If you stay at a bed and breakfast (or guest house, inn, or hotel) in Britain, the first question your hosts will likely ask in the morning is: “Will it be the Full English?” Full English? What could that even mean?!
What it means is history, tradition, and…lots of protein.
As far back as the 14th century and into the pre-war 20th century, if you were landed gentry with the usual baronial “country house”, you were expected to provide your weekend guests with a sumptuous breakfast—especially if there was a fox hunt to follow. This might include a groaning sideboard laden with sliced cold roast beef, lamb, ham, tongue, cheeses, squab, pheasant, fish, kippered (smoked) herring, and more. And, of course, tea (there is no mention of vegetables).
Then came the Industrial Revolution, and to keep one going through those long factory hours, the “full English Breakfast” evolved. Unlike that precious (and miserly) “Continental breakfast” (bread, butter, maybe a dry pastry, jam, coffee) the full English remains a hearty mainstay—to such an extent that there are cafes across the land that offer it all day.
The “full English” is, simply put, a protein bomb. You may begin with juice and a choice of cereals, but the main event is the hot breakfast: invariably two fried eggs, fried sausage, back bacon, fried halved tomato and cubed mushrooms, fried bread and, in rare cases, a slice of fried black pudding (don’t ask). Also toast, marmalade, and tea. For obvious reasons, this is known as “a proper fry up.” Somewhere along the way, baked beans appeared. I’m not sure why, but they may have been a cheap source of protein during WWII. The beans persist today. And the brand is always Heinz. Nothing else will do, apparently. Tradition, you see.
If you’re a vegetarian, I can understand that this might not appeal. But let me tell you, it is sustaining. Some years ago, I put a pack on my back and walked roughly 1,400 miles through much of southern England. It took three and a half wonderful months. When I wasn’t camping in some farmer’s field, I stayed at B&Bs (one does need a shower and shave occasionally). And I had, always, the “full English.” I might stop at a pub at midday for a pint or two and a bag of salted crisps (potato chips), but that protein bomb kept me fueled all day.
In the evening, I’d repair to a good local pub for supper. These days, pub food has gone gourmet. At least in my beloved Cornwall, there are “gastropubs” everywhere. The menus can be sophisticated and surprising, with the freshest local ingredients.
But I know myself and, after a long day’s hike, I’ll probably tuck into a pub mainstay: “bangers and mash” (grilled local sausage, buttery mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, fresh peas). And a couple of pints of Doom Bar, St. Austell’s Tribute, Skinner’s Betty Stogs, or whatever other local ale is on tap.
Tradition, you see.
Not too many years ago, you could wander into any British town or village—or any rural area, for that matter—and be assured of finding homey and affordable accommodation in a spare bedroom in someone’s home. For centuries, of course, there were inns with rooms upstairs, but the authentic British B&B emerged especially after World War II. We tend to forget just how broken the British economy was after the war. Even in the late 1960s, when I lived there, it was a rare family that had more than one car and shop shelves were often only sparingly stocked.
In those days, if you were an empty nest couple or a war widow, renting out a spare bedroom (typically with a shared bathroom) was a brilliant way to help make ends meet. And the “full English” breakfast served in some warm kitchen or sitting room could sustain a traveler all day (see earlier blog). As recently as ten years ago, when I took a three and a half month walk through southern England, I seldom had any trouble finding a place to spend the night. There would be a sign in a cottage window or on a post out along the roadside inviting visitors. My favorite was farmhouse B&Bs, which somehow always felt especially welcoming. To this day, I remain friends with some of those hosts.
But I began to see change coming in the 1970s and early 1980s. The British Tourist Authority established a rating system for lodgings of all kinds, from simple B&Bs to posh country house hotels, and added a host of mandatory safety standards. Comfort and reliability increased, but the cost of meeting these standards (installing fire doors, etc.) put a lot Mum and Pop B&Bs out of business. The supply shrank and prices rose. Then, when the London financial boom hit in the first years of the new millennium, wealthy Londoners snapped up every available countryside cottage and disused barn to convert into weekend and holiday getaways. Skyrocketing real estate values pushed a lot of older folks out of their villages.
Today, there’s both bad news and good news. The bad news is that the supply of B&Bs has shrunk further. The good news is that what B&Bs remain are much more luxurious than the old days (with prices to match). There’s one other advantage: thanks to the Internet (and AirBnB and VRBOs), you no longer have to worry about finding a vacancy in some beauty spot (like my Cornwall) at the end of a day of wandering; you can book ahead and be reassured.
But you know, I miss the adventurous hit-or-miss days when you could just stumble on a lovely room and meet wonderful people. Here’s an example from that same long walk a few years ago: I was in Somerset and after a long day of walking I arrived late in a tiny village and asked if there was a place to stay. I was directed to a farm some distance from the village that did B&B. But when I got there the lovely hostess told me a wedding party had booked her rooms and she had no vacancies. I was worn out and started walking back toward the village before an idea occurred to me. I turned around and went back and when the surprised hostess opened the door to me again, I grinned and said, “Look, I have a tent in my pack and you have a field. I’m tired and desperate for a shower. Let’s do tent-and-breakfast tonight.” She burst out laughing. “You must be an American to be so bold, but sure! Set yourself up and come in for a bath and tea.”
I stayed the next night, too, but in a lovely room. At breakfast, her guests asked me how far I’d come. “From Heathrow Airport,” I said, and their jaws dropped. I’d been walking for more than a month.
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