THE ancient can be comfortable but is often cramped. The hotel room was both. It was small and asymmetrical as though it had been made, just under the oak-beamed eaves, out of a forgotten space, ignored by the original builders of this ancient inn. Bending to look out of the diminutive window, I saw a broad lawn - entirely English - peacefully bordered on two sides with old houses of fine, low proportions. But straight ahead, like a cliff, was Wells Cathedral.
Later that night, when it was floodlit, it had a fairy-tale aspect. It was just the West Front I could see from here, a high screen of elaborately carved stonework. It is a splendid showpiece, a sculptured festival of pilasters and niches, carved figures, and pinnacles, towers and windows, and the central doorway. In spite of its powerful verticality, it is rich and lively rather than simple and grand. This visual complexity is at present increased by scaffolding. Like so much of what is very old in Britain, and greatly valued, it is being meticulously restored and cleaned.
Half an hour before, a friend and I had sat (unfamiliarly) inside this impressive edifice listening to a visiting school choir, which happened to include her son, as it sang evensong. There were a great many more human beings in the choir than there were in the congregation, and as the interweaving voices ascended the brightest heaven of invention, expanding into the scrupulous vaults , one was struck by the paradoxes of time. With certain modifications (among them a modern setting for an anthem, and the inclusion of schoolgirls as well as boys among the singers) we were witnessing a tradition practiced over so many centuries that it actually links the 1980s with the Middle Ages. It was also an indelibly English experience, with a sense of decorum, a sense of private devotion, and a winter-evening coziness which suggested that the serving of hot buttered crumpets would not go amiss at some convenient pause in the proceedings.
But of course these devotions were not private and round-the-hearth; they were public, external, an exercise in musical finesse and honed performance in a sacred context. The line between piety and art did seem fuzzed, and on the very modern faces of the young singers (some of the girls might have been sisters of Jayne Torville, ice dancer extraordinary) was written a strong desire for correctness, certainly, but little overt awareness they were perpetuating something that not only was religious tradition but that, by its very age, assumed an aspect of veneration.
Not that I want to misconstrue. There is in the very Englishness of England an attitude to the past that is a great deal more than nostalgia and - however much we exploit it and visitors from other countries admire it - is more deeply embedded in the national character than a merely touristic face. It is even hard for those of us who live here to gauge the extent to which this love of the past is a need, and to what extent it is a luxury. It seems more than ever that we are reassured by the appreciation of visitors for our traditions; but is this so that we can sincerely continue things essential to us or are we grasping at the chance (and the income) to go on indulging qualities that we enjoy solely because we have had them for centuries?
Quite probably the evensong at Wells should not have been the appropriate occasion for such questionings. Yet, somehow, it was unavoidable. What uplifted feelings may have been alerted in the hearts of both singers and listeners were not in doubt. No, it was the outward, demonstrative recurrence of a peculiarly English tradition (it might just as easily have been the state opening of Parliament, the Royal Windsor Horse Show, or the Eton and Harrow cricket match) that gave one pause. Is it a determination to hold the present in the grip of the past? Is it a national delight in theater as escapism from this country's altered role in a baffling century? It is probably pretentious and oversolemn to voice such questions.
Spending a whole evening in a tiny hotel room is no fun, and to sit in the lounge and watch television seemed to me scarcely justifiable when away from home for a night. But what could I do in a town (though Wells must be technically a ''city,'' having a cathedral, it still feels like a small English town) that scarcely offered hours of window-shopping, or crowds of observable inhabitants in its streets, on a black winter night?
I went to see ''Oklahoma!''
I was late for this performance by the Wells Operatic Society (founded 1902) because the hotel dinner coincided with its opening numbers. But I reckoned it would hardly be more filled with an eager audience than the cathedral had been at this time of year. I was wrong. They only just managed to squeeze me in on the aisle at the back. It was the strangest contrast with the earlier musical event of the night, this amateur - but highly enthusiastic, energetic, and surprisingly competent - presentation of the old Rodgers and Hammerstein affair. In one respect, though, it was similar: The performers were plainly ''ordinary'' people, with no professional aspirations or pretensions. ''Jayne Torvilles'' were everywhere again: They were wardrobed according to Indian Territory fashion at the turn of the century, but faces and hairdressing showed them to be squarely of 1984.
It is the most common mistake of English amateur theatricals that coiffure is not altered according to period. Actually, this may be one of their charms: It never lets the audience lose sight of the quality of the everyday transformed, of the Cinderella-at-the-ball aspect of the entertainment. The people up there in the lights, belting out ''Okla- ho - MA!'' (ascending to the brightest heaven of invention) with accents gloriously poised between deep Somerset and deep Sooner, are not remote from us in the audience, though still belonging to the floodlit fairy-tale world of the stage. The youth sitting next to me with an earring was obviously close to one of the dancers or chorus members, applauding her specifically when he could and sleeping through the parts of the action when she was in the wings. The production was enormously enjoyable and, taken uncritically as most of the audience seemed content to do, was cheering and ebullient and perhaps even more.
''Oklahoma!'' by now is, of course, almost as much a procession of familiar cliches as ''Hamlet'' (which is not to suggest any further comparison). But its enormously simple ''message,'' apart from its sentimentality and nostalgia, is newness. New country, new state, new life, a ''beautiful morning.'' Its bouncy songs and breezy crescendos celebrate morningsong rather than evensong. At a popular level (and therefore an important one) it conveys the basic optimism of young beginnings, and that night, for want of other events to occupy the mind in Wells, it offered me a simplistic symbol of the New World as different from the Old. It carried something of the yearning, which is definitely not lost in Britain, for newness, freshness, and vitality now.
Not a ''future'' to demolish a ''past.'' But a need other than the demand to be a mere caretaker of historical monuments. That too, certainly, but not that alone. Imaginations anywhere call for revitalization, and for setting loose from the moorings of tradition. Although those amateurs were singing for all their worth about an entirely different culture and country, there was also under the voices (it seemed to me) something English reverberating. Although the medium of their message was lightweight, musically little more than a series of rousing tunes, theatrically little more than a brightly colored song-and-dance, it showed to at least one member of its audience that there is more to life than perpetuating tradition and anciently held practices, than the cleaning and conservation of timeworn structures, even in Old England.