The scheme, as they call it in England, works this way: Before traveling, Country Rovers purchase vouchers for a car rental and a set number of overnights. Prices depend on whether you want an automatic or standard shift car and whether you are staying more or less than seven days. We bought five nights at $63 per person per night, which included a four-door stick-shift Fiat with unlimited mileage. When private bathrooms were available, we paid a surcharge of 3 pounds (about $5) per person to our landlords.
After paying up, we were given a book picturing the accommodations - grouped according to the nearest town - with descriptions, phone numbers, driving directions and area maps. Our agent confirmed our first reservation before we left, and we made the rest along the way, using the vouchers to pay.
Although we worried that such cheap digs would mean no privacy and uncomfortably shared toilet facilities, we were charmed and delighted by our hosts, our surroundings in out-of-the-way places one would never visit on purpose, and most of all by the amazing Mrs. Butler, who opened her elegant house and sophisticated kitchen to paying guests because she misses the constant entertaining she enjoyed with her late husband, Brian, a gentleman farmer who raised and rode Olympic jumpers.
After a grueling overnight flight from Newark, N.J., delayed six hours because of engine trouble, we picked up our car at Gatwick airport and drove about 150 miles to our first destination, Vicarage Lawns in West Harptree, Somerset, near Bath. We pulled in well past the stipulated 6 p.m. check-in deadline, but we had called ahead and our hosts, John and Margaret Rowell, settled us in. They then bundled us off for supper at the 15th-century King's Arms, in nearby Litton, a cozy half-timbered local hangout with a varied menu including vegetarian, fish and curry entrees and the best steak, mushroom and Guinness pie to be had anywhere.
The next day, the Rowells were full of good advice about local sights. Seeing me consult my Gardener's Guide to Britain, they mentioned some private gardens that might be receptive to visitors and warned us to check opening times and days, noting that many travelers drive miles to see a famous garden to find that it opens only once a month from noon to 4.
They also showed us around their sunny plot next to the village church, explaining that it was once part of a country vicarage that had been subdivided when three parishes were combined. The house, formally decorated in pink and mauve swags, lace doilies and artificial flowers, was immaculate. Our room with a private bath, including Jacuzzi, was comfortable, with a view of the formal garden, antique barn and cows grazing beyond.
After a sample, we decided against the Rowells' version of an English cooked breakfast with its ``free range'' fried egg and tough English bacon, preferring Weetabix - those cardboard-like pressed cereal cakes - toast and marmalade. Our only and very mild complaint was John Rowell's habit of bellowing hymns every morning, presumably to get us up so he could get the cleaning done.
West Harptree, nearer the charming cathedral city of Wells than Bath, is located in the rolling, sheep-dotted Mendip Hills, with red and gray stone buildings, manicured hedges and the Chew Valley Lake, which offers trout fishing and bird watching. Despite intermittent rain and chilly weather, we were so charmed by the location that we stayed three nights. We ventured forth to Wells and to Bath - where I first imagined myself a Roman colonist enjoying sybaritic pleasures at the Celtic hot spring and then as an impecunious but upwardly mobile Jane Austen heroine - and to gardens designed by such horticultural heroines as Gertrude Jekyll, Marjorie Fish and Penelope Hobhouse.
Ready to move on, we decided to stop near Salisbury and consulted our Country Rover manual. We eliminated anything charmless or postwar, favoring the idiosyncratic description over the ubiquitous ``you'll find a friendly welcome here.'' We chose a farmhouse near Salisbury that offered ``lovely walks'' and a nearby pub and asked John Rowell to telephone for a reservation.
Country Rover hosts are happy to book your next accommodation for you. It gives them a chance to warn the landlord that you're a Rover - and to warn you to honor your commitment so the hosts don't save rooms for folks who don't show up. Landlords make less profit on Rovers than participants in some other travel plans but get more of them, especially in winter, John Rowell told us. On busy weekends, he said, some landlords will turn Rovers away, opting to keep their rooms open for more lucrative guests. Rowell called the farmhouse, announcing: ``I have a couple of Country Rovers here - a nice American couple,'' but its two rooms were taken. After two more calls, he found us a room at the Rokeby Guest House in Salisbury for our fourth night.
The Rokeby's brochure describes it as ``a beautiful, nostalgic, elegant Edwardian home of `Upstairs-Downstairs' type.'' But greeting us in a many-flounced, flowered outfit, gold mules and a warm, yet no-nonsense attitude, housemistress Margaret Rogers made us feel more like actors in one of the bawdier British sitcoms.
