Lawyers Philippa McKnight and David Hoyes left their London life to open a B&B in Penzance, where they live with their children Isobel, nine, and James, six. They reveal the good, the bad and the less savoury aspects of the bed-and-breakfast business…
Philippa: We’d always planned to do something different. After 20 years of working in an office, we’d both had enough. When we lived in Brockley and were both working as lawyers, weekdays were a bit mad. We were always the first parents to drop our children off in the morning and the last ones to pick them up at night. It was a horribly long day for the kids.
We wanted to get away from LondonPhilippa: The area we lived in – SE4 – is relatively safe, but we wanted to get out of London before they started to grow up. I couldn’t bear the thought of them being in some horrible gang. We were also worried about schools. Although there are two or three good state secondaries in that part of south London, the kids would only have had a slim chance of getting in to them. We wanted them to grow up with fresh air and outdoor opportunities.
David: We knew moving down here would be good for them all round. I used to spend holidays in Cornwall as a child and went to Exeter University, so I know the South West well. Penzance is a great place. Unlike some other provincial towns, there’s a lot of culture here.
Why bed and breakfast?Philippa: Running a B&B appealed to us because we both like design and we’re real foodies. In our 30s, we went through a phase of going to lots of weddings and staying in hotels and B&Bs. Despite being far from cheap, some of them were awful: completely lacking in style and atmosphere. Plus, we used to find it frustrating that some B&Bs don’t take kids.
David: You have to choose between a big, expensive hotel and a bog-standard B&B where you have to stick the kids on a sofabed. We wanted to offer something different, something stylish but affordable.
Home is where the hard work isDavid: Starting a B&B from scratch is like a lot of things in life: you never know whether it will work until you try. We spent a long time finding the right property, a beautiful Victorian villa with a lovely garden, called Venton Vean (Cornish for 'little spring').
Philippa: It took us a year to transform the house from a family home into a B&B with five ensuite rooms. Doing it up was stressful, even though we’d renovated two properties before, which was very good preparation. A lot of the time in London, we were living on a building site – at one point with a big hole in the floor with a toddler, which was not very sensible.
While the B&B was being done up, the children and I lived in a holiday cottage a few miles away for a couple of months. David stayed in London to work, so we still had one income, while I ‘project managed’ in the loosest possible sense: someone would come and show me two parts for the shower and I wouldn’t have a clue which one to pick.
For ages, the house didn't have a proper kitchen or even fully functioning electrics. First thing every morning I had to switch on a great big high-voltage box and everything would hum with electricity.
It was great fun once all the building work was done and we were choosing colours for the walls and sourcing furniture, artwork and interesting objects: we love doing that sort of thing. It’s amazing how much it cost just to kit out the rooms, even though we used lots of the furniture from our London home.
I was supposed to be surfing...David: During the gap between finishing work in London in June and opening for business in August 2012, I’d planned to take a sabbatical to learn to surf.
Instead, I spent the entire time sanding floors because we fell out with the builder (who'd given us a fixed price he didn't want to stick to) and the money was running out.
Eventually, we got to the point where we were fiddling about, moving furniture and arranging books – we have a huge collection – and we realised we just had to open for business. We lived on the top floor, in very cramped conditions for the first six months while the garage was converted into an annexe for us to live in. We had to creep around, trying to keep the children quiet so they didn’t disturb the guests.
It was a huge riskPhilippa: We had no real relevant experience before we opened. I’d done a bit of waitressing and bar work as a student, and we both love cooking, but that’s it.
David: There have been moments when we’ve thought, what have we done? We’ve sunk everything we had into the business and sometimes when it’s cost more than we budgeted for, things have been a bit hairy.
We underestimated how much it would cost to set up and it was slightly alarming to see our savings disappearing during the renovations. Even once we were open for business, with three letting rooms, we were still doing up the other two rooms at the top of the house. All our profits were being ploughed back into the building work.
When you’ve both been on a regular wage for 20 years, it’s scary once the savings have gone down and you’ve left your job. The first year was hard.
We love what we doDavid: It’s great to be your own boss. As a litigation lawyer, you get very little job satisfaction because most clients aren’t happy with the legal process and outcome, however well you do for them. You spend most of the time worrying about how badly the case is going to go, and even if it works out well, you get very little praise. This is completely different. Most of the people who stay here seem to genuinely like it: they have a nice time and they tell us. So that’s really satisfying.
Philippa: One of the best things about my old job (as a family lawyer) was dealing with the public, but a lot of my clients were – understandably – quite distressed. Here, everyone is on holiday and they are usually quite happy, which makes it a lot easier.
The first time someone rang to book a room was an exciting moment. I find it interesting that we never know who’s going to turn up and I love it when people come back. We have quite a few regular visitors who’ve been back several times, which is great.
We live at the bottom of the gardenPhilippa: In London, we lived in a rambling five-storey townhouse, with a huge, beautiful through-living room with high ceilings. We used that room once every two weeks: we spent all our time down in the kitchen.
Our home now is a converted garage, with two small bedrooms for the children, one for us and a bathroom. It’s liberating living in a smaller space. I really like it. There’s no kitchen in our annexe, but it only takes a few seconds to pop through the garden into the kitchen in the B&B. At night, I go out to get tea and the cat.
Food is our passionPhilippa: We're both quite greedy and we love coming up with new recipes and giving guests a good breakfast. We’ve taken inspiration from our travels around the world, so our menu includes a Spanish breakfast with chorizo, peppers and Manchego cheese, and a spicy Mexican breakfast as well as other interesting options.
I'm the baker: we always welcome guests with a pot of tea and a slice of home-made cake. David is a brilliant cook. As well as all the breakfasts, he makes preserves. We go blackberry picking in the autumn and he creates delicious jams such as blackberry and vanilla. Some guests love our jams so much they want to buy a jar to take home. So far, we've only made small quantities, but in the future we might make enough to sell.
