I was commissioned to write this article for the Mail on Sunday testing out some establishments shown in a Thomas Cook B&B Guide. Sadly the book and the people who ran it were pretty useless as you will see as you read on.

Ferry man turned comedian Bob “the Cat” Bevan decided to take a right-hand drive down some memory lanes and road test Thomas Cook’s Welcome Guide to Bed and Breakfast in France, 2001. What he found might cause you to question every guide book you buy. And why did he end up in a Novotel?


I had just parked the car in front of the 19th century Chateau de St.Thomas at St. Etienne-de-Montluc and had not yet turned the engine off when Arthur stuck his head in my car window. Fortunately it was open.

I immediately recalled the words in my guide book, which boasts that the  “unique sun rating classification” is geared to reflect “the warmth of the welcome that radiates from our hosts, just as much as the quality of the property.”

No arguments there then, apart from Arthur’s breath. Not far behind Arthur came Caroline, a charming and lovely French lady. “Il est tres gentile” she said apologetically. Just as well, I thought. Arthur is a fully-grown two-year-old Irish wolfhound. I’ve seen smaller horses.

Fortunately I like dogs but I’ve got a friend who doesn’t. He might have expired on the spot.

From a welcoming point of view the chateau was worth its maximum four suns rating but the property was, rather like your correspondent – crumbling round the edges, having seen better days.

In the huge hall, the size of which turned Arthur into a Jack Russell, our footsteps echoed eerily on the wooden staircase as I was shown to my £75 room.

It had a large and fairly comfortable bed, a few impractical chairs, one of which nearly collapsed under me later, but no armchair. When it had last been used was hard to tell. It was certainly full of Bin Laden flies – dead or alive.

Apart from food and wine - and I suppose we must now grudgingly admit, football - the French are also brilliant at bathroom fittings. This one had only recently been renovated. It must have cost a fortune. It was massive with a large jacuzzi and only spoilt by cheap towels, even cheaper mini soap bars and, amazingly, no bidet.

“There are stables in the grounds,” said the guide. This might suggest horses although there were none and the stables are as dilapidated as some old carts parked outside.

“Dinner available” says the guide but it wasn’t. Nor, being Monday, was it to be had in the town. Fortunately Caroline found me a restaurant called Le Ferme. It must have been a farm at one point until someone dumped a busy double-lane Route National just yards, sorry metres, from the front door. Still, the food was excellent.

I found my way back easier than I got there. “In the village (for “village” read small town) after the large town hall square (Mairie) take the second road on the left.”  What it doesn’t say is that there are at least two ways of entering the square and these instructions are from the Nantes direction only. The turning is actually a roundabout exit and has a small sign to the chateau. I found it only by chance.

Helen and Joe Goodman are a friendly couple who decided to semi-retire to Corseul from Australia. They had a restaurant in the Blue Mountains where she was chef and he was maitre de.

Now, surrounded by fields of maize, they live in their old Breton farmhouse “Le Ville Gout” – something you might get if you stayed drinking too long with these two.

This is one of the oldest mud-built houses in the area. Mud is mixed with straw and chicken feathers and it must be strong because it has stood for over 400 years.

Joe was building an en-suite bathroom (this time with breeze blocks, which might not make four centuries,) for their third bedroom. They have two other en suite bedrooms and not “1 shared shower room” as the guide states.

I called unannounced and although fairly basic, the place was spotless and comfortable. She often cooks dinner, sometimes on the barbie they brought over from Oz.

They had been awarded only three suns. Rather like the four sun chateau, in my mind, the cracks in the guide were beginning to show.

Here are some directions for Le Chesnay-Chel at Landec. “In Dinan take the N176 towards St Brieuc. At the cross roads do not follow the sign to ‘La Landec’ but take the opposite direction. After 1km you will see a sign to the farm.”

I never found a crossroads but plenty of four exit roundabouts with La Landec signs. I might have asked someone had there been anyone about. I’m a persevering soul but even I, after half an hour, gave up and drove on. Kenneth Noye should have stayed here. Interpol would still be looking for him.

Down to the Charente Maritime and the lovely old town of St Jean d’Angely with its 12th century churches. Redundancy sent Jack and Margaret Howarth here about 10 years ago.

My guide book tells me it is “easy to find.” Tucked away right in the middle of very narrow streets you cannot actually enter it from the Rue de Rose from the car as the book states. Even if you could see the house name, which you can’t, you would not be able to stop. You have to drive round to the large public car park at the rear. Fortunately Jack talked me in on my mobile but the directions in the book are a nonsense.

Once there, it is lovely and very quiet despite its location. The local restaurants are all close by and the bedrooms are excellent. Jack and Margaret have a large family who use them for visits. The children’s rooms are therefore filled with their grandchildren’s toys. It is a homely place with big fluffy towels in the bathrooms. How then does it only get three suns in the guide?

