A Tour Six Centuries in the Making

Writers take roads less traveled to sample life in rural Britain, France, and Hungary. Not even Hollywood could improve on a classic English village -- much

SOMETHING about villages is dear to the British psyche. Many are deeply rooted in this country's past, with old cottages (all the better if stone-roofed or thatched), old manor houses, and old churches set next to old vicarages. The English village -- smaller than a town, bigger than a hamlet -- is a small, unpretentious chunk of local history.

Take Castle Combe in Wiltshire, about 80 miles west of London. In 1962 it was chosen as one of the ''12 most beautiful villages in Britain'' by the British Holidays and Travel Association. How a village achieves the extraordinary felicity of a Castle Combe is inexplicable. But some of the ingredients are a use of local building materials worked by craftsmen whose skills have been handed down for generations, the knowing choice of a protected setting, a closeness to nature, and a sense of isolