"Our group of friends is gonna take London by storm"

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Six members of the Red Hat Society head to London to paint the town--well, what color would you expect?

In 1993, the quilting bug bit a group of nurses and receptionists at an OB/GYN office in Fitchburg, Mass. The ladies--Terri Bulger, Pattie Kullman, Judy Logue, Lucille McCaie, Cathy McCarthy, and Nancy Sulin--started meeting once a week outside of work to learn the craft from Nancy. Quilting lessons quickly became an excuse to gossip, relax, eat, and laugh. Their office shut down and the women moved on to other jobs, but the gatherings remained sacrosanct. "We decided upon Thursday night," explained Terri. "Hell or high water, you'd better be there!"

The Red Hat Society, an informal organization of mature women who get together to whoop it up while wearing bright-red hats, seemed like a natural fit for the six fun-loving friends. They officially joined the society a year ago, and now the ladies, whose ages range from 45 to 53, regularly dress for outings in their most outlandish red chapeaus. They also pool their funds together for an annual group vacation. Past trips have included Cape Cod, where Nancy has a house, and Amish country in Pennsylvania.

"We had been doubling the money we threw in the pot and thought, 'Let's take a big trip,'" said Terri.

"Some of the girls had never left the country," said Lucille. "We decided we were going to do Europe."

London was at the top of everyone's list, and they booked airfare and a flat close to Trafalgar Square, through Mansley Travel Apartments (011-44/20-7373-4689, mtaint.co.uk) for four nights in early November. Since none of them had been to London, the major sights were a must. Just as important was exploring local stores and markets, so they contacted us for help.

First things first: We steered the Red Hatters to a few websites that cover most of the basics: visitlondon.com has a great link (click on Budget) that lists free museums and attractions, ways to save on theater tickets, and tips for finding deals at designer stores; londontown.com posts discounts on tours, hotels, and airport transfers, as well as hundreds of restaurant reviews; and timeout.com/london offers the lowdown on bars, art exhibits, and events.

"Do the double-decker buses still run?" asked Terri. "It would be fun to get up on the deck and spot things and say, 'I'd like to go there.'" We told them about the Big Bus Company (48 Buckingham Palace Rd., 011-44/20-7233-9533, bigbustours.com,) a popular option that lets tourists hop on and off at more than 50 stops. Each bus ticket comes with guided walks in town and a cruise on the Thames; a pass valid for 24 hours is £18 (due to the weak dollar, that's a steep $32, though they can save £2 by booking online). A less touristy ride around London--but without the Big Bus's sightseeing commentary--costs as little as $4.50, the rate for one day of unlimited travel on the city's public buses (hop on route numbers 3, 11, 77A, or 159). Bus passes need to be purchased before boarding, at any Tube station or roadside ticket machine(Transport for London: 011-44/20-7941-4500,tfl.gov.uk, day bus pass $4.50.)

But sightseeing can only get a girl so far. "Millinery shops are a must," Lucille told us. The ladies will be searching for (what else?) some new red hats, and, lucky for them, London is a mad hatter's dream. For this important mission, we're sending them to Rachel Trevor-Morgan (18 Crown Passage, 011-44/20-7839-8927.) Located off of posh Pall Mall, the high-end shop is in walking distance of their apartment. We also thought the group would get a kick out of a visit to the boutique of Philip Treacy (69 Elizabeth St., 011-44/20-7730-3992,) the Irish-born milliner whose fanciful hats are displayed in museums and on the heads of celebs such as Victoria Beckham. To round out the hat search, we recommended a visit to London's landmark department store Harrods (87 Brompton Rd., Knightsbridge, 011-44/20-7730-1234.)

Terri makes clothes for her infant granddaughter and is always on the hunt for material, Cathy is interested in cross-stitching, and all six of the women like to sew and quilt. We recommended Berwick Street in London's Westminster neighborhood, where stores such as Textile King (81 Berwick St., 011-44/20-7437-7372) and Accessories World (71 Berwick St., 011-44/20-7734-1698) specialize in rare fabrics and jewelry sold wholesale. For a higher-end shop, Liberty (Regent St., 011-44/20-7734-1234) founded in 1875, is the place to go. Once inside the formidable Tudor entrance on Great Marlborough Street, the women will find first-rate haberdashery, yarn, cross-stitching kits, clothing and upholstering fabric, patterns, buttons, and thread galore in the sprawling, wood-paneled store. (Liberty also has a fine hat department.) Things can cost a bundle here, but those willing to plow through the sale merchandise can find bargains.

The crew was also curious about London's open-air markets, where shops set up stalls right on the street. Because the ladies are antiquers, we directed them to the unbeatable Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill, held every Saturday. Smart shoppers stop by early, since all the wares are put out in the morning.

A lesser-known market but one with incredible flowers--which Pattie simply can't get enough of--is the Columbia Road Flower Market in east London, held every Sunday. Pattie won't be able to bring fresh blossoms back with her, but we suggested she dry some choice specimens for homemade potpourri.

After getting their fill of shopping, the girls want to hit the town. Judy, a darts addict, planned to bring her own darts--put them in your checked luggage, Judy!--and try her luck in a pub. The rest of the women volunteered to be her cheering squad. "We stir things up quite a bit," Terri said. "But I don't want to get thrown out of anywhere!" One place that will be happy to have them is the Anchor Pub, in Battersea (61 Holgate Ave., 011-44/20-7585-1105,) where darts trophies crowd the shelves. Seven different teams play regularly at the pub, and people bring in darts for nightly tournaments.

No trip to London would be complete without seeing the Queen and Prince Charles. And why not throw in the Beatles and Madonna? The ladies refused to leave without visiting Madame Tussauds (Marylebone Rd., 011-44/870-400-3000, madame-tussauds.co.uk, day ticket $35.50,) the famous waxworks. We cautioned them against the tempting advance-ticket booking option. For £2 extra (almost $4) they would have a guaranteed entry time, which would be worth it in the summer, when lines can last several hours. In the off-season, however, waits are usually only a few minutes and almost never more than a half hour. Also, the museum is open until 7 p.m., and although standard tickets start at $36, rates drop by $7.20 at 3 p.m., and by another $9 at 5 p.m.

Finally, we had to ask: Are husbands ever invited on the trips?

"No!" Lucille exclaimed.

"England doesn't know what's going to hit them," said one spouse, who wanted to remain anonymous. "If they did, they'd close the border."

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