A nation of characters

A FEW years' absence from Britain has lent me new eyes and ears. My notebooks are filled with details I once took for granted and with jottings of conversations I have had with Britons grown more communicative while I have been away.

Butchers' shops in England tend to call themselves ''family butchers'' in rather an alarming way. The hotel breakfast has been restored to its former glory (almost), and The Times still devotes space to important matters like ways to save hedgehogs from slipping into cattle grids.

There's my unfading mental picture of Joe Beech, who trundles his cart full of firewood up and down Henley-in-Arden's High Street. Shakespeare would recognize him. He wears a World War I flying cap, insists decimal coinage (introduced about ten years ago) will never catch on, believes cars are ''death traps,'' and speaks with a splendid Warwickshire accent.

''How is it in Americy then? Loike here, all clogged up with motors?'' It was a mistake, he explained, to have taken up the cobbles from what he calls ''the horse road,'' ''that'd have slowed 'em down.''

In Cambridge, a don told me, parents are in fashion again. You used to see them, he said, with their Volvos and Rovers at the very back of carparks helping their hippy sons unload hi-fis and then being hustled out of the city as fast as possible. Now there are even parent-get-togethers at the colleges.

Dedicated nondrinkers now feel at home in pubs. No longer pressured to buy alcoholic drinks, they are attracted by excellent inexpensive meals (the ''ploughman's lunch'' usually consisting of a hunk of bread, cheese, and a pickled onion is a good buy), warm fires, and talk like the recent discussions in the Blue Bell:

As an observer of things British, had I considered the modern burglar, a habitue wanted to know.

''There was that young 'un that tunneled into the supermarket. Took him 17 hours, it did. When he was done he was so tired he took nothing.''

''And what about the two that dressed themselves up as women. Thought no one'd suspect them with their dresses and handbags. Forgot to shave, though - and one of them had this great big 'tache.''

Then, on a more serious note, there was the day of the hunt. ''Foxes eat all my chickens,'' said one man, ''I would shoot them soon as look at them. But when I saw that fox running over the hill I was on his side. Not that I am against shooting them, mind.''

And did I know that the Russians had been to the Blue Bell? They were visiting a nearby town to learn about the brakes Moscow is importing. (''Brakes , I don't want them to have brakes. I want their cars to smash into a wall,'' said a man who wouldn't want a fly hurt.) They talked through an interpreter until they found a map, ''then they were so excited showing us their hometowns they forgot they knew no English.''

The story had a disappointing end though. Not a single one even wanted to defect -- after all who would choose England and television over Russia and homemade dancing?

George Howard, talking about his stately Castle Howard, remarked, ''I don't know exactly how many rooms there are. My best count is somewhere between 130 and 140.''

In the Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water, there is a model of the village, complete with minute shops and trees and huge sparrows.

The lift (elevator) in the Royal Crescent Hotel, Bath, is lined with books.

Blakeney Point where the marshes stretch for miles under a huge sky is a wildfowl refuge. A collecting box with a slot for coins asks, ''Please help us feed the wild ducks.'' A second notice has been added, ''Please do not stuff bread in this slot.''

''Why do you wear four earrings in the same ear,'' I asked the lad at a petrol pump in Norfolk. ''Well, down here we only put them on one ear so we're allowed to put in as many as we like. And some of us put them right around to the top. But four's enough for me.''

My collection of jottings began from the moment my sister met me at the London airport, and we found a policeman standing sternly over her misparked car. I pleaded for forgiveness, explaining I had just come from the US. ''Well , miss,'' he said, making out the ticket, ''we had no trouble whatsoever with this lady until you came over here with your Chicago ways.''

I could go on and on. I could point out how much larger British bathtubs are than US ones and tell about my friends' gardener in Devon who picked up a sack full of scraps of foam rubber and exclaimed, ''Why it be loight as vanity!'' But don't waste time listening to me. Traveling to the United Kingdom and picking up your own examples of what makes Britain special is far more fun.

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