The 'unchain chain' that is revicing the British Inn

When Connecticut residents Jim and Alice Fixx tour Britain, which they do with some regularity, they make use of a "time machine" and return to the days of Henry VIII, Elisabeth I, William and Mary, and virtually every other sovereign up to Queen Victoria.

Put very simply, they stay at quality hotels and inns that date back down the centuries; hostelries that have been maintained in, or brought back to, their original authentic state -- with the addition of modern plumbing, central heating, and such niceties as innerspring matresses rather than the straw and feathers stuffing of the past.

The "time machine" in this instance is Trust Houses Forte, one of the more unusual hotel chains in the world. It might well be dubbed the "unchain chain," for no two hotels are alike. Indeed, in many of the hotels no two rooms are alike either.

There is a reason for this: While some hotels in the chain are modern, the bulk of them in the British Isles, including Ireland, go back many centuries to the days of the stagecoach, when the light at the end of the road meant welcome warmth, good food, and rest for the travelers of the day.

These hostelries thrived and increased in number over the centuries until the comparatively recent arrival of steam power and that most impressive people mover of all time -- the train. Gradually the railroad replaced the highway for cross-country travel and the need for stagecoach resting places dropped away. Many of the centuries-old hostelries were left to tumble into ruin until in 1904 an association, forerunner of the present Trust Houses Forte group, was founded to rescue the British inn from near oblivion.

Over the years the group aquired and restored inns that date from 19th century all the way back to the 11th century. In the process historically important hotels, other than inns, were acquired and renovated as well. Says Howard Fine, who heads up Trust Houses Forte Hotels Inc. here in New York: "The original form of architecture was strictly adhered to in all these buildings. all we did was put in modern plumbing. . . as discreetly as possible."

In many instances, restoration has erased some rather pathetic attempts at modernization and returned authenticity, even elegance, to the buildings. What had long been looked on as plain plastered walls in the lobby of London's Hyde Park Hotel (one of the THF group) was found to be beautiful marble once the white paint had been stripped away. Paint remover also restored elegance to nearby woodwork.

In some other inns, suspended ceilings had been installed to hide the worn, heavy oak beams that had stood the test of centuries. In an era when many people now glue plastic beams to a ceiling to re-create the warmth of the past, hiding the authentic in this fashion seemed almost obscene, according to Mr. Fine.

The net effect of all this restoration is that "the experience (in a Trust Houses hotel) is genuine as opposed to the make-believe of Disney," according to Mrs. Fixx. In addition to hotels are filled with period furniture and genuine English antiques. "I know because I collect antiques," says Mrs. Fixx.

But it is the "time machine" aspect of touring Britain that appeals most to Mrs. Fixx, whose husband, Jim, is best known as the author of the best-selling book, "The Complete Book of Running." "We would be staying at a 15th-century inn one night, a Victorian hotel the next, and be checking in at a castle on the third day. Each stop would have something uniquely different to offer."

You can book in at Trust Houses Forte hotels through any travel agent or by using these toll-free numbers:

From anywhere in the United States, excluding New York State -- (800) 233- 5672; in New York State -- (800) 442-5886. In New York City dial 541-4400.

In Canada: Toronto -- 5951507; Ontario and Quebec -- 1 (800) 261-8000. All others, call collect (416) 595- 1507.

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