LONDON — There's one thing better than being a tourist in Britain and that is being a guest, to be treated as a friend while gaining an insight into how your hosts live and spend their leisure hours.
Friends in London, for instance, is just what the name implies. A group of well-organized people under the direction of Mary Bailey will take over all of your vacation planning from the moment you arrive--or before you leave home. Friends in London can arrange accommodations in private homes or in country house hotels or castles, and tell you which theaters, restaurants, pubs, stores and places of interest you'll enjoy.
If you plan to rent a car anywhere in the United Kingdom, they will prepare a detailed itinerary with road maps, marking sightseeing en route. They will book your overnight accommodations, too.
Prefer to be driven? I think that the chauffeur-guides of Friends in London, all with sparkling limos, are the best. Your sightseeing itinerary will be tailored to the things you enjoy most; themed vacations can be built around antiques hunting, shooting, fishing, haunted-house visits--you name it.
Another organization dedicated to making visitors welcome is At Home Country Holidays. It lists more than 60 lovely old country houses from Devon in the south right up through England and to the north of Scotland.
No echoing mansions, these, but lived-in homes, often where children have grown up and flown the nest leaving a capable housewife with a couple of empty bedrooms, a talent for producing great home-cooked meals and a little time on her hands.
The houses are often more than 200 years old, and range from rectories to lodge houses of country estates, manor houses and medieval cottages, even a castle. Some have been occupied by the same family for centuries.
A night for two with dinner, wine and accommodation in a double bedroom with private bath will cost around 110; if you skip dinner and choose just the full English breakfast 80 (with an exchange rate of 1 to $1.49).
Wolsey Lodge offers a similar service at budget prices. Its homes are likely to be country farmhouses, rectories and cottages. Unlike At Home, Wolsey does not guarantee exclusive occupation, so you might share the dinner table with a few other guests. Your hostess, who is also your cook, will go out of her way to make you feel at home, and children are welcome at many of the 90-plus houses scattered throughout England, Wales and Scotland.
Expect to pay between 15 and 30 per person sharing a double room, and specify that you require private bath if that's your preference. Full breakfast is included.
In the English Manner will book you an apartment of your own in London as well as accommodations with families in the country. Visits to elegant country houses or working farms can be for just one or two nights; London flats in areas such as Chelsea, Mayfair or Westminster are rented by the week. Flats start at around 250 a week, rising to 714 for an apartment that sleeps six with two baths and daily maid service, up to 1,000 for a mews house with small garden.
An overnight stay in a private house costs 31 per person in, say, a small farmhouse, to 54 each in a castle or stately home.
Various outings are offered by Anglo Tandem Tours. These set you off exploring the Cotswolds countryside on bicycles built for two. You can either rent the bikes and a couple of route maps and do it yourself, or book a weekend (two nights) or seven-day package of bicycle hire, modest bed-and-breakfast accommodations and a series of planned routes.
Prices are modest, too, at 45 per person for the weekend tour, 135 for the week.
Tour by Carriage
For the less energetic there's a way to see the Scottish Borders country and have something to brag about. Prince Philip, a champion carriage driver, would surely approve of a day or two spent in the company of young John Cowdery in Dumfriesshire. Cowdery will escort you on a tour in a horse-drawn carriage (four-in-hand or just a pair), provided he is not down south competing in the four-in-hand driving championships at Windsor.
Cowdery and his father will give driving instruction if you get hooked on the sport, but their tours of the romantic and dramatic Borders countryside are fine sightseeing experiences. A short tour of the glens costs 5, half-day trips 15-18.
If you like something to show for your time, John Birth organizes fishing, shooting and golf programs tailored to suit you or your party. He can arrange private non-sporting parties to show you how the British aristocracy traditionally spend their weekends at play.
The John Birth Sporting Organisation program extends from dry-fly trout fishing in the south of England to salmon fishing in Scotland (one of the Queen Mother's favorite pastimes).
Novice Fishermen Welcome
Shooting starts in August for grouse, and takes in partridge from September and pheasant from October, both into January. Pigeons can be hunted from August to March.