I’m starting to wonder if inspectors actually visit the properties as I head out of town to “Domaine de Fontsauzine”. I will find it, says the guide, “at the end of a wide avenue.”

Fortunately Beatrice and Hubert Pelletier have put up a large sign at the end of the farm track. It is the first “wide avenue” I’ve seen with grass growing thickly up the middle.

This has, however, earned its four suns and more. Right in the heart of the countryside there are some really wonderful rooms and apartments. The kitchens are very fully equipped with all mod cons and TV and videos in the lounges. 

Bedrooms come with fixtures and fittings to grace any five star hotel, even towelling bathrobes. A large swimming pool overlooks the surrounding fields but dinner is not available as the guide claims.   

I was due to stay that night with Bruno Harmand. “Bruno,” says the Guide “sees himself as a ‘gentleman peasant’. The bedrooms, which overlook vineyards, are cosy and welcoming and decorated with good taste.”

Despite the “D136” in the Guide turning out to be the D127 and “the Chambre d'hotes sign” not being there, I finally found it just before dark.

At first sight in the dusk this is a hamlet of very rough old agricultural buildings in the middle of which are a few which can pass for houses.

Bruno greeted me warmly. I was looking forward to overlooking a vineyard when he led me to what had perhaps been, at one time, an outside garage or, worse.  At first glance the bedroom looked OK. Then he showed me the very basic toilet and shower room.

Suddenly he started shoving a piece of wire mesh back into a small hole in the wall. “That mad cat keeps trying to get in here,” he said. While I was pausing to wonder if my French was up to explaining my nickname he interrupted me by spitting heavily on his fingers, making tut-tutting noises and rubbing off the dirt round the basin.

Now I’m not proud of this but, saying how hungry I was and wasn’t Royan just a few kilometres away, I did Le Runner.

At Royan I stayed in the Novotel, overlooking the sea and jolly comfortable it was too. And only £50.  

Of all the places I visited the one to which I will surely return is “Les Tilleuls” between Cognac and Angouleme. For once the Guide’s description “residence of outstanding character” is accurate. Why then did they choose to illustrate the property with a picture of the owners, Jenny and Derek Fordham? The Fordhams find it inexplicable too, especially as Derek, a comupter wizard by profession, will immediately provide you with a CD of views of the old farmhouse on demand.

True to form the Guide gives this only three suns yet this lovely house has  good homely bedrooms and brand new large shower rooms. They do dinner on the nights when local restaurants are closed – Sunday and Monday – and Fridays when guests often arrive.

This winter they are building a swimming pool in a sun trap of a courtyard which would seem to be the finishing touch.

Although the guide itself is attractively laid out and presented, after my random sampling I would find it hard to trust it for future trips as it gives little or no help in establishing quality.

Each description is positive if not glowing, even for the few one sun classifications. There are even some with nil suns but no explanation for this.

Nor did the reservations service offered in connection with the book help.

While you can reach the rural properties direct (hope your French is OK) for Paris there are only the central English or French reservation numbers.

I had wanted to stay in the French capital and started to contact the English number in the summer. I made the mistake of giving them my email address. After that they point blank refused to communicate with me in any other way even though I begged and pleaded with them to call me as I could not always access my email and needed urgent information.

First of all they wanted £30 before they would lift a finger. They took about five days to tell me even that. Then they told me how difficult it was contacting France. Surprising as they presumably do that all day? Finally, after two weeks I had to give up. Then I had to threaten them with all sorts of dire consequences to get my £30 back.

Later in the year I tried the Paris number. Here they were much more welcoming but still not good at contacting me, although they did send me a fax once. Many of the properties I enquired about were no longer in the book while others would not take me for just one night.

During my trip several owners told me of a turf war which has broken out between Gites de France and the Thomas Cook Guide. Gites are allegedly trying to discourage the owners from going into both books.

It does seem a shame that this growing market is not better served by this book at least. Until that day arrives I’ll continue to swear by the small hotels in the Logis de France or on personal recommendations..

I travelled as a guest of Britanny Ferries from Portsmouth to St Malo and back via Caen. The ships are fairly large and comfortable and, as you might expect, the restaurant on board is excellent. My four-berth cabin was fine with just me in it and would be manageable with two. However, three or four, would be rather less so and, if one were Jeffrey Archer, I’m sure he would be complaining to the Governor.       

Five day return for a car and two passengers and a two-berth cabin is £146 plus £17 for a day cabin if required on the return. Standard fares for the same group is £212 plus the optional £17 day cabin charge. Reservations on 0870 5 360 360.

Bed and Breakfast in France 2002 will be out sometime next year (they don’t yet know when) price £11.99.

Grumpy old goalies


Bob 'The Cat' Bevan