New Hope, Pa. — Bucks County, sprinkled with small towns dating back to the Revolution, was once exclusively rolling, green farmland for raising corn and dairy herds. Though parts of it are becoming suburban, it's still enjoyable for its quaint towns, stone farmhouses, and scenery so bucolic that it was the seed of inspiration for American Impressionist painters. The towns of New Hope, Doylestown, and Lambertville - about one-and-a-half hours from New York City and one hour from Philadelphia - are so diverse that you can spend two or three days taking in the sights.
New Hope was an artists' colony at the turn of the century and the home of Impressionists William Lathrop and Edward Redfield. Today, however, it's the tourist mecca of Bucks County. On a summer day, tiny, picturesque New Hope is swarming with busloads of visitors, strolling, eating, and shopping. Looking beyond the shop fa,cades, you discover fine 18th- and 19th-century houses.
The tourist information center at the corner of Main and Ferry Streets sells a small walking guide to Historic New Hope, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
You can wander and appreciate the architecture, the canal, the small alleys, and gardens, pausing to refresh yourself with a superior ice cream cone from Thomas Sweets at 97 South Main Street.
Where South Main and New Street meet is the starting point for New Hope's Mule Barge trips on the Delaware Canal. You can rest for an hour as you glide in a mule-drawn barge that had been used to haul coal, limestone, and lumber in the 1930s. Today it is the skinniest state park at 60 feet by 60 miles.
Bridge Street, in the center of town, leads, predictably, to the bridge over the Delaware River to Lambertville, N.J. This small, old-fashioned town is inheriting the artists' colony mantle. Some buildings have studios that are open to visitors. Though the artists keep irregular hours, you can count on the Hunterdon Art Alliance to be open Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, exhibiting the work of local artists.
Lambertville, like New Hope, has its share of fine old houses, mostly Victorian. Some stores carry a walking-tour pamphlet that takes you through the town in about 45 minutes.
If you crave quiet and lush, green scenery, drive north out of New Hope on Route 32. This follows the Delaware and takes you past beautiful homes tucked into the river's bank, past Phillips Mill and some of the historic inns that are available for lodging or dining.
Heading west on Route 202 out of New Hope will lead you to Doylestown. Here is a lesser-known but worthwhile national treasure called the Mercer Mile - three buildings all built by Henry Chapman Mercer in the early 1900s. Mercer was a renaissance man specializing in archaeology, architecture, and ceramics. He felt that the Industrial Revolution was leaving behind the country's heritage by consigning hand tools and implements to the garbage heap. So he passionately gathered all the old farm equipment he could find and built a museum to house his exhaustive collection.
I wasn't even in the door on my first visit, and already I was awestruck. The museum, built with reinforced concrete, is a massive castle with an atrium in the middle. The exhibits are arranged by category and encompass every trade. Chairs hang from the ceiling and whaler's boats cling to the walls.
Mercer also produced decorative, polychrome tiles that adorned famous buildings and depicted scenes from the Bible and rural life.
His California-mission style factory is back in operation today, re-creating his designs, training potters, and offering tours. A film explains his work and the tilemaking process. You can watch the potters make the tiles that are on sale in the museum store.
The third Mercer building is his home, Font Hill. This is his first and most unusual structure. Although he gave careful thought to the castle's role as his home, he also foresaw its use as a museum for his enormous tile collection. Mercer decorated with tiles from every culture, including his own designs. He embedded the tiles in nearly every surface, the vaults, the stairs, the walls. Be sure to call first and make an appointment because the number of guests is limited.
One who was attracted by the beauty of Bucks County was writer and humanitarian Pearl S. Buck. Her home, Green Hills Farm, is just a few miles from Doylestown and is open to the public for two tours a day. The rooms are furnished in a mixture of American antiques, English silver, and many exquisite Oriental objets d'art. There is so much you don't know what to admire first. But in spite of the museum quality of some of her possessions, the rooms also reflect her common sense - a helpful gift since she shared her home with her nine adopted children and, later, her grandchildren.
Throughout the area, there are many inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and motels ready to welcome you. There are also ample opportunities for bicycling (you can rent them there), hiking, river rafting, tubing, and even riding a steam engine on the New Hope Steam Railway.
Mule Barges of New Hope operates daily from May 1 to Oct. 15 starting at 11:30 a.m. The cost is $4.95 for adults, $2.75 for children.
The Mercer Museum is open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m. The museum is closed January and February. Admission is $3. Font Hill is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. by guided tour only. Call (215) 348-9461 for reservations. Admission is $3.
The Tile Works are open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for January and February. Admission is $1.75.
Pearl Buck's Green Hill Farms offers tours Monday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. On Sundays, May through September only, at 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.
For further information write Bucks County Commission, 152 Swamp Rd., Doylestown, PA 18901; or call (212) 345-4552.