Because Salisbury's lovely medieval cathedral, which holds one of four remaining copies of the Magna Carta, makes it a popular tourist destination, we got the last available room, below-ground and furnished with bamboo fans, chipboard furniture and a gas fire. Although the decor was undistinguished and the towels like cardboard, there was plenty of light and we welcomed the fire in record cold July temperatures.
We shared a shower and toilet with a Russian mother and son who were spending a couple of months in Salisury to learn English. To reach them we had to pass through the entrance hall in our jammies but, sorry to report, no adventures ensued. The upstairs rooms all had private baths and were a bit more lavish than our below-stairs accommodation.
The Rokeby dining room offers breakfast and dinner (with prior notice) overlooking a glass conservatory that serves as a comfortable residents' lounge accessed by a spiral staircase. From there one can walk into the half-acre manicured garden - complete with a fountain and reclining lawn chairs - and even take advantage of several exercise machines housed in a tiny outbuilding billed, rather grandly, as the gym.
According to Margaret Rogers, the 10-bedroom, Tudor-style house was built in 1901 for a chairman of the British Sugar Corp. During remodeling, Rogers and her husband restored much of the original tilework in the arched front hall and vestibule. She apologized for the heavy glass fire doors that rather spoiled the effect, but said they were among the many government and hostelry-group regulations that ensured safety and quality. Members of one or another organization make regular incognito visits to ensure that their standards are met, she said.
Although it requires using a subway (British for underground tunnel) to cross a main highway, the Rokeby is an easy 10-minute walk from Salisbury's center, where one can spend half a day visiting the cathedral, moated bishop's palace and related museums. Stonehenge is close by, as is the town of Wilton with its magnificent Wilton House and romantic gardens, currently the home of the 17th earl of Pembroke, who has installed a couple of Disney-influenced animated displays with a scary ghost and a scurrying rat as well as a huge collection of costumed teddy bears to ensure a steady stream of paying visitors. The gorgeous Double Cube Room at Wilton House, with its Van Dyke portraits and gold leaf moldings, served as the ballroom in the recent film version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
For our last night we chose Upper House, Valentine Butler's home in the hamlet of Up Nately, near Basingstoke, because it was close to Heathrow airport where we were dropping off the car, having decided to taxi into London and avoid the terrifying traffic.
I fell in love the moment I realized that this elegantly landscaped house, surrounded by gentle farmland, was to be our lodging; within half an hour I was plotting a long return visit. Acting like our chatty and loving favorite aunt, Butler invited us into her sitting room and over brandy and good wine told stories of her obstreperous family, interesting visitors and her husband's prize-winning horse Tankard, whose oil portrait holds pride of place in the dining room.
The accommodations at Upper House were sensuous and luxurious: the custom-made bed awash in feathered bolsters and flowered chintz; the dressing table set with fresh flowers, silver and crystal decanters of brandy and sherry as well as the makings of espresso and tea. Butler herself came bustling upstairs with a jug of fresh milk just before bedtime. Breakfast in the red, half-timbered dining room included freshly squeezed orange juice, perfect eggs and bacon, homemade rolls and more stories and questions from Butler.
Apologizing for the roses, which had been invisibly damaged by unseasonal rains, Butler showed us her extensive and beautiful perennial and vegetable gardens surrounding a huge heated swimming pool. Since her husband had been the family's hands-in-the-dirt gardener, the gardens are managed now by an enthusiastic gentleman who last summer was trying out the latest theories in raised-bed vegetable planting.
As we reluctantly took our leave, I wondered whether I could get commissions to paint neighboring gardens to finance a return visit. Butler said she would work on it. We departed for London, refreshed by a brand of English hospitality you could never duplicate staying in hotels.
If You Go The package. The Country Rovers package to England, Scotland and Wales is offered through travel agents who purchase the package from CIE Tours International Inc. of Cedar Knolls, N.J.
Who goes. Participants also come from throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. In 1996 about 2,000 Americans signed up. A separate B&B package for Ireland is also available.
Cost. The Country Rovers package offers a car and your choice of accommodations in more than 2,000 bed and breakfasts, inns and small hotels. A stay of three to six days will cost $63 per person per night for a standard shift, $77 for an automatic shift economy car. For seven or more days prices drop to $58 and $68. A few starred accommodations add a small surcharge for extra quality; a single room costs about $8.50 more; and if you want a private bathroom, you pay about $5 per person per night extra.
Information. Contact your travel agent.