Mention England and people conjure up visions of the Cotswolds, Stonehenge and the Lake District. Such beautiful sites have long been popular tourist spots.

But in the northwest of England lies Lancashire, a less-visited county known for its hospitality, its long-distance walks and short rambles, picturesque villages, and a base for day trips into nearby shires.Visitors to Lancashire will find lush green farmland with stone walls that wind up and down hillsides, dividing meadows and sorting sheep. Lancashire was once a wholly pastoral area of small land-ownings and farm families. They carded wool and produced linens and woolens on handlooms in the lofts of their cottages, giving rise to the term cottage industry. By the late 18th century, mechanization made cotton the economic mainstay of Lancashire.

Nowhere in England is a welcoming cup o' tea more characteristic than in the warmth and friendliness of Lancashire folk. No half-measures in their welcome, the shire women set their tea table with an abundance - from scones and butter to chocolate biscuits to fruit cake to traditional Victorian tea cakes to Lancashire Eccles cakes (rich, flaky pastry filled with currants).

I am the product of a long line of Lancastrians. Though transplanted to the United States as a child, I was raised with the tradition of warm welcomes. On a recent trip back to Lancashire, my husband and I experienced my shire's hospitality from family and stranger alike, enjoyed walking its trails, tarried in its beautiful villages and countryside, and visited sites of nearby counties .

One of the first things we learned was that walking is a fitting way to spend time in Lancashire. Local historians suggest that walking for enjoyment, rather than for traveling from place to place, was "invented" on the Lancashire hills as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. Mill workers used their leisure time to stride out over the moors, filling their lungs with clean air.

Today's walkers are rewarded with views of dramatic summits and spacious moors along Britain's most famous long-distance walk, the wild Pennine Way. Crossing the northeast of Lancashire, it is part of a major north-south hiking trail that runs the length of the country. A walk to Pendle's summit (1,800 feet, compared to Mt. Olympus's 9,000 feet), provides beautiful, far-ranging views.

Footpaths are well-marked and well-maintained (a 130,000-mile network of public walkways crosses the British Isles), and some follow centuries-old rights-of-way and former Roman roads. Ramblers are advised to follow the country code, closing farm gates carefully and respecting the farmland they are permitted to cross.

Besides seeing the countryside from its walking trails, one of our favorite pastimes was discovering the manor houses, abbeys, churches and cottages that provide local heritage attractions in every village. In the 1800s, the popularity of Lancashire cotton brought sudden wealth for mill owners and a spurt of stone-built mansions set amid parklands, giving Lancashire bragging rights to more such halls than the rest of the country put together.

Finding such sites was easy. We left the main roads and drove the meandering country lanes from town to town in the nippy, overcast afternoons. Stopping at tourist centers, identified throughout England by a large, blue, lower-case "i," we picked up brochures to take along as we visited some of the hundred-plus villages dotting the countryside from seaside settlements to farm hamlets to mill towns.

One of the first villages on our itinerary was Pleasington, a picturesque village that boasts rows of charming handloom weavers' cottages of the late 18th century and twin towers of the priory that can be seen for miles across the coun-try-side.

Here a distant relative (who reputedly had returned from America after he made and lost and made again a small fortune) had renovated a 300-year-old farm house. Throughout England we noted a great deal of pride in and restoration of old properties and were delighted to witness the extent of one such reconstruction firsthand.

This second cousin's restorations retained the charm of the once-crumbling three-level house with foot-thick walls, while incorporating conveniences that brought it into the 20th century. The wine cellar is now a computer room, the cloakroom/laundry is outfitted with an American washer and dryer, the large country kitch-en is equipped with a side-by-side refrigerator (also imported from the United States) and the master bedroom features a bathroom as up-to-date and elegant as any in today's Parade of Homes.

From Pleasington's peaceful rolling green hills, we drove to the north of Lancashire where the Forest of Bowland, with its sparsely settled river valleys and unspoiled quaint towns, has been called the Cotswolds of northern England. In the heart of a wooded valley, Whitewell hamlet embraces a dozen or so cottages, a church and the fetching Inn at Whitewell, built on a curve of the River Hodder. The charmingly authentic skiffing and fishing decor of the restaurant, lobby and other public rooms reflect the tradition of the well-known anglers' haunt.

In the neighboring River Ribble valley lies Downham, a town that houses workers of Downham Hall, the nearby manor house and home of Lord Clitheroe. Within the pristine hamlet, thought to be the loveliest in Lancashire, stone cottages line a gurgling brook and village green.

An ancient church with its cemetery of age-pocked, moss-covered grave markers rests beneath gnarled branches of old sycamores. The tiny post office/gift shop is as homey as a country farmhouse, complete with a huge black sheep dog asleep under a table. With no advertising hoardings (billboards) and underground power and telephone lines, the town is a favorite of English moviemakers.

