'OFFERING bed and breakfast never appealed, let's be honest,' says Henriette Clifford. 'But I was persuaded and it's turned out to be, well . . . fun.' Mrs Clifford's B&B facilities are definitely at odds with the image of nylon sheets, frying smells in the bedrooms and draconian missives about hot water.

Accommodation is in her Palladian Gloucestershire mansion amid a 1,500-

acre estate, with a canal and Dutch orangery, and lakes round the back. There might even be polo on the lawn. For Mrs Clifford, a bit of extra pocket money and the liking of good company made her follow a new trend set by other owners of grand country houses and open her doors to paying guests.

Her visitors come through the Bulldog Club, which started out offering luxury rooms in private London homes. It has now branched into the countryside, making strict demands on its hosts. Bathrobes, for instance, scarcely offered in most B&Bs, are a standard feature. Fresh flowers are part of the deal, as are tea- and coffee-making facilities in the bedrooms. A bottle of wine greets arrivals near the majestic front door and Perrier or Malvern water are left at the bedside. 'I seemed to pass the interview and that was nice,' says Mrs Clifford. 'Their standards are not for the faint-hearted.'

Members pay an annual pounds 25 fee and receive a list of 18 country houses on offer. There are castles in Scotland and the Lake District (one with 2,000 acres), a Queen Anne mansion in Suffolk, Georgian stately homes - nothing less grand than a manor house, with prices per night ranging from pounds 43 to pounds 73. Guests must pay in advance, presumably to avoid the unedifying prospect of financial transactions in the purity of a drawing room.

Increasingly, Bulldog's organiser, Amanda St George, is bombarded with country people, hard-pressed for cash, wanting to get on board. 'But I always resist those wanting to do it just for money,' she says. 'Hosts have to offer much more commitment. They must give people time.'

However, the suspicion lingers that the country Bulldog Club operation has been nourished by people's need to take in strangers, like quality washing, through force of circumstances.

Guests receive information about their hosts. Mrs Clifford's interests are down as wildlife, period furniture and ornithology. She and her family still own much of the adjoining village, which was given to them as a reward for loyalty after the Norman Conquest. Construction work on the present house started in 1732 under John Strahan, a pupil of Vanbrugh, the creator of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. Definitely not the average B&B. 'I think a private home offers more fun,' she says. Even in slacks and gardening shirt, Mrs Clifford exudes the style only those living on a Palladian mansion can achieve, as she glides through her home, demonstrating Georgian marvels with quiet authority.

She pulls a 250-year-old trellised dog- gate across the elegant staircase, as if every home had one. 'It is rather attractive isn't it? They were such craftsmen.'

The mansion, Grade I listed, is signed over to her son, but still needs cash for maintenance and recently needed to have a lead roof replaced. Her son lives nearby in a timbered Elizabethan house. 'With two beautiful homes, it's a bit of a drain on resources,' Mrs Clifford says. 'I suppose I do B&B for the company and a bit of pin-money in equal measure. But it never generates enough to pay for roofs or stonework.'

So far, most guests crunching along the gravel have been young professional Americans. 'They don't seem particularly overawed. I think they must come from substantial backgrounds.'

Usually, Mrs Clifford takes in just one couple. They have use of a drawing-room panelled in American red oak (British wood was hard to get in the 1730s) and overlooking parkland. Most bedroom furniture is from the 18th century. Walls are dotted with flora watercolours painted by Clifford ancestors.

'I suppose it's like a grand hotel, but without other guests,' she adds. 'I usually have a chat when they arrive - give them the history - and then leave them alone if they want. They can wander where they wish.'

The lord of the manor, her Fifties portrait in cocktail dress on the wall, serves breakfast in an oak panelled dining-

room with a huge 18th-century walnut table and a Delft tile fireplace. Full English breakfast, if required comes with heavy-duty cutlery and condiments. Not a plastic tomato-shaped ketchup container in sight.

'But I would never dream of putting a B&B sign at the front gate,' she says, with a shiver. 'Don't know who would come along. Crooks and the like.'

CHARLES and Tinkie Wellwood took paying guests for the first time last year at their 17th-century manor house near Edinburgh, set in 120 acres of parkland and owned by the family for 400 years. Mr Wellwood is a farmer, born in Kenya, while his wife (named after Tinkerbell in Peter Pan) runs the house.

'Staying in somebody's home is far more fun than a hotel,' he says. Even so, some visitors have confessed to arguments about who would make the first tentative knock on the front door.

'But guests need not have a chat. Some have been - how shall I say? - a bit quiet. They probably saw us as duds.' Many Bulldog Club guests, however, subsequently became firm friends.

'Of course, a bit of cash is useful for new curtains and the like. But it's not really a business for us - more a way of meeting stimulating people. For guests, we are an unknown commodity and we appreciate them coming, being prepared to make an effort.'

In Oxfordshire, Patricia Croft and her husband, Guy, an investment manager, opened their Georgian manor house for Bulldog B&Bs this year. They bought it six years ago from Iris Murdoch, the novelist, and her husband, John Bayley.

'We lived in another house in the village and looked at Iris's house every morning, thinking how enchanting it was,' says Mrs Croft.

One guest bedroom was Dame Iris's work-room for more than 30 years, and overlooks a five-acre garden with exotic trees planted by the novelist and her husband. The Crofts have added to the garden. 'We are tree snobs now.' Another bedroom has a wooden bedstead that once belonged to John Bayley's grandmother - and was probably Iris Murdoch's bed during those creative years.

The couple have renovated parts of the house and devised a colour scheme of bold greens and yellows. Esoteric furniture, designed by Mrs Croft, who is an interior and furniture designer, is studiously placed in many rooms, with a cigar- shaped table in the dining room.

'Iris came back for dinner and looked around for a long time,' Mrs Croft recalls. 'She made no comment all evening, and I was sure she didn't like it. But a mutual friend later told me that she approved.'

The Bulldog idea appealed to the Crofts because they enjoy entertaining and can specify the days when they will take guests. When abroad, they also try to stay in other people's homes.

Guests have their own bedroom, drawing-room and dining-room - 'A suite of rooms, like in a hotel, but not at a suite of rooms prices.' So far, about 20 people - British, continentals and Americans - have been to stay, including a number of artistic celebrities. Mrs Croft won't say who.

Some guests are writers - 'Thirty- three years of Murdoch writing here is great attraction' - and most are professional. 'Some ask about Iris and her time in the house, but don't dwell,' she adds, hinting that such inquisitiveness is poor form. 'We want to enjoy our house with interesting people - they have been delightful, just like friends. To fill this place is simply wonderful.'

The Bulldog Club, 35 The Chase, London SW4 ONP (071-622 6935).

(Photograph omitted)