Travel: Bed, breakfast and a hot-water bottle, too

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The Independent Travel
STAYING in London need not be expensive, as I discovered when I had to spend a couple of days a week in town over a period of months. Bed and breakfast in a private house costs on average pounds 20 a night. Depending on location and whether bathrooms are private or shared, the charge can be as low as pounds 12 or as much as pounds 40 a night; good value by any standards.

I had requested a house close to a bus stop for my first B & B and was given an address in a street of tall Victorian houses just off the King's Road. With a mixture of good manners and self-interest, I felt it best to introduce myself before finding somewhere to eat. The house was in total darkness when I arrived, although those on either side streamed with light. A shadowy figure holding a candelabra stood at the first-floor window. I walked apprehensively up the stone steps to be met by the woman with the candles. She was French and charming. A freak power failure had cut off everything electrical, including the central heating; bad news in January. But when I returned at 10.30pm all was normal. The well furnished house was warm and there was a hot- water bottle in the bed of my small but perfectly acceptable room.

My next hostess was just as agreeable. Having told her of my late-ish arrival, I turned up tired and cold at 9.30pm. 'Have a bath immediately,' she said, pouring in a soothing essence.

Bed and breakfast in private houses is growing in London with a number of agencies offering central and suburban accommodation, often for a minimum of two nights.

Those providing the beds are couples whose children have left home, women on their own who prefer taking in guests to moving to a smaller house, or professional people - both families and couples - helping to pay a big mortgage. Agencies try to match guests to hosts - women alone often prefer not to have men - and filter out undesirables. What you plan to do is taken into consideration as is whether you will have your own car or will use public transport.

For those unwilling to get involved in the slight social effort needed to stay in someone else's house, more impersonal beds can be found in the student accommodation offered during the summer holidays by King's College. There are also the many small family-run hotels costing more than a B & B but which are still not expensive. Families could try a holiday let, either a city-centre flat or a house in the suburbs.

At Home in London: Maggie Dobson began her Chiswick agency seven years ago and her network of private houses - lawyers, teachers, writers and retired people - extends to Kew and Knightsbridge. Most have private bathrooms and all are close to public transport, shops and restaurants. Professional women who dislike staying in hotels on their own use this service. From pounds 22- pounds 40 a night; family rooms sleeping three from pounds 19 (081-748 1943).

English Country Cottages: London houses range from a grade II listed rectory with a walled garden sleeping six (short breaks pounds 100 a night) to a flat for two in the Barbican (three nights, pounds 270); (0328 864041).

Hotel and Guest Service: This agency, established 36 years ago, has 900 of its 3,000 British homes in London. Carol Rutter, the owner, who runs an efficient computerised system, says she or one of her colleagues has visited all the London homes on her books. Both single and double rooms available. Prices, determined by whether rooms have private bathrooms and which of four zones they occupy, vary from pounds 12.50- pounds 30 a night; (071-731 5340).

King's Campus Vacation Bureau: Double as well as single rooms are available in seven halls of residence: Denmark Hill, Wandsworth, Hampstead, Kensington, Westminster and two in Chelsea. All are close to public transport, most have 24-hour reception desk and security. Public rooms include a television lounge. Rooms are student bedsits with desk, cupboard and washbasin; lavatories, showers, baths and a small kitchen along the corridor. Easter rooms from 21 March-25 April, summer 3 July-18 September. Single B & B, pounds 15.90 to pounds 21; (071-351 6011).

Wolsey Lodges: This group of several hundred private houses around Britain offers more than just B & B. The concept of hospitality is based on the high expectations of Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor as he journeyed round England in the 16th century. Paddy and Judith O'Hagan, with a big Victorian house in Ealing, are typical of the seven Wolsey Lodge members in London. Early arrivals are welcome to use the large, comfortable, family sitting room. Locally produced honey and free- range eggs are part of leisurely breakfasts in the south-facing conservatory overlooking the large landscaped garden; pounds 35 per person in a double room with private bathroom (081-997 2243). Wolsey Lodge brochure: 0449 741 771.

Where to Stay in London: Tourist board-registered hotels, guest houses, apartments, B & Bs and camp sites ranging from the Ritz (single room pounds 190, bed only) to Colliers, a small hotel near Victoria (single room with breakfast, pounds 18). Published by the London Tourist Board and Convention Bureau (071-730 3488), pounds 2.95 from bookshops.