Amidst the fells (foothills) of Longridge, the lovely village of Hurst Green is home to Stonyhurst, a world-famous Roman Catholic boarding school, open to the public in July and August. We were awe-struck at the palatial building, perhaps the largest in the northwest of England. The imposing 16th century manor house is located in an isolated forest at the end of acres of rugby and cricket fields. Local legend says soldier and statesman Oliver Cromwell stayed at Stonyhurst - sleeping on the table - on his way to the Battle of Preston in about 1648.

An entertaining relative, who accompanied us that day, took us to view an ancient pack-horse bridge, dating back to the 16th century. Spanning the river in a lovely, tree-lined valley, the bridge was reputedly crossed by Cromwell, leading his troops to war. Cousin Clive, leading us single-file along the edge of the narrow, twisting country road, with speeding cars skimming past us, recited a rhyme he learned as a schoolboy: "Long before the Normans out by the Severn strode, the rolling English drunkard made the winding English road."

In Altham, a central Lancashire village dating back to Saxon times built around the picturesque Parish Church of St. James, we found the definitive English bed & breakfast. A quarter of a mile down a winding dirt road, hidden in a bevy of trees and set amidst green fields, lay cozy Red House Cottage, owned by Lancashire natives Joe and Carrol Stephenson.

Built about 1716, the low-ceilinged cottage with white-washed walls is bright, cheerful and welcoming, with real fireplaces - the only ones we encountered in all of England - in both the parlor and the living room. Unlike Red House Cottage, most B&Bs and homes we visited featured fireplaces that had been converted to slim, ivory, natural-gas burning units.

Collectors of fine antiques, the Stephensons have lovingly restored furniture and hand tools and other fine old pieces that suit their cottage well. A two-by-three-foot novelty window, original to the cottage, is known as a jelly jar window. It features four vertical rows of identical clear glass jars laid end to end and cemented on top of each other to a height of 15 jars.

Up the steep staircase, a small, comfy bedroom awaited us where we had our own updated bathroom. With only one room to let, Joe and Carrol's guests receive ample personal attention, and our hosts provided a benchmark for Lancashire's reputation for hospitality.

An imaginative cook, Carrol prepared a different breakfast every morning, sometimes serving meats like kippers and smoked finnan haddie, various breads and fruit, and goose eggs fresh from the henhouse, just steps away from the cottage. Every breakfast included not only the traditional fresh, broiled tomatoes, but sauteed mushrooms as well. Learning of our penchant for hot chocolate rather than tea, she prepared a pot of Cadbury's cocoa each morning. The breakfast table was set daily with lace or linen, fabric napkins, fresh flowers and Staffordshire bone china.

Making Red House Cottage our base, we set out for the day one sunny morning and found Carrol on the front stoop of her honeysuckled-covered doorway, performing an age-old Lancashire ritual, "swilling the flags." She had carried out her dishpan of sudsy water after finishing the breakfast dishes and was scrubbing the concrete step, or flagstone, in front of the door - at one time, a weekly chore for the proper Lancashire house-wife.

Lancashire's B&Bs provide an ideal location for venturing out on numerous day trips to beautiful northern Wales, the amazingly rugged Lake District, Howarth - home of the Bronte family, the Yorkshire Dales and James Herriot country, the china factories and potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, 73-mile-long Hadrian's Wall, the prehistoric site of Lancaster, the Beatles' Liverpool and the seaside resorts of Blackpool and Fleet-wood.

We concluded our Lancashire stay in the Bolton home of shirt-tail relatives who, on our first meeting, invited us to "come for a meal." Freda cooked a traditional Lancashire dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and served the food on beautiful Royal Doulton china. The meal included mashed and roasted potatoes, three home-grown vegetables, summer pudding with fresh strawberries and clotted cream and, following dinner, a marble platter with five kinds of cheese and four kinds of digestive biscuits.

Those who have visited London, Oxford, and Bath know their special mystique, and probably also remember the crowds. But just a few hours' drive north, across the peaceful, rural landscapes of Lancashire, visitors will be warmly welcomed as they find their own treasures: a fine old church, a beautiful stretch of secluded river, a stone mansion not listed on a historic tour, a charming old barn or farm - gems not recorded in a guidebook frequented by tourists, or already captured hundreds of times on film. Uniquely, exclusively Lancashire.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

If you go

The rate at Red House Cottage bed and breakfast is about $27 per person per night.

The best way to see Britain is by car. For our two trips there (we flew once into Manchester and once into Gatwick), we rented a car. Last year, we paid about $620 to rent a car for 18 days, excluding gasoline. The distance from Gatwick airport, near London, to Preston, Lancashire's major city, is about 250 miles, all on the motorway (freeway). The distance from Manchester to the heart of the Ribble Valley is about 30 miles on secondary roads.

- Ann Hobson