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Finding digs in London

MANY travelers are surprised to learn how inexpensive and easy it is to rent an apartment in central London. Accommodations can be booked for almost any length of time - three days, three months, longer - often for less than the price of a modest hotel room.

These self-catering apartments - so-called because the apartments have full kitchens, although maid service is included with the rent - are growing in popularity for their comfort, economy, and freedom of movement.

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Pimlico has become the area of our choice for renting apartments. It is a charming area in the heart of central London, next to Victoria Station and close to Buckingham Palace. Although the location couldn't be more convenient, the prices are much more reasonable than the adjacent areas of Belgravia, Chelsea, and Sloane Square and the neighborhood is safe.

Pimlico is steadily undergoing gentrification. The lovely old Georgian buildings constructed by Thomas Cubbitt, the great master builder who developed so much of central London, are being renovated. The buildings retain their graceful Palladian exteriors, but inside are modern kitchens, bathrooms, elevators, and central heating. Gentry and nobility, businesspeople, and television and theater personalities are moving in; yet it is still a popular area with tourists.

The space and privacy of a rented flat are particularly enjoyable. Ours featured a living room with a comfortable couch, easy chairs, TV, and bookshelves. A separate dining alcove provided plenty of space for eating, writing, or playing cards. The bedroom and private bath were nicely outfitted.

The kitchen was fully equipped with electric stove, refrigerator, dishes, and utensils. There was even an iron and ironing board. Maid service and all utilities were included with the rent, and we were able to arrange for a telephone in our apartment. Bed linens and towels were provided.

A one-bedroom apartment in Pimlico costs about $26 a person per day during the peak season (based on an exchange rate of $1.50 to the pound), or $375 a week for two people. Studio apartments are somewhat cheaper.

To the tourist in England, the somewhat rigid mealtimes can be disconcerting. We were glad to be free from scheduled meals, and to be able to eat what and when we wanted. We occasionally enjoyed sleeping in, and not having to worry about getting down to the hotel dining room for breakfast by 9 a.m. A full English breakfast is usually included with the price of a hotel room, however, we were inclined to roll out and meet this early challenge.

Nevertheless, since we were on vacation we did eat out frequently - although it can be expensive. We found a wide choice of restaurants in the neighborhood, including Indian, Italian, and Chinese, and traditional English.

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Shopping for food became a series of happy adventures. The excellent delicatessens and food shops in the neighborhood provided delightful gourmet surprises. The stalls of an outdoor market running the length of a city block on Tachbrook Street display dozens of exotic as well as everyday vegetables and fruits. A ``wet and dry'' (meaning fresh as well as dried) fish market proffers a dazzling range of seafoods at reasonable prices.

The walk from our apartment to Victoria Station took seven minutes. This station, with its access to the District, Circle, and Victoria lines of the underground, or ``tube,'' is also a major British rail terminal for travel to the south of England. The same terminal houses the Sealink for trains that connect directly with ferry boats and hovercraft to the Continent.

A flat in Pimlico makes an ideal base for overnight or longer trips to see other parts of the country. In London itself, we found that for a low subway fare we could go from Victoria Station to destinations such as the Tower of London, the British Museum, the West End and the theater district, Piccadilly Circus, the Knightsbridge shopping area (with Herrods and Selfridges), the Victoria and Albert Museum, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Barbican, and the National Gallery.

In addition to several lovely Anglican churches in Pimlico, the magnificent Westminster Cathedral is nearby on Victoria Street. Westminster Abbey is a 20-minute walk up the same street.

If you go

Three agencies which deal with apartments in Pimlico are:

E & E Apartments, 90 Wilton Rd., London SW1V1DN. Telephone 01-828-0453. Open 9:30-5:30 London time.

Chartleigh Apartments Ltd., 85 Cambridge St., London SW1V 4PY. Telephone 01-834-9324.

Pimlico Apartments, 52 Moreton St., London SW1V2PB. Telephone 01-834-4185 or 834-7053.

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