LONDON — I rang the doorbell for the third time, then my wife Betty and I stared at each other.
The cab driver had dropped us almost two blocks away on Poplar Street instead of Poplar Street South. We were numb after a 10 1/2-hour flight from San Francisco to London's Heathrow Airport. And now it appeared that the host family with whom we were to spend our first holiday week was not at home.
"Hello, there," a neighbor's voice called out from across the driveway. "You'll be staying with the Colletts, I suppose. Just follow me."
He led us to the rear of the house, banged on the sun room door and hollered, "Lily, you've got visitors!"
'An Ideal Way'
We had booked our stay with the Colletts through Famhol (Shipley) Ltd., a firm representing 350 or so families throughout England. A guidebook reference had caught our eye with the statement: "This is an ideal way of finding out about the British way of life--and doing so economically."
After our inquiry, Famhol (for Family Holiday) sent us information that included a list of homes with thumbnail descriptions of each family--occupations, number of children, ages, whether smoking was OK or not, and the accommodations offered. We chose in 1, 2, 3 order six families on London's outskirts.
Our first choice? The family whose father was an actor. But we struck out on all six; we'd returned the list a scant four weeks before departing. So the Collett family was unknown in terms of interests, ages and size.
Lily Collett came to the door flanked by a pair of inquisitive Yorkshire terriers, Tantalus and Tarlequin. "Oh, hello," she said. "I see Jim's taken you in hand. Didn't hear the bell with the dishwasher going."
Our hostess, hair slightly disheveled and wearing a generous smile, appeared to be in her mid-40s. She promptly placated us with coffee as she asked about our interests and plans. We learned that her husband, Dennis, worked as a video tape editor for the BBC--two of their five children lived at home, and Lily enjoyed the theater, was a history buff and worked downtown as a secretary three days a week.
She escorted us up a flight of stairs to point out the loo and what Americans euphemistically call "a half bath."
We trudged up another flight of stairs to our room, which was a clean, white, 15x18-foot space with a sloped ceiling over one of the twin beds. The storage space consisted of a small dresser, vacant bookshelves and a four-foot closet. A table, washbowl, chair and mini-refrigerator completed the furnishings. The room was on a par with medium-priced bed-and-breakfast places we rented later.
After meeting Lily and inspecting the room, we breathed a sigh of satisfaction and plopped down for a nap.
Doubts on Both Sides
Later we learned that both a host family and the visitors always wonder, "Will we hit it off?" For us, by the time our week sped by we felt the pangs of parting from friends.
The Famhol plan offers lodging plus breakfast and dinner for $180 a week for two, plus a $52 commission to the firm. This averaged $33 a day, somewhat less than comparable B&Bs in the outer London area. But the big bonus came from our abbreviated adoption. For example:
Lily's love of the theater brought forth the tip to see "A Chorus of Disapproval," a comedy delight for everyone, but especially for people with an interest in community theater.
We popped questions about everything from the Roman conquerors to the status of punk rock. The Colletts came right back with answers or at least opinions on practically all of them. It was like having living British encyclopedias at hand.
From Dennis we heard a theory on the reputed detached reserve of the English. "Our miserably cold, wet winters," he said, "drive us to a family closeness. Beyond that circle, yes, a certain coolness exists."
Our temporary Merton Park home, three blocks from the Underground (subway) terminus of the Northern Line and just a few miles from Wimbledon, served as home base for our sightseeing and shopping adventures by day. On those nights when we stayed at home, conversation ranged from Margaret Thatcher's handling of the coal strike to the behavior of children.
One night we watched a videotape of Dennis meeting Princess Anne when he was presented with Britain's equivalent of an Emmy in 1983 for his videotape editing prowess at the BBC, where he's worked for 26 years.
I gained a lot of insight. I also gained almost one stone (14 pounds). We ate steak and kidney pie (although Betty dodged the kidneys), chicken, lamb and roast beef. Potatoes appeared nightly in one form or another. Two or more vegetables always were present. The desserts were belt-stretching.
The only gastronomic glitch occurred when Lily worked late and 16-year-old Laura almost succeeded in incinerating the chicken patties.
Famhol is one of 13 firms that arrange accommodations with families throughout Britain. Another two dozen specialize on rentals in their respective countries. To obtain a free brochure called "Stay with a British Family," write to British Tourist Authority, 40 West 57th St., 3rd Floor, New York 10019.
The Famhol firm is operated by Geraldine Kenny with help from her husband Michael, a plastics engineer, in their Sidcup, Kent, home.
"We try to match the interests and professions of guests with those of their hosts," she said.
Youngsters up to age 10 pay half price and parents must countersign for children under 18 who will be visiting on their own. Guests send a 15% deposit in advance, then pay the remainder to their hosts upon arrival.