Feeling right at home in an English country house

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a country house in England? Impossible?

Too expensive?

Not necessarily. It can be done, and we were among the first Americans to sample one of a fine group of country homes in England, all within two hours of London, now being made available for rental to Americans.

The high cost of maintaining larger homes has made rental necessary for some owners.Some invite guests to share the home and even the dinner table with them; others remain anonymous and rent their homes for a few weeks each year.

In England, about a dozen organizations offer various versions of such programs. Only one of these, British Country Homes, offers rentals of entire houses. Its selection ranges from a modest country home to luxurious mansions that can easily accommodate a family of eight or four couples.

Our sampling was of Michelmersh Court, a beautiful 18th-century Georgian mansion in the tiny residential village of Michelmersh, in calm and bucolic Hampshire.

The other British country homes are all situated in small villages in Sussex, Berkshire, and Warwickshire as well as Hampshire.

Our first reaction upon entering Michelmersh Court was to speak to each other in hushed tones, so impressed were we. But quickly the charm of Michelmersh Court and its real warmth conquered us. We began to speak as we spoke at home. We freely enjoyed all of the rooms, and even watched BBC in the large sitting room, called the Panel Room by the staff.

At Michelmersh Court, we counted at least 14 rooms -- grand, lovely rooms -- all ours for a week!

On the main floor, we entered a hallway hung with exquisite tapestries and an imposing grandfather clock. This led us to an inviting paneled sitting room with comfortable lounge chairs, a big fireplace, and a writing desk. On the large reading table was a radio- TV guide and the morning newspaper. We felt right at home.

Upstairs, on the next level, there were four beautifully furnished bedrooms, each featuring an individual style and having a dominant tone of color. All had fine paintings or tapestries and small figurines, glass or porcelain, and other collectibles.

The furnishings and furniture were of no set period or origin. There were Chinese, Dutch, French, and English pieces from a variety of centuries to create a comfortable and pleasantly elegant setting.

What does one do during a holiday at a British country house?One of the delights is that there is no rigid schedule, but there is a mixed range of activities or non-activities from which to select.

Judging from our experiences at Michelmersh Court, there are certainly more than enough attractions available to satisfy a variety of whims and fancies.

The most accessible are, of course, the treasures that immediately surround the guests. In some homes, there is a grand display of fine art and art objects and furniture for the connoisseur to contemplate, enjoy, and, above all, to respect. In less grand country homes there are also heirlooms reflecting the history of present and past owners, and here and there, a few treasures.

All of these homes seem to have excellent libraries, which the owners expect visitors to explore, even if only to leaf through some of the old books with intriguing subjects or titles.

At some of the homes there are facilities for the more active. At Michelmersh Court there are fine clay tennis courts, a heated swimming pool, and a beautiful assemblage of gardens for strolling or contemplation. All of the country houses have nearby paths through the countryside, ideal for leisurely walks or jogging. Many have riding stables, golf courses, and rivers nearby.

Another of the homes, a Queen Anne structure built in 1702, has a charming garden surrounded by a 300-year-old brick and flint wall and a high yew hedge. It also boasts an orchard and a fruit cage with raspberries, black currants, and gooseberries.

You may rent this house by the week or longer, for a more modest fee than Michelmersh. Its attractive and cozy rooms can comfortably accommodate about three couples or a family up to seven.

If you rent this house, you can use the big kitchen to prepare your meals. Or a local woman who lives nearby will prepare your meals for about $4 an hour, plus the cost of the food.

Although the cost to live in a British country house is not low, it can be cheaper than a London hotel. To stay in one room of a fine hotel in London costs, double occupancy, with no food, from $840 to $1,400 a week.For four couples, or a family of eight, that would be from $3,360 to $5,600. A suite would be much more.

To stay for a week at a 10- to 16-room British country house, with complete maid service and a "house guide" who resides nearby and waits on call to be of help, would actually cost less -- from about $1,400 (for Upton Dean) to as high as about $3,840 (for Michelmersh Court). The others -- Binfield Lodge in Bershire, Westfield Place in Sussex, and Honington Lodge in Warwickshire -- average about $2,000 a week, or $500 a week percouple -- far less than a deluxe double room in a London hotel.

Yes, there are extras, like car rental. But that will be offset by London taxi costs, which are a dollar before you move. And eating in the country restaurants, or even having your own cook for all or most of your meals, costs less than eating every meal at the better restaurants or hotel dining rooms in London.

Arranging to rent a British country house is easy. Your own travel agent can do it for you, at no extra cost to you. Or, if you prefer, the British Country Homes group has a representative in the United States: Rosalind Clarke in Palm Beach, Florida, at (305 833- 6943.

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