the membership lists at the Old Rectories Association, and new ones are added regularly. Obviously, features vary, but they may include horseback riding, croquet, badminton, golf and lighted tennis courts. Most have nearby pubs and cricket matches.

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