A firsthand experience at English country living

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Brighton, the seaside resort, with its beaches, galleries, theaters, and aquarium --and the impressive Royal Pavillion, an Oriental-style palace built in 1787 for Britain's prince regent -- is a short trip from Arundel Holt Court.

The Stevenses are well-respected members of the community and thus are able to provide introductions to people who may share your special interests -- be these business-, hobby-, or sport-related.

The luxurious standards set at Arundel Holt Court are consistently maintained by all houses participating in the "At Home" network. Each facility offers a private guest suite with one or more bedrooms, sitting room, and garden. Many houses also have tennis, croquet, swimming, or golf.

The standards may be uniformly high; the individual houses are diverse and unique. For instance, there's the Old Station, Cocking Midhurst, West Sussex -- literally an old railway station, circa 1880 -- which is one of the most unusual houses. The stationmaster's house, where guests now sleep, was attached to the railway offices, and flowers were carved into the cementwork, chimneys, and woodwork. The private sitting room, with open fire and antique furniture, was once a ticket office, although the ticket window no longer exists.

Midhurst is an old market town, with castle and polo grounds. The countryside is rich with ancient churches and charming towns, and Chichester, the lovely Roman-Georgian city, is just nine miles away (Stephen and Ann Montgomery, proprietors).

Bickham House, Kenn, is six miles from the ancient cathedral city of Exeter. The house was built in 1680 by John Short, a lawyer, whose family has been in residence ever since. It was enlarged in Victorian times and contains many interesting family portraits and much fine heirloom furniture. Of note in Exeter are the 13th-century cathedral and the Guild Hall, which is the oldest municipal building in Britain, and the famous medieval underground passages nearby. Also nearby are facilities for golf, Devon beaches, and the Dartmoor National Park, with pony-trekking, nature walks, fishing, and bird watching (John and Julia Tremlett, proprietors).

Accommodation is offered on the suite-and-breakfast basis; other home-cooked meals are available, served privately or at the family table. The tariffs are standardized. For one person, the cost is L35 per night or L170 per week (about the rates are L65 and L275; for four, L75 and L330. Some houses will take more than four people; per person, add L12 per night or L60 per week. Additional meals, often of gourmet quality, cost L4 for luncheon and L8 for dinner (about $ 8.90 and $17.80.) These fees, which include all taxes and service, average to be somewhat less than first-class hotels in London and other cities.

For those who wish to be near the cities, many participating houses are actually quite convenient to Britain's urban centers. Arundel Holt Court, for example, is direct by train from London's Victoria Station. Gatwick Airport is quite convenient if you have decided to splurge on accommodations and save by flying Laker Airways.

Requests for additional information, descriptive brochures, and reservations for all the "At Home" houses should be addressed to directly to Bill and Gretchen Stevens, Arundel Holt Court, Bedham, Fittlesworth, Bulborough, West Sussex, RH20 1JP, England. Telephone 079-882-221.

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