At home in a castle

I knew I was in London when, coming down to breakfast at the men's club where I was staying, I saw a sign warning me to ''Mind the Steps.'' What an admirable, brief injunction, I thought - where we Americans would have taken at least a half dozen words advising to look out for possible hazards on the way down the stairway. If I had had any doubt about the continuing genius of the British people, it would have been assuaged when I picked up the Guardian (no longer The Manchester Guardian) to find the weather prediction succinctly put: ''Rain Everywhere.'' No qualifications or extenuations; and the agreeable assumption that it was raining that day in Timbuktu as well as Piccadilly, in Zanzibar as well as Pall Mall!

A few hours in London convinces one that, although everything has changed - a great empire lost, the oldest parliament under the domination of a woman - everything really remains very much the same. The London taxis still ply their way politely down the Strand; the two-level buses stand stalled in traffic or proceed (considering their cumbrous size) at an astonishing speed. One can still get theater tickets for plays where the acting is first-rate and the texts revive the glories of the English language and tradition. It is said that Britishers don't work the way they used to; but amid the complexities of urban life one is constantly being delighted by their quiet and good-natured efficiency.

Living in Sussex, an hour to the south of London, is a classmate of mine from school days whom I had not seen for precisely fifty years until he turned up - still a witty and adventurous soul - at our reunion in June. He and I determined then that another half century should not again pass before we met. It seemed a good idea to combine some chores in London with a brief visit to him, and so it was that I found myself on the platform at Haywood Heath, being welcomed with a warmth for which Britishers are supposed not to be famous. Tony Cheatle whisked me off to Waterbury Castle, where he lives in the hamlet of Horsted Keynes.

I had been warned that the castle was not an imposing structure, and now I found this to be true, though no advance report could have quite prepared me for its fifteenth-century charm. It seems the word castle did not originally mean more than a place of defense; and in a small cottage some five hundred years ago , a sturdy yeoman kept his eye on the nearby water supply of the little town. This was before the Norman Conquest, and the town then was known simply as Horsted, a place for horses. Afterward the fiefdom handed out to one of the Norman settlers accounted for Keynes being added to the plain Saxon word. In such wise is history written into the everyday expressions of an ancient land.

I have still to give some idea of how small Waterbury Castle really is. Its slate shingles cover a roof that we would think inadequate to house an active couple; and beneath it nestle rooms so curiously proportioned and shaped as to defy any normal measurements. The large fireplace or inglenook - an addition made a century or so after the first construction - is itself the size of a small chamber, so that one can sit inside it and perform most of the tasks of cooking and baking as well as warming oneself. But everything else is diminutive , and upstairs one walks with bowed head, passing beneath lintels that seem waiting to crown the unwary householder.

I told my host not to worry: that as a sailor on small boats I had long ago learned that my body adapts itself mysteriously to the spaces around it, so that what on the first day of cruising seems a torture chamber of cracked elbows and knocked heads soon becomes an ample environment for labor or repose. He agreed that something of this sort took place in Waterbury Castle. Certainly the atmosphere began to gain possession, and a relative degree of inconvenience seemed a small price to pay for the intangible rewards of antiquity.

That night I found myself sleeping comfortably under a roof that descended at a cozy angle, and over a floor that rose or fell according to some rule never decreed by any architect. It had first been supposed I would be better off lodged in a nearby inn; but the view from the window was over a parking lot, very different from the Sussex downs which I had expected to see. The temptation to take refuge in the castle was irresistible, and as the inevitable rain fell and the quiet of the old countryside became absolute, I knew I had chosen well. Here, even more than in London, the force of tradition and civility was plain. Here History was a living pageant, a succession of wars and conquests, of private joys and sorrows, which had tested and tempered the human heart.

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