It was exactly 5am when the news went live that Trip Advisor had named Andrew and Sue Burrell’s home, Millgate, the best bed-and-breakfast in the world, ahead of almost one million other such lodgings.
After that, everything went crazy.
The first booking came in at 5.08am. Then the phone never stopped ringing.
‘I wanted to call my mum to tell her,’ remembers Sue. ‘But literally every time I put the phone down, it rang again. Eventually we had to unplug it, just so we could cook breakfast.’
Within 24 hours, the couple had received 1,457 email enquiries from across the world. Within four days, they had been booked out for the rest of the year.
When CNN called a week or so later wanting to feature the B&B – a 16th-century cottage in the UK’s Yorkshire Dales – Sue had to turn them down.
‘They said: “We have 240 million viewers”,’ she recalls. ‘I said, “That’s lovely, but we only have three bedrooms.” We didn’t do it.’
In the 12 months that followed, the couple had just seven days off, including weekends.
‘It was mad,’ says Sue. ‘We had people coming from across the world: Americans, Japanese, Europeans, Arabs.’
The details make all the difference: new flowers are placed every few days and cushions are changed regularly.
Yet what made the achievement even more astonishing than just the fact they had topped a list of more than 800,000 lodgings in the Trip Advisor Travellers Choice Awards was that they had done so having only set up three years earlier after being left with extra space in the family home due to their grown-up children moving out.
Sue wakes up at 6am just to do the baking – and freshly baked scones play quite a role in why guests love this cosy cottage.
All of which leaves two main questions: what is the secret to turning your home into the world’s number one B&B? And, perhaps more pertinently, why on earth, a little more than a year after that planet-topping recognition, are they selling up, and moving on to something else entirely?
The day is beautiful in Yorkshire when Friday visits Andrew and Sue’s B&B, and immediately it’s easy to see why the place is so loved.
Outside, it’s all flower boxes and period stone work; inside, it’s a homely, cosy delight of soft colours and warm welcomes: like every guest, we’re treated to a freshly baked scone.
The Grade II listed cottage itself – set bang in the middle of the picturesque market town Masham – dates back to around 1580 and was, among other things, a poorhouse, fire station, jail and munitions store before it was finally turned into a family home in the Victorian period.
Today, many original features remain, including a 16th-century fireplace and 17th-century annex (‘American tourists love the history,’ notes Sue, ‘the wooden [ceiling] beams make their day’). But all the home comforts of 2016 are present and correct: Wi-Fi, flat screens and eiderdown pillows come as standard. So impressed was one national newspaper, it declared the place ‘faultless’ in a review.
‘If you really want to test your accommodation, really sort the wheat from the chaff, open the wardrobe, stick your head in and sniff,’ the piece continued. ‘In most places, what you get is a blast of old chewing gum. Here, the wardrobe zings pleasantly of lavender.’
Among the features that guests particularly comment on are the fresh milk delivered daily to rooms, a well-stocked book shelf in the lounge, powerful showers in the en suites, and the location just by the town’s stunning square.
‘The only problem,’ wrote one customer on Trip Advisor, ‘was that we were only staying one night.’
Such feedback is exactly what the Burrells were aiming for when they first opened.
That was back in 2012. Before then, Andrew, 63, had run his own business selling country clothing while Sue, 60, had dabbled at everything from business consultant to mental health nurse, childminder to firefighter.
They bought Millgate in 2011 as a family home. But shortly after moving in, the couple’s grown-up children, Deborah, 38, and Josh, 30, moved out.
‘We were left rattling about in this giant property all by ourselves,’ says Sue. ‘We were thinking what we could do with it and, long ago, between 1991 and 1996, we had actually run an award-winning pub together in North Yorkshire. So it just sort of seemed natural to have a go at running a B&B.’
They initially started with just one guest room, but increased to two in 2014 and, finally, to three.
Before that, though, they decided that if they were going to run such a lodging, they’d do it right. This wasn’t about making a quick buck. It was about turning a passion for hospitality into something real.
