The coaching inns of southeast England

Spur-of-the-moment travel offers a gypsy-like taste of freedom. Of course, carefully laid plans over a period of months allow for the inclusion of toothbrushes, extra socks, maps, and itinerary. But there is a kind of modern-day magic in throwing a few clothes in a bag, scrambling around for a misplaced passport, then slamming the door on schedules and responsibilities.

On one such impromptu trip to England for a tour of old coaching inns, this contemporary vagabond hit the high road on the Concorde - a mode of travel for some, an adventure for others. I fall in the latter category, so I was consequently very curious about an experience that has become somewhat of a legend. Over the years there have been critiques on virtually every aspect of Concorde travel, from the ambitious attempts at full-service meals and its fuel efficiency to the serving of caviar to passengers at 10 in the morning.

But I must admit, while waiting to board, I found myself putting aside my croissant and tentatively nibbling a caviar canape. Despite the seeming extravagance of this early-morning introduction, the Concorde and its service have the understated elegance that marks a good hotel. This point was illustrated when I overheard a fellow passenger, obviously new to Concorde but familiar with first class, ask rather archly why he was being shuffled toward a seat in the rear. In a patient and well-modulated British accent, the purser explained, ''There are no classes on Concorde, sir.'' Reassured and put at his ease, he took his seat.

Once our party arrived in England, we lingered just long enough to change a few dollars and then were on our way to Dorking, Surrey, for our first old coaching inn. In the heyday of coach travel, these inns were usually small affairs with five or six bedrooms. Over the years, many of them have added rooms to the small original structure, resulting in an eclectic melange of styles and periods.

A mere 27 miles from central London, we arrived at the Burford Bridge Inn. According to local sources, there was a building on the site as far back as 1620 , but it would take an architect-historian-detective to determine what of this rambling structure was added on when. On first impression, the outside was a kind of Christmas-lit facade with a landscape of streetlights and parked cars. But inside, away from this bit of roadside theatrics, the inn had the charm of a mid-Victorian country house, with its public rooms furnished in rosewood and framed country prints, and fragrant with red and orange freesia spilling from crystal vases.

My personal style of touring is to get up at a reasonable hour; no 6 or 7:30, but rather a leisurely 8 or 8:30. The pleasure of lingering over breakfast while listening to the birds in a country inn's gardens can't be too highly recommended. So that is just what we did - sat down to breakfast with plenty of time to discuss plans for the day and see if anyone was really up for hiking up Box Hill, a National Trust Property of 800 acres of woods and downs behind the inn.

Box Hill loomed persistently as a topic of conversation, but no steps were actually taken toward the door. It wasn't so much that the proverbial ''English mist'' was falling a bit too heavily; rather it was the thrill of looking out while sipping freshly squeezed orange juice and savoring hot croissants slathered with butter and strawberry jam.

Instead, we contented outselves with gleaning the facts secondhand. Apparently, from the top of the hill (the highest official point in Surrey) there are magnificent views over the Weald to the South Downs. Once I had heard this view could be appreciated after a brief drive up a well-paved road, there was certainly time for yet another round of croissants.

After throwing my clothes back in my leather satchel, it was off to the heights of Box Hill and a 40-mile view of rolling farm landscape, the earth so rich and brown it was almost black as the sun broke through the clouds. Driving through the flickering shadows of beech and oaks, we continued along Route A-25 past ancient farmland tilled in patchworks of fields and hedgerows. After passing through the Saxon village of Godstone, where stone and stucco houses with leaded pane windows wind around narrow sidewalks, we continued along country roads into Westerham, in the county of Kent.

We stopped here, a lovely town of dooryard gardens and shops, to stock up on English jams and jellies and canned biscuits and take a tour of antique shops. For my part, I wandered into the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, a 14 th-century flint church set dramatically on the edge of a hill against the shifting moods of the sky. While I have willingly spent my share of time in antique shops, there was an aura about this place, like many English churchyards with their lichen-encrusted gravestones, that calls on visitors to slow down, wait a minute, and savor the stillness.

I could have lingered for hours along the deeply worn paths behind the church or waded through the tall grass enveloping the gravestones. But we had promised ourselves a visit to nearby Chartwell, home of Sir Winston and Lady Churchill - a visit that turned out to be a high point of the trip in its own subtle way.

