Heathrow on a cold wet evening. You're slightly bent out of shape after flying sardine-class from Paris, and it's been a hard day's week. But today is Friday so you can relax. And Simon is here to meet you with the Rolls.

You sink into this luxurious cocoon and unwind with a glass of champagne while Simon fills you in on what's new. He buys you a drink at the hotel, and you spend an hour or so discussing how to make the most of your weekend visit. Tomorrow, you want to do some shopping, maybe check out that new Italian restaurant and catch a show. No problem. Simon will make reservations and pick you up at 9.

That you should have such a friend in London!

Welcome to Friends in London Ltd., an original meet-and-greet service formed by Simon Anderson, a young New Zealander, in 1984. The idea is not only to drive people around but offer them the kind of personal, informal help and advice that they would expect from a friend.

"When I was living in Los Angeles I had 380 visitors in three years. I had so much fun showing them around that I thought, here's a way of combining what I enjoy doing with living in London and getting paid for it," Anderson says. "I try to do the meeting and greeting and consultation myself. I only recommend things based on my personal experience, such as restaurants. And I never accept commissions."

Last year, Anderson says, he looked after 120 visitors, most from the United States. "I'd say about 90 percent of the people I meet end up spending a lot of their time with me. We work very hard to make them comfortable."

Friends like this don't come cheap: For meeting you at Heathrow in his Rolls-Royce, Anderson charges

75 (about $130),

115 from Gatwick. Or you can opt for his Jaguar at

55 ( 70 from Gatwick). This compares with

18 to

20 for a taxi and

20 to

30 for a chauffeur-driven car. But you won't get such tender loving care as help at the airport (changing tickets, money or whatever), champagne en route and -- when you get to the hotel -- the chance to chat for an hour or so with someone knowledgeable about the local scene.

Says Anderson, "I'll find out what people's interests are, what they've seen, what they know and don't know. If it's their first visit, I'll answer all their questions about the basics, or if they've been to London before, all the latest tips about what to see and do. They can hire me or go off on their own. They can also use me as a resource center. It's a risk if people call me and I have to spend time finding things out for them without me earning anything. But that's what a friend will do; that's the concept I'm selling. It hasn't been abused as yet."

Anderson draws on a network of free-lance professionals -- such as Blue Badge guides, who are accredited by the London Tourist Board -- for specialist knowledge. "For example, a U.S. banking chain in London asked us to help a German client, with no English, who wanted to bid for impressionist paintings at Sotheby's, both for a museum and his own collection. We found a German-born guide, who was also an art specialist, to help with his bidding," Anderson says. "One client wanted us to track down some letters of W.B. Yeats and take him and his fiance'e round to buy them as a surprise."

For a half-day tour in the Rolls in and around London, Anderson charges

80 ( 120 for a full day). "But if it's just from A to B, I charge an hourly rate of

10 plus

1.30 a mile," he says. "Most of my clients are people on vacation, but I am getting more and more corporate business. Sometimes a friendly one-on-one service isn't appropriate, so I have to make clear in advance that I'm not a chauffeur. My style is to relate as an equal to my clients. Of course, if I'm driving a couple for a night on the town, it's unlikely I'd join them for dinner, but if we're out in the country, say to Eton, Windsor and Hampton Court, I'd take them into a pub for lunch, buy them a drink, I might even buy lunch or split the cost. That's what makes this service unique."

Every driver/guide service is unique in a way -- it depends on personal style and chemistry. But the idea of hiring an informal travel "consultant" has been around for some time and is especially well developed in Britain. According to Catherine Althaus, a spokeswoman at the British Tourist Authority in London, it was Fred Pearson of London-based Take-A-Guide Ltd. who "fathered the whole concept of personalized, meet-and-greet driver/guides 25 years ago as an Oxford undergraduate with a Rolls and bowler hat. Then there's Katie Lucas, who runs the Grosvenor Guide Service, who does a similar kind of thing, except perhaps more personal; for example, she can get the queen's coachman to give you a tour of the Royal Mews."

"We cater to mainly U.S. visitors, providing them with whatever they want, a car from a Ford Cortina to a stretched Mercedes 600 and a young, enthusiastic, intelligent, entertaining guide, who is qualified by the tourist board," says Fred Pearson. "The business traveler is keen to have an attractive girl to take him around. If he's with his wife, she will take her off to shop while he does his meetings.

"Very often they'll come in on Friday or Saturday and then carry on to the Cotswolds, Bath, Stonehenge ... get updated on places to take business contacts out to lunch. We quite often act or pose as a person from the company we're representing. A lot of companies use us to meet people at the airport. Some people don't want the personal bit, so we keep our traps shut. We're very flexible."

Take-A-Guide has about 100 guides, 30 to 35 in London and the rest in Paris,where they perform a similar service. A typical charge for an airport pickup is

58 from Heathrow and

98 from Gatwick. This includes a daily paper, a rundown of what's on in London and a guided tour to the hotel. Half-day sightseeing in London costs about

69, and a full day

128.

Katie Lucas employs 16 "hand-picked" guides and specializes in visits to private homes and other places that are not open to the public. "I try very hard to get the right guide for the right person. Most guides have a special interest. I have two art historians and one {guide} who is married to a well-known art dealer. Most people want women, but I do have some men," she says. "I've just had a call from Maryland, a couple who are interested in horses and cairns. So I've just been speaking to a guide who knows a great deal about horses and dogs, and the tour I have organized will encompass these interests, like going to a horse show and a dog show on their three weeks around Britain. Then I might lay on a picnic in the Members' Enclosure at Windsor Great Park, for the polo, with lovely food and lots of alcohol. That costs

100 a head for the day.

"I've done visits to the Houses of Parliament, including the Members' Bar, although that's getting more difficult because of security, and following the trail of Henry Tudor, starting at Pembroke Castle, where he was born, and ending up at Bosworth Field with a jousting session and a medieval banquet. Some people just want to be picked up at the airport and oriented, but the majority want more than that. Perhaps a visit to Neolithic sites, for which I'd do the research."

Grosvenor Guides charges by the day and distance. A Heathrow pickup is

40; a day around London,

120; and a day trip to Bath,

190. Touring costs

175 a day plus a

35 overnight allowance for the guide. "Unless you want to visit somewhere private, you can wait until you're here to decide," Lucas says.

British Tours Ltd., which was formed in 1958, claims to be the oldest and largest firm offering personal driver/guides. According to general manager Maggie Rogers, 50 to 60 guides conducted about 8,000 tours last year. These ranged from a three-hour "introduction to London" to a six-day tour of the Scottish Highlands. Rates vary from

90 to

240 per day. British Tours is highly recommended by several hotel concierges in London, although you are less likely to find the personal touch.

Make sure you get what you ask for. Has Simon Anderson had an image problem with his Friends of London? "No one's confused us with an escort service," he says, "although we have been asked if we're anything to do with the international Quaker movement." Roger Collis is a free-lance writer and columnist.