When Norman and Sandra Cartwright-Brown bought their house in Slate Mills in 1979, they hadn’t planned to pioneer Rappahannock’s bed-and-breakfast industry. They just wanted a weekend retreat.
That retreat was a large house on five acres on Slate Mills Road, within commuting distance, in a county they thought was “lovely,” Sandra says. The house was actually two four-story houses that had been put together by Samuel Conyers in the early 19th century, according to Sandra. In its early days it was a store, in the 1970s a “hippie commune” and then the residence of a series of local families. When the Cartwright-Browns bought the house from the last owner, who had bought it on speculation but never lived there, it had a septic system but no plumbing, and “a little electricity.”
At the time, the Cartwright-Browns were living in Chevy Chase. Norm was in Nigeria often, working for an international investment corporation. Commuting from their suburban home when they had time, the couple tackled refurbishing their “new” country house. They left the interior rooms “as built,” with the exception of taking out one wall in the store (now their library), and built a three-story addition. B&Bs were starting to pop up all over the country, and Sandra began to see the house’s potential to be more than a private retreat.
“The kids had gone off to college, Norman was spending months in Nigeria, and I had never been to a bed-and-breakfast, but I thought it couldn’t be too unlike motherhood – like managing a household,” she says. Since she grew up in suburban Maryland, and Norm was from a town in Yorkshire, England, they “didn’t know anything about living out here,” she says, so they hung onto their suburban home for six years, renting it out while they made sure of their decision.
“The Conyers House Country Inn and Stable,” as the Cartwright-Browns dubbed their new B&B, opened in October 1981 – one week before the first guests arrived. It had five guest rooms and a couple of shared bathrooms. When anyone asked if there were private baths, Sandra says she would respond, “yes, when you’re in it – if you lock the door.”
Over time, the couple added porches and decks along with two refurbished outbuildings, a new kitchen and a covered driveway entrance to the house and filled the interior with family heirlooms, other antiques that Sandra had collected, books and art. The B&B now offers seven guest rooms, each with a wood-burning fireplace and private bathroom. Sandra and Norman had transformed the plain, rustic house into a charming old country home that looks like it had been in the family for centuries, with a friendly dog or two to greet guests at the door.
But Conyers House offers more than a pretty view and nice furnishings. Until recently, Sandra cooked the “elegant, six-course dinners” that distinguished the B&B from most others and did most of the maintenance on the gardens, which she designed. Norm cooked the breakfasts and mowed the grounds. Sandra says that, although they’ve always taken a hands-on approach, they’ve also always had local staff to help.
Shortly after purchasing the house, Sandra also took up horseback riding, acquiring a passion for it. She bought a few horses and started to offer guests guided trail rides along the Hughes River, eventually offering “hands-on” instruction on not just how to ride, but also how to get the horse ready. A member of the Thornton Hill Hounds foxhunting club, she occasionally takes guests along on foxhunts.
As a court-appointed Celebrant of the Rites of Matrimony for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Norm is proud to have officiated more than 120 weddings, some at Conyers House. With his voice now failing, Sandra is continuing the tradition.
The opening of Conyers House kicked off the third “hospitality wave” here, Sandra says. First came country inns, in the early days of the county, and then the modest motels and cabins that popped up along Rt. 211 when Shenandoah National Park opened. None were still offering accommodations when Conyers House opened, which turned out to be a plus.
A December 1981 article about the B&B in “Rappahannock News” “put us on the map,” Sandra says. In the article, she had detailed the rugged aspects of staying at the house at that time, but that apparently didn’t daunt guests who were looking for adventure.” And some local restaurateurs also took notice—the day after the article appeared, the owners of The Inn at Little Washington, Patrick O’Connell and his partner at the time, Reinhardt Lynch, showed up with a bottle of Champaign and booked a room for a guest. With no one else offering overnight accommodations in the county at that time, the Inn kept Conyers House booked up for years, and loyal guests keep returning.
Eventually more B&Bs opened, totaling 24 at one point, Sandra says. Currently 18 are listed on the county’s tourism website (www.visitrappahannockva.com). Now there’s a fourth wave of hospitality-businesses, Sandra notes – guest houses, which are typically small houses or cottages that owners have fixed up and are renting out to guests.
With Norm now in his early 80s and retired from inn-keeping due to failing health, the Cartwright-Browns have cut back on the number of guests they take in and have foregone the elaborate dinners. These days, Sandra says, she enjoys tailoring the B&B’s hospitality to just a few carefully chosen guests. Younger than her husband, and still slender and fit, she still takes guests riding. While there was a note of wistfulness in her reminiscing about the days when the B&B was full houses of guests, she was preparing elaborate dinners, and Norm could be more involved, Sandra still enjoys the business and says they have no plans to close it or leave the county.
“I’ll run the business my way as long as it is convenient,” she says. Anyone who’s met her knows she’s tough, capable and optimistic enough to do just that for some time to come.