Chartwell is not a museum or monument to one of the greatest men of this century; rather it is a loving restoration of a much-loved family home. Walking through the rooms, I had the feeling that we were all simply waiting for a member of the family who had just stepped out for a minute. In Sir Winston's study, vases of flowers just picked from the garden mingle their fragrance with the rich scent of old books and the smoke of a small wood fire.

Passing through Lady Churchill's bedroom with its view out into the garden, visitors walk slowly. There is no jostling or vying for position against the cords that mark off the rooms. Rather there is a hushed exchange of information and observations as sunlight slants through the windows, softening the beautifully worn rugs and floral covered chairs.

Chartwell's gardens are set on a hillside with a view across Kent Weald; thunderheads parade across the sky, casting great shadows along the running ridges of the Weald. I sat on a wooden bench listening and watching the swallows sweep above the lawns and lakes, then arose to wander along the winding brick paths through the apple trees to the group of cottages where Sir Winston's painting studio stands open to visitors. Walking back up along the Golden Rose Walk (a gift to Sir Winston and Lady Churchill from their children to celebrate their parents' 50th wedding anniversary), it is easy to imagine the delight this garden of roses - soft, lemon-yellow to golden, fiery-red - must have brought them.

Like many National Trust properties, the house and gardens are open seasonally. In this case, the house is open from March to November, the garden, from April to mid-October, with hours that vary, depending on the season and day. The first half of July is a time of full bloom for roses.Not far from Westerham and Chartwell, along yet another winding country road which had great trees arching over it, was Penshurst Place, a medieval manor house of impressive proportions, with a huge Baron's Hall dating back to the 14th century, extensive grounds, and a celebrated cream tea.

Now cream teas, for those not familiar with these wonderful afternoon respites, can be quite an event, though the elements for a ''proper'' tea are simple. The scones, to be perfect, should (according to an English friend) be eaten straight from the oven. ''They should break open nicely and be fluffy inside, not stodgy or stuck together, and white with a top like lightly toasted marshmallows.'' According to the same gourmand, the cream should be thick and rich, so heavy that it sticks to the spoon when the spoon is shaken.

Strawberry preserves should preferably be unsugared and on the light side. All of these elements then become tied together in ritualistic and appropriate fashion when served on English bone china in ''a nice floral pattern''; his choice: Royal Doulton and Spode.

Our next stop on this eclectic coach inn adventure was in Tonbridge, Kent, where we slept and feasted at the Rose &Crown, an early 18th-century inn. The next day, after a brief tour of The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells - a historic shopping plaza that was a mecca for the nobility and fashion-conscious of the 17 th and 18th centuries, now a shopping area of boutiques and antique shops - we were off to Canterbury.

On A-262 we drove past Sissinghurst Castle in Cranbrook, Kent. One of the most ''notable, popular, and influential'' gardens in England, it is exquisitely maintained by the National Trust. Actually the remains of an Elizabethan castle, the gardens were created by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson. But with Canterbury still a good distance away, we opted a bit wistfully to head right on past the Tudor tower just peeking over the trees, thinking that in all probability we'd have time for it later.

Canterbury is a walled cathedral city; the cathedral itself is considered by authorities to be the finest example of English Perpendicular architecture. Here it is essential to offer some hard, cold facts, because the importance of Canterbury Cathedral in the history of England is immense.

Without getting too encyclopedic: The first church was founded on the present cathedral site in 597. The original cathedral was destroyed in the 10th century. Today, the earliest visible part of the building dates from 1070, with additions, replacements, and deletions over the centuries. The nave, begun in 1378 and completed in 1410, contains stained glass dating back to the 12th century. But here again, it is not the list of dates that stirs one's emotions or thrills the senses. As the late afternoon light sifts through the deeply colored glass, as you peer up into the vaulted ceiling like a forest of antique stone, buttresses linked like fingers of ancient stone trees, it is the heart that is moved.

From what I gathered listening to other pilgrims to Canterbury, the cloisters of the cathedral are far too often passed by in the quest for magnitude and the spectacular. Consequently, folks miss a lovely time-worn adjunct to their experience at Canterbury. But for those who do wend their way round the back door, as it were, they will find a gentle solemnity walking through the shadows of the long, stone corridors.

Back to Tunbridge for the night, we were up early the next morning. After a breakfast of kippers and eggs, we were off down the coast on our way to Alfriston. While Alfriston, in East Sussex, is a worthy goal in itself for travelers who delight in small English country villages, it is great for its easy access to the coast. The surrounding downs are crisscrossed by public footpaths that make pleasant day hikes.

