London — Britain's recent heroes have been soldiers in the Falkland campaign.
Britain's newest hero is a horse - a ''soldier'' in a battle front nearer home.
Sefton is 19 years old, and he is a survivor. His weary but indomitable head is on the front pages and the television screens of the nation, a symbol of fortitude and of the British people's unquenchable affection for animals.
On July 20 Sefton was carrying a trooper of the Queen's Household Cavalry through Hyde Park, as he usually does, to change the guard on Horseguards Parade. Early that morning, an IRA car bomb exploded, killing 10 men, knocking horses flat, and causing a number of them to be put down.
Sefton was badly wounded - but he survived, and his struggle to live caught the imagination of Fleet Street and of the public at large.
Today, Sefton stands in his stall at cavalry headquarters in Knightsbridge, gazing at a growing pile of gifts from around Britain and from Europe as well.
''The most unusual, I suppose,'' said Maj. R. A. G. Courage of the cavalry's London district, speaking briskly in an interview, ''was the box of barley sugar from Harrod's.
''No, I haven't actually seen him eat any of it, but I can certainly tell you that he was eating some Polo mints when we had the press photographers in the other day. My word yes.''
People have sent Sefton bags of sugar, bags of carrots, bouquets of roses, and other flowers. Letters and telegrams have come from Buckingham Palace and from the Vatican. Apples are piled high. So are bags of maize (though Sefton, while not ungrateful, appears to prefer plain old hay). Television cameras record the scene.
Public affection is intense. When I telephoned London's directory assistance for the number of the Knightsbridge barracks, the operator said immediately, before looking it up, ''I wonder how Sefton is getting on?''
When this question was put to the spit-and-polish Major Courage, he replied, ''Vast improvement. Oh, he still has lumps of lead in him, and he needs care, but he's eating again.''
Sefton is not the oldest household cavalry horse, but he now is the most famous. British opinion generally was outraged by the IRA's bombing with its tragic loss of human and equine life. Sefton has become a symbol of endurance, of bravery, of a refusal to be intimidated by violence.