Their mantra – and almost certainly the secret to their success – is that since this is a bed and breakfast, they would do both those things absolutely to the best of their ability.
As such, the morning meal includes only fresh and locally sourced ingredients. Fruit and veg are bought from the nearby greengrocers, while the meat supplier was picked after a blind tasting session with local children – ‘because kids have a more acute sense of taste,’ says Sue.
Bread is baked fresh every morning. The type depends on the nationality of the guest. ‘When we had an Emirati here I found out that flatbread was popular in the Middle East, and I made that,’ says Sue, who gets up at 6am to do the baking herself. Andrew, meanwhile, spends some afternoons fishing. The trout he catches are put on the menu next day. ‘You wouldn’t get that at a chain,’ he notes reasonably enough.
The bed is the second part of that dedication to being the best.
Each double is a vintage framework complemented by a specially sourced mattress. Linen is laundered daily, while curtains and cushions are changed regularly to keep rooms feeling fresh.
‘Andrew gets annoyed,’ says Sue, ‘because I’ll go to town and arrive home with more cushions. But soft furnishings, they’re an investment, aren’t they?’
Before they opened each room to guests they spent a couple of nights sleeping in them too. ‘That’s the only way you can get a feel for if they work,’ explains Sue. ‘With so many places we’ve stayed in, there are minor issues that make them that little bit uncomfortable – there’s no plug near the tea stand or the dressing table doesn’t have the right light – and we wanted to iron all those out by experiencing what the guest would experience for ourselves.’
The market town of Masham forms the perfect picturesque setting for this historic, homely guest house.
There are also new flowers in each room every couple of days; maps of the local area and menus for nearby restaurants are available; and, perhaps most significantly, the couple make a pact every day that each welcome they give will be Benedictine.
What does that mean, I ask. It goes back to the sixth century, it seems.
‘The Rule of Saint Benedict was written for monks living in monasteries,’ says Sue. ‘Hospitality was considered a huge thing, and the Benedictines had a philosophy that anyone who knocked on their door should be treated like a hero, like a person of great importance, and given the welcome such a person deserved. What we do is try and live by that philosophy.’
So when a guest arrives, the couple ensure one of them is always ready with refreshments and a smile. ‘This is the guest’s home for however long they’re staying here and that’s how they should be immediately made to feel,’ says Andrew.
It’s not always easy to remain so indulgent with every visitor, of course. There are no tales of rock ’n’ roll excess or guests throwing TVs out of windows at Millgate – Masham just isn’t that sort of place – but, over the years, The Burrells have had the occasional unpleasant surprise.
‘We’ve had people who flooded their en suites’ shudders Sue. ‘One couple – I’ve no idea why – ripped the plaster from the wall; and you get the occasional person smoking when it’s quite clearly no-smoking.’
She thinks about it all for a moment. ‘But we’re very lucky,’ she concludes. ‘The vast, vast majority of our guests are absolutely lovely.’
And as that Trip Advisor recognition proved, the feeling is quite clearly mutual.
So, why give it all up?
Four years after starting and 18 months after being named the world’s best (the title has now been passed on to a place called Casa Portagioia in Fiorentino, in Italy), and with a year’s worth of guests booked in, the Burrells are now preparing to sell Millgate, home and business.
‘Running a good B&B is a 24-hour job,’ says Sue. ‘It’s such hard work, and we’re both getting towards retirement age. We don’t want to do this unless we can devote our full energy to it, or have it slowly go downhill because we start to lose our passion for it. We’ve enjoyed doing it but once we find a buyer, it will be the right time to move on.
‘I get so many people now ringing me up for advice so I thought it would be a nice idea to become a consultant, give other people the benefit of our experience.’
Along with that new business, they plan to divide their time between a new home in Ireland and a narrow boat in Yorkshire, allowing them to be close to family and help care for Andrew’s elderly father.
‘But I am still a little jealous of whoever buys us out,’ admits Sue. ‘It’s a wonderful business and a wonderful home. I’ve loved every minute of being here.’