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USER-FRIENDLY LONDON BEGS TO BE EXPLORED

Of all the European capitals, London may be the most visitor-friendly for the first, or even the fifth, time around.

London begs to be explored each time. It speaks in a funny kind of English lingo that you'll pick up after a couple of days - trust me. The cabbies will love you; the bus operators are courteous, and the tram runs on time. You can even get a decent cup of coffee and, praise be, a meal that hasn't been boiled for two days. It's as nouvelle as you need it to be. Or not.In fact, you just may have no complaints. But you can't afford to be blase in Britain.

One of the most important things to learn about London is that it's a walking city. Anybody coming here should step out in London's footpaths.

Bedford Pace, public relations director of the New York office of the British Transit Authority, was my guide. Pace, a native of Beaumont, Texas, knows London; he knows what you absolutely should see, what you might like and what's current.

For my sixth visit, he chose the St. James area. There's something for everyone within its parameters, from St. James's Park to Green Park to Spencer House, from Buckingham Palace to Fortnum and Mason, the upscale store where the floormen still wear white tie. Hatchard's Books boasts the insignia noting royal appointments as book purveyors to Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles. One hears that the family reads only during their August holiday in Scotland. Hat-chard's ships its recommendations to the illustrious clients, mostly light and airy stuff.

Jermyn (as in German) Street sports the elegant shops that cater to every whim of English gentlemen. At No. 93, you'll still find Paxton & Whitfield Ltd., cheese-mongers since 1797. Sunday tea at the Ritz Hotel (on Picadilly) is enormously popular, with two afternoon sessions. Book early as both are sold out by Sunday.

Shops in the nearby Royal Opera Arcade, completed in 1818, mix the new and traditional for the British country life. Farlow's, for instance, is home for the English country green Wellington boots.

London cuisine is no longer an oxymoron. It's not just fish (usually cod or haddock) and chips (potatoes), both deep fried. Or, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; or, steak and kidney pie. Mercifully, you can live without bubble and squeak (mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage, then fried).

In the St. James's area - within walking distance - is The Square, the newest, the trendiest and the latest to receive the coveted Michelin restaurant recognition. Located at 32 King St., it will keep you waiting for your reserved table. It's worth the wait, but expensive. Call 071-839-8787.

Quaglino's (16 Bury St., Picadilly Circus in St. James's) is a Sir Terence Conran dazzler that is packed for lunch and dinner. International fare reigns, but it's heavy on Italian. Call 071-930-6767.

Also in Picadilly Circus is The Criterion, an opulent, beautifully restored restaurant that serves sophisticated Italian food at high-to-reasonable prices. The Criterion is one of Chicago restaurateur Bob Payton's successes. Reservations are suggested even for a sensational, show-stopper dessert. Call 071-924-0909.

The Stafford Hotel, 18 St. James Place, stands near parks and palaces in posh St. James's. Here you can step back in time. The small reception area leads to the hotel drawing room. An ever-so-proper tea is served every afternoon. Keep walking, and you'll be in the American Bar, the subject of books and recipient of awards. Charles, the head barman, has been serving guests for more than 30 years. He is a celebrity in his chummy domain.

Off a cobblestone courtyard is the Carriage House, a historically restored stable mews building with 12 rooms and suites, all with stereo systems and safes.

My room was No. 3, a combined bed/sitting room with a decor that was very English yet hardly froufrou. Lots of closet space was tucked away, and comfortable chairs circled a small, low table. The door keys included a key to the hotel's rear door for fast, private entry.

My junior suite was $445 a night (that includes Value Added Tax of 17.3 percent).

It's a short walk to Spencer House, 27 St. James's Place, open to the public only on Sunday afternoon. Admission (approximately $9) includes an hourlong guided tour.

Spencer House is London's only surviving great 18th-century town house. Until the early 1930s, it was the city home for the Spencers - the family of Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales. In the 1980s, the house was acquired by the Rothschild Administration, restored and opened for corporate parties and public tours.

The showcase is the Palm Room, designed by John Vardy, with extraordinary gilded palm trees and fronds. Other massive rooms, drawing and dining, require both art and decor of enormous dimensions.

Restoring the grandeur of the place is an ongoing process, but the historic state rooms are coveted for private and corporate dinners and for international occasions. It is open Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tours begin every 15 minutes, the last starting at 4:45 p.m.

From Spencer House I walked to the Royal Academy of Art (Burlington House, Picadilly. Admission: $6.75), then to the National Portrait Gallery (St. Martin's Place; admission free), and back to the hotel.

You're in luck if you go before Oct. 2. Buckingham Palace is open again for visitors. There's no way to book a reserved palace tour on a specific date, but a traveler can go to the palace and stand in line any time between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Admission is about $12 for adults, $6 for children and $7 for seniors. Proceeds go toward the repair of fire-damaged Windsor Castle.

Stafford Managing Director Alan H. FitzGerald, an affable chap and a practiced hotelier, knows that at these prices he must sell personal service.

If the Stafford isn't within your price range, go for its afternoon tea, a production in gracious living.

A scone with clotted cream and jam is one of life's more sensuous pleasures. The thick cream, almost the consistency as cream cheese, is whipped and sweet. Save room for paper-thin cucumber and salmon sandwiches and pastries.

Be prepared to step at parade pace if you are lucky enough to have London walker doyenne Katie Lucas as your guide. Call Lucas at Grosvernor Guide Service (01-352-6300). Her book, "London Walkabouts with Katie Lucas," is instructional, but it's difficult to walk with it open. Lucas knows London; she talks nonstop as she strides.

She describes the village inhabitants and homes: the gentlemen's clubs, the little cafes, the Queen Mum's residence.

Pass through Green Park, and she'll tell you which early royal commissioned it and who has lived around it. March on to Bond Street, on to Savile Row, renowned for men's tailoring. Then on to Picadilly Circus.