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A firsthand experience at English country living

By Jennifer MerinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 1981

Fittlesworth, Sussex, England

The English countryside is landscaped with gently rolling hills, open fields neatly fenced by stone walls and hedges, little lanes, quaintly ancient towns, charming cottages --and an abundance of elegant old houses. These mansions, partly hidden behind curtains of hedge and ivy, inevitably arouse the traveler's curiosity.

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Arundel Holt Hall, here in Fittlesworth, West Sussex, is an ideal place to satisfy such a feeling. It is the home of Gretchen and Bill Stevens, an enterprising American couple who fell in love with the English countryside and settled here.

The Stevenses have developed a network of about 20 elegant and historically interesting "gentlemen's residences," including their own home. They are now offering accommodations to the traveler who wishes to experience at first hand the best of English country living. "At Home -- Country Holiday," as the network is known, has affiliate houses scattered throughout England's rural counties from Devon to Yorkshire.

Arundel Holt Hall, the seat of this network, is a handsome brick and tile Edwardian structure, beautifully set in protected Sussex woodlands. The history of the house stretches back to before the Norman Conquest, to the Charcoal Burners Bedham, a pre-Roman tribal culture, when a tiny cottage was built on the spot. Through years of additional construction, the present mansion was completed, and, most recently, restored with loving care by the Stevenses.

The traveler-guest has his own suite of rooms (in fact, a separate wing of the house), including a large wood-beamed twin-bedded room, private bath, an oak-paneled, book-bedecked library with fireplace, and a sun room and terrace which provide a glorious overview of the beech trees of the Weald. The Stevens family's enormous enthusiasm for their home and its environs is catching, especially when they guide you to local points of interest. Gretchen, a bright and cheerful companion, offers a concise history of the area. She explains that she thinks of England as "something of an onion, with layer upon layer of history to be unpeeled, discovered, savored."

The Stevenses are extraordinarily gracious and sensitive hosts, and take their cue from you -- you may enjoy total privacy, or take part in some of their family activities as you wish. You may explore the area on your own, or be escorted, or left to spend all of your time in the luxurious seclusion of your quarters.

Among the most interesting attractions in the neighborhood of Arundel Holt Court are:

Bignor Roman Villa, the ongoing excavation site of one of Britain's largest Roman estates, abandoned by Roman legions withdrawing from this area. The villa was a working farm, centered on 4 1/2 wall-enclosed acres of land. The buildings had mosaic tiled floors dating from the 4th century; these are among the finest and most beautiful to be seen in Britain. These floors are gradually being unearthed and restored by the Tupper family, which now owns the site.

Wildfowl Trust Arundel, a cleverly conceived game preserve, offers walks and trails for an undisturbed encounter with the countryside and with local birds and other animals.

Arundel Castle, the ancient and carefully restored seat of the Duke of Norfolk, contains rooms rich in antique furnishings and art objects.