THIS evening, returning by an unfamiliar route - over a Cumbrian stone wall into a shadowy little copse, then out again onto an open sheep-cropped slope - I saw just below, and perfectly on its own, a small castle. And standing there, gazing, I suddenly thought:

``If anybody, anywhere, would care to give me a castle - just a small one, mind you, but with all the proper appurtenances such as turrets, and a moat, and a walled-in garden with a sundial at its heart and peach trees espaliered against south-facing stone - I honestly don't think I'd turn it down. Even if it meant dusting the whole place myself, and carrying up tea trays from a kitchen deep and dank as a medieval dungeon.''

For there's something, isn't there, about a small castle? A stateliness in miniature: so encased in time that even those with unquestionable claim to such a heritage are almost bound, today, to appear embarrassingly diminished by the means they must now resort to in order to hang on to it.

This evening, as I looked down, there was no sign of a lordship basking in his demesne. Nor, if it came to that, any left-behind evidence of the daily coachloads of tourists with their intrusive holiday-chatter and invaluable cash. Only the scene itself held - magically fixed in an incandescent performance of light, half rose, half gold, up here in a North where at this time of year dusk and dawn appear hardly parted at all. For as the flush in the west just perceptibly begins to fade, already those layered streaks of color in the east must be rimming, faintly, the far-off other curve of a turning earth....

Now, as one stood here, the prevailing stillness seemed to deepen. Nothing so much as stirred, on earth or in air. One might have been the only breathing creature left to bear witness, like this, to the nuances of a ceremony old as time.

And what suddenly was touched-back-to - taking one by surprise - this too, like the castle, might have been embalmed in an amber of its own. That long-ago kingdom! That innocent realm, wherein nothing more formidable was ever likely to be encountered than a dragon, or some wily usurper with his crafty design who always without fail was found out and foiled....

Actually, at the moment, it might be rather companionable to have a dragon appear! Lurching out of the copse with his thrashing tail, and emitting from flared nostrils those puffballs of smoke and pretty little flames. Even a witch, careening through the air, would be welcome: her lank locks streaming, her black cape like a cloud, and all those cackled-out curses of hers to be as deliciously shivered at as when cozied for make-believe beside a nursery fire....

We'd make, wouldn't we, a tried-and-true trio? Each scrupulously honoring the rules laid down. For here there could be no confusion of roles. No treacherous ambiguities, or betrayals of trust.

``You are the dragon. You are the witch. And you the happy one who escapes them both!'' As off, off, somebody flew! Down a long green slope, in rose-and-gold light, to a waiting drawbridge, across a cobbled court... And so into her little castle. Safe as safe.

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