We got a bit carried away with our first guests. They were a lovely couple who’d come to Cornwall to sample the real ale pubs. They were real foodies, so we pulled out all the stops and gave them things like kedgeree, which we got up an hour early to make. They loved it.
David: During the winter, when it’s quiet, we get stretches of time to test recipes. Last year, we turned our breakfast room and living room into a pop-up restaurant for the first time and created a special South Indian feast. Bed-and-breakfast expert Alastair Sawday was in Penzance at the time and he came along. We were very nervous about cooking for him, but we needn’t have worried. He loved it so much he came to the next one as well.
Running a B&B is really toughDavid: It’s hard work. We’ve had two proper days off – including weekends – in four months. The season here is very long – it runs from March until the end of October – and it’s difficult to keep going, especially when you’ve been at it for a long time. In the summer, when all the rooms are let, with a family upstairs and 10 people for breakfast, it’s quite full on. Luckily, we enjoy it, but it would be nice to have a few more days off. We have our family holiday in November or January, when it’s quiet.
Occasionally you’ve just got to get up and do the job with a hangover. But if we choose the right day – when the cleaners are coming – somehow we find the energy to get through breakfast and then we can relax for a bit.
Philippa: It’s difficult to delegate. We have a gardener and cleaners who come four days a week, but we still check all the rooms ourselves before anyone arrives. On the other days, I clean the bathrooms and David does the bedrooms. We have a routine.
We know someone who recently bought a B&B in Penzance, but she hated it because she found getting up early really difficult and didn't like interacting with the guests. She sold up within three months. Luckily, I’m a morning person, so I don’t mind getting up early.
Some guests do extraordinary thingsDavid: Most people are very respectful, but the odd one can be quite strange. One guest used one of our new fluffy white towels to clean her boots. Mind you, we once accidentally tipped a bottle of red wine all over the bed in a B&B! We left very quickly the next morning. We were only about 24 at the time…
We can't control the weather!David: Our overseas visitors don’t seem too bothered by the mild, damp ‘sub-tropical’ Cornish climate. But for some people, bad weather will ruin their holiday. Getting some of our guests to smile on a rainy, grey morning can be difficult, but a good breakfast helps.
Philippa: In 2012, the weather was terrible and in the mornings I’d reassure guests: "The forecast says the sun might come out later". The next day at breakfast, they’d say, "You said it was going to be sunny!"
Occasionally guests aren’t happy, but we accept that not everyone’s going to love what we’re doing. You’ve got to be a people person to do this job. You’ve got to really like people.
We fit work around the childrenPhilippa: In term time, when we’re busy, the children go to the school breakfast club at 8.15am, for pancakes and other delicious things. During the school holidays, while David’s cooking breakfast and I’m serving the guests, the children will appear at some point, asking for a poached egg. They get a bowl of cereal (and an egg later on if they’re lucky, once all the guests have eaten).
David: In the summer, I pick the children up from school and take them to swim at our amazing local lido (the Jubilee Pool) or beach. It’s very different from when we used to arrive home late after work and the after-school club in London.
We've been made very welcomePhilippa: You hear a lot about how the Cornish don’t like newcomers moving in and taking their houses, but we’ve found the locals so friendly and welcoming. Our neighbours are wonderful, dyed-in-the-wool Cornish, who used to check on me at night when David was still working in London.
My parents moved to Penzance from Yorkshire a few months after us and it’s lovely to have them nearby. My dad in particular is having a great time: he loves singing and was invited to join several choirs.
The power of TripadvisorPhilippa: Someone actually posted fake bad reviews about us on Tripadvisor. We’re pretty sure that they were written by another guesthouse proprietor on a nearby road, who’s had it in for us and other new accommodation businesses from the start. It took us about six weeks to get the fake reviews removed from the website. They were posted at the time of year when most B&Bs are taking their bookings for the coming season. The guy was obviously trying to destroy our business. Luckily, we already had lots of bookings, so it didn’t do too much damage.
Fortunately, most of our Tripadvisor reviews are glowing and we always take notice of what our guests say as they're the heart of what we do.
The same person also rang the council to complain about us. As a result, we had to field several calls from the environmental health officer and fire safety officer. It was tedious, but the Council soon realised the complaints were bogus.
Penzance is a great place to liveDavid: There’s a thriving arts scene; it’s quite a cosmopolitan place. There are lots of bars and concerts, in great venues such as The Acorn.
Philippa: In some ways, we have a better social life here than we did in London. We can walk everywhere, avoiding the logistical nightmare we used to endure, where it took an hour and a half to get across London to the Hammersmith Apollo, for example.
In London, I started to feel a bit too ‘muttony’ to do some things in places where there are a lot of young people. Here, wherever we go, there are always at least 10 other people who are a couple of decades older than us. I’ve even been to a nightclub!
We don’t miss our old lifeDavid: Over the years, as I got more senior and was made a partner in the law firm, my job became a lot less intellectual and more about juggling admin.
At first, we thought we might supplement our B&B income with some legal work, but I think if you’re going to do something different you need to make a clean break. There's quite a lot of intellectual stimulation in this job. You’ve also got to keep reading and seeing things and watching lots of HBO box sets!
Philippa: We do loads of things here we never had time to do in London, like the pub quiz. And I’m in a book club. Sometimes it's tempting just to collapse and watch telly, but it means I read at least one book a month.
David: Penzance is only five or six hours on the train from London, but we only go back a couple of times a year. We do miss our friends… but unfortunately we can’t put them up during the summer!
Fancy a break in Philippa and David's West Country B&B? Find out what’s cooking at Venton Vean.
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