For those who think they can cover the whole of the English countryside as easily as sweeping up and down the lanes of a supermarket, I have news: You can spend two fully engaging weeks in a corner of Shropshire and never find time to see the pretty hamlet across the valley. I know because my wife and I rented a cottage for a fortnight last summer between Shrewsbury and Ludlow near the Welsh border and found that England yields itself up much more easily in small bites. With a home base and a slowed pace you become accustomed to the subtle, timeless rituals of country life: navigating the lush and bending rural lanes, learning to pick the right butcher and baker, finding sheep auctions and estate sales, and adjusting to the fickle borderland weather, which can range from Mediterranean to Baltic in mood.
We landed at North Hill Farm near the village of Cardington because my wife's aunt and uncle in nearby Church Stretton tracked down the pretty renovated cottage and sent us its landlady's name, address, phone number, and approximate rates. Those who don't have an Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Martin in Shropshire, or anywhere in Britain, can find such lodging by other means. Scan the real estate section of the London Sunday newspapers, ask the nearest British Tourist Authority Office for a booklet, ``Holiday Homes,'' which is full of leads and addresses and lists of agencies that specialize in country cottages. Or write to the tourist office in the area where you want to settle in.
We might have looked further ourselves but for Martin's glowing description and the convincing, friendly voice of Mrs. Beasley, the landlady, whom I phoned one day in April. We didn't need North Hill's four bedrooms, and the mid-July rate of 198 a week ($260 at the then dollar-pound exchange) sounded a bit steep, but measured against the cost and inconvenience of a series of inns and hotels (or comparable digs in the pricey Hamptons or on Cape Cod), we sniffed a bargain.
Though perched on a hill a mile from the village and not equipped with a phone, North Hill Farm came with all the amenities one could hope for. There were towels, linens, a full complement of kitchenware including a fast-firing teakettle, a television set concealed in a wood cabinet in the parlor, a bath and a half, and maid service with a linen change once a week. Jenny Beasley had filled the recently redone two-story cottage with antiques and knicknacks, dried flower arrangements, and Laura Ashley matched curtains and bedspreads.
I was so taken with her attention to detail that I laughingly told her early on that all she had neglected to provide her first American guests was a backyard barbecue grill. Thirty-six hours later, John Beasley was at the door with a new top-of-the-line Danish grill with assorted shiny utensils.
Oh, there were adjustments for us city folk. We were strangers to the hilltop quiet, broken only by the bleating of sheep or the passing of a little Royal Mail van. So numerous were the sheep, they sometimes overran the garden fence and crossed the lawn as if merging from a cartoon dreamland. And for a day or two I insisted on bumping my head in the low-hung doorway between the kitchen and parlor, until Pamela hung a bright scarf as a beacon.
We'd had visions, I think, of seeing all of Shropshire and half of Wales on day trips and occasional overnights, but within a few days had narrowed our scope to the patchwork green hills and market towns within 10 or 15 miles of Cardington. For one thing, it was a journey simply negotiating the winding country lanes from North Hill Farm to the main highways. And the unexpected creature comforts along with the sleep-promoting country air made late starters of us. We were seldom on our way before 11, having lingered in the big airy kitchen over bacon, bangers, eggs, toasted scones, and the matchless views across the Shropshire hills.
We became so domesticated in such a hurry that the modest city of Shrewsbury, with its black-beamed houses and delightful riverside perch, seemed too busy and hectic. Ludlow, also full of Tudor architecture as well as pretty Georgian rows, was more on our scale. Other days there were visits to market towns like Much Wenlock and Bridgnorth or to the rambling museum of a town, Iron Bridge, which calls itself the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
For exercise, we roamed the Long Mynd, a green loaf of a peak rising out of Church Stretton. The mynd (mountain in Welsh) was covered with gorse and bracken, and though the crisscrossing paths were used by sheep, ponies, and hikers of all ages, we could always find a peaceful spot to lay out a picnic.
For company, there were visits with the kinfolk and with our accommodating landlords, who made their garden swimming pool available on those several searing July days and had us to dinner the last evening. Of course we could always find company and good talk at the Royal Oak in Cardington, said to be Shropshire's oldest pub. Certainly it is one of the most picturesque, its entranceway banked with roses and hollyhocks, its ancient walls backing up to the village's 13th-century church, and its low-beamed interior distinguished by a huge sit-in fireplace.
Some nights we dined on the more than passable pub grub at the Royal Oak -- that is, when we weren't availing ourselves of the top-of-the-line Danish charcoal grill in our garden on the hill.