In Alfriston was the last stop on our coaching inn tour - the Star Inn. The public rooms of the original part of the inn, dating back before 1500, were pleasantly rustic, with low, beamed ceilings and Tudor fireplaces. The few bedrooms in the original section of the inn also came complete with low, beamed ceilings, antique beds, and glowing fireplaces. For purists or 20th-century folks who prefer a bit of country illusion for a few days, I don't think the management would object if you ferreted the ever-present TV into the nearest closet. That relic of roadside motels safely hidden from view, it is now time to add a few more logs to the fire and listen to the wind rattle the panes with a copy of a Thomas Hardy novel brought along just for such a night.

Dinner our first evening was a lavish presentation beginning with lobster cocktail, followed by moist pheasant (procured from local hunters), ubiquitous Brussels sprouts (fortunately not mushy), and English trifle and cheese, followed by dainty homemade petits fours.

Here I think something should be said on the subject of food, in particular, English. For years (only historians know how many), the food of England has been something of an international joke among the supposed culinary cognoscenti. But after savoring the fare of southeast England, it seems England's cuisine suffers only by comparison. While it may appear to lack the nuances and subtle interplay of flavors that mark the great cuisines of Italy and France, English vernacular, composed of regional and seasonal dishes, can stand on its own. Already there are rumblings of an underground movement, and a few noted (albeit brave) culinary spokesmen are offering new insights and expanding our appreciation of English food far beyond Dover sole, plum puddings, and spring lamb.

The next day, after a trip to the coast and some of the surrounding towns, we arrived back at the inn a bit before dusk. I took this time to slip into a pair of slacks and low shoes and set out for a walk before another bountiful dinner. Lacking a dog (something many British consider as essential as walking shoes for a stroll through the countryside), I was content to head out on my own along the narrow sidewalks, past the dooryard gardens and shops of the village.

The pace of the day had slowed, and that is slow indeed in an English village. The only action was the slamming of a door, a kitchen light being turned on, and a voice calling across the downs as I passed down High Street to the Tye (village green). Beside the green, in the glowing dusk, was the Clergy House, a medieval house built around 1350 and the first building to come under the wing of the National Trust.

In the churchyard of St. Andrew's a few steps away, shadows were merging into the darkness, and the acrid odor of peat fires permeated the damp air. I plumped myself down on a bench placed toward a view of the countryside and watched the swallows swinging through the fading light.

A bit of further exploring revealed a walk running near the church, a kind of alleyway bordered by flint walls enclosing gardens and backyards and a tempting promise of pastoral vistas. Peering discreetly into backyards, I meandered down to the banks of the Cockmere River, a quiet bubbling run with banks all overhung with grass and wildflowers. Passing across a public footpath, I stepped up onto the wooden bridge. Lazily engaged in watching bits of grass float downstream, letting the events of the day sift into place and drift away, I was awakened from my reveries by the impatient prancing of a horse's hoofs. At the other end of the bridge, a rider was waiting for me to make my move, forward or back. Opting for the former, I strode toward the other side, where, on meeting, we thanked each other.

At this point, I turned back to see the white horse almost luminescent in the dusk, the rider in jodhpurs, riding crop in hand, silhouetted alongside. As their steps echoed into the evening, from around an overhang of grass, into the shimmering aftermath of sunlit water, glided a pair of white swans setting the still water into rippling iridescence.

These small events are like gifts to travelers who step out of their cars into a world of the senses and the unexpected.

Unlike the symbolism of the legitimate theater, there is no guarantee that the stars of this impromptu performance, the lady, her horse, swans, thrushes singing farewell to the day, or even the fragrance of newly mown hay, will be present on command. But somehow, if you find yourself walking across White Bridge in Alfriston, it is entirely within the realm of possibilities. Practical details: A stay in any one of these old coaching inns can be easily arranged in the US and Canada. In New York City, call 541-4400; in New York state; 800-442-5886; in the rest of the US, 800-223-5672, or write to Trusthouses Forte Hotels, 810 7th Avenue, New York, New York 10019. In Ontario and Quebec, Canada, call 800-261-8000; in the rest of Canada call 416-595-1507 (Toronto number; out of town, call collect.)

Prices for staying in the inns are as follows (all rates are for a double room, with bath, for two people; price includes tax and service): Burford Bridge Hotel, in Box Hill, $80; Rose & Crown Hotel in Tonbridge, $64; Dudley Hotel, in Hove, $72; Star Inn in Alfriston, $64.

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