An English bed-and-breakfast circuit. A driving trip becomes an economical day-to-day adventure

My first overseas trip a few years ago was a honeymoon in Greece. The bridegroom and I weren't concerned about expense on that excursion, and didn't flinch at the prices at Athens' finest hotel, the Grand Bretagne. Our latest overseas outing, a summer driving trip through southern England, was undertaken with as much romance and enthusiasm as the previous jaunt, but with far fewer dollars to spend.

Although we had resigned ourselves to a less extravagant trip this time, we were feeling more adventurous. Let the timid take the tours, we agreed. We'd rent a small car and discover England by ourselves.

A small, economical car, however, was one thing. A suitable, inexpensive place to stay after driving all day seemed quite another. Because we wanted an itinerary with no particular timetable, our choice of lodging each evening was to be spur of the moment.

We were advised by a well-traveled colleague -- a veteran of the European bed-and-breakfast (B&B) experience -- to consider that option. She said we could expect comfortable lodging and a hearty English breakfast for less than the cost of a hotel. ``Just be sure to ask to see the room first,'' she cautioned us.

That turned out to be good advice. For other frugal-minded travelers, we add these observations:

First, let's assume that our travelers will be skimming over England's clearly marked country roads in a rented car. They will usually find roads in the towns and midsize cities dotted with numerous visible B&B signs posted in front of the establishments. They are usually along main thoroughfares, although some can be found on side streets.

That is a point worth explaining. Some of our less-than-pleasant moments were in the front bedrooms of B&B establishments on busy streets. In one instance, the traffic, passers-by, and weekend revelers kept us awake well into the early morning hours. When checking out accommodations on main streets, be sure to ask for a room at the back of the residence.

Parking space also is a consideration. Because one is his own porter on this type of outing, selecting a B&B in an off-the-main-route neighborhood invariably provides closer parking opportunities.

It appeared that in many, though not all, instances, the B&Bs were operated by retired persons, often widows. The income afforded by the service comes from turning extra bedrooms into overnight havens. The accommodations we found shared a number of characteristics. Bedrooms are uniformly clean and very small, except in those homes where extra beds have been added to larger rooms. D'ecor most often takes a backseat to practicality. You will discover an assortment of furniture providing more-than-adequate storage for visitors who plan an extended stay.

It seems like nearly all of England's windows -- including those in B&B lodgings -- are covered with an endless variety of patterned white lace curtains. Wallpaper with floral themes in pastel shades invariably competes with bold, floral carpeting.

Bed linens are immaculate, and blankets plentiful. Alas, they generally topped mattresses which -- in our opinion -- were too soft for comfort.

Each of our rooms had a tiny wash basin and towels. Bath and shower privileges -- sometimes at extra cost -- were always available, just down the hall. As with the bedrooms, these rooms were spanking clean. Many times the hostess graciously furnished moisturizers, tissues, scented bath salts, and soap.

Although we discovered differences in our sleeping accommodations, breakfasts at B&Bs seemed consistent. There is a choice of tea or coffee, fruit juice, buttered toast, two small sausages or ham, an egg, half a broiled tomato, and sometimes dry cereal. The meal is served at small, nicely appointed tables with linens and china. Quite often, one larger room in the home had been converted into a dining area with several small tables. The arrangement made for a number of pleasant exchanges over breakfast with other early-rising travelers.

As business people, the men and women operating the B&Bs were helpful about roads, tourist attractions, places to eat, and, occasionally, local history. A few took an added interest in their guests' backgrounds, families, and destinations. (It is not uncommon to be invited to share an evening of television with the proprietor's family.)

If all the above sounds somewhat monotonous, albeit economical, it should be pointed out that there is always the possibility of a surprise.

At Beulah House in Dover, Donald and Beulah Abate run a spotless, high-ceilinged B&B operation. The square, red-brick house marked with ``1890'' at the roof stands at 92 Crabble Hill, and is pleasant and unpretentious. The surprise, however, was a quarter-acre area at the back of the property. We came upon a curving, rough stone stairway descending from the rear of the home to an almost formal garden of flowers, trees, and bushes -- roses, gladioluses, marigolds, hydrangea, hollyhock, and ivy -- to name the obvious. A tour of the beautiful garden, discovered just as we were about to leave, capped a delightful experience in Kent.

Westfield Farm, near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, was a surprise among our rural B&B opportunities. We were heading for London, near the end of the driving phase of our trip, when we decided we should stay in a country bed-and-breakfast.

Country accommodations are not easy to locate. We drove east along Highway A40 without seeing any signs, and decided to take a side road. A few more miles and we despaired of ever finding the familiar B&B sign. Then, suddenly, there it was. A long, fenced drive with a canopy of trees led to a large, elegant stone home. The house, we later learned, dated from 1790 and was encircled by a four-foot-high stone wall -- a roadside characteristic of this part of the rolling English countryside.

Spectacular groupings of late summer flowers bloomed everywhere about the grounds, and venerable pear trees clung to the beautiful old stone walls of the house. Grandchildren took turns riding a gentle white horse about the grounds; puppies yelped and played somewhere beyond view; my country-reared husband helped drive livestock from one picturesque field to another. . . . It seemed too good to be true, and a bit removed from the pungent farmyard setting we had envisioned.

Mrs. H. Davidson Smith had greeted us warmly, and insisted on bringing us the traditional tea and treats on a handsome tray with fine china. It was, of course, 4 o'clock, or thereabouts. The widow of a well-to-do landowner, she is (according to a son who manages the farm) most happy when sharing her lovely home with travelers.

Our spacious, second-floor bedroom had tasteful appointments, delicately patterned wallpaper in shell pink with matching comforter, pillow covers, chair cushions, and a skirted dressing table. A full corner of windows overlooked the sprawling, recently harvested family fields. Three other American couples and an English couple joined us as guests before evening. Again and again our conversation came back to this terrific ``find'' in bed-and-breakfast lodging. The customary breakfast acquired an unaccustomed elegance at Mrs. Smith's regal table.

The cost of this special stay at Westview Farm was an unbelievable 11, or approximately $15 per couple per night. It was the most expensive B&B we encountered during our stay, and would have been reasonable at twice the price. Most bed-and-breakfasts cost us a mere $10 per night, but, of course, the exchange rate for the dollar was very strong against the British pound last year.

My husband and I now feel we can join our friend in heartily recommending B&B accommodations when traveling on a budget. The savings are fantastic, but it's the people and the unadvertised, unexpected experiences that contribute so much to making a trip memorable.

Practical information: Although we were able to find lodging without reservations by 4 or 5 o'clock each day, advance reservations are not uncommon.

There are many local and regional tourism organizations, along with more than 700 Tourist Information Centres in towns throughout the British Isles. Most provide addresses and offer a Book-A-Bed-Ahead (BABA) service in which beds in another town can be booked for about 1.25 in England and Scotland, and for 30-50 pence in Wales. It should be noted that bed-and-breakfast accommodations are not as readily available in the industrial areas of the Midlands and North, where there are fewer tourists.

An overall ``best'' source for British travel information is said to be the British Tourist Authority (BTA), which has offices throughout the United States. The New York address is 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019. Tel.: (212) 581-4700.

The BTA provides travel information and literature -- usually free. When requesting brochures and maps, state your particular area(s) of interest regarding accommodations (bed-and-breakfast), restaurants, special events, tourist attractions, and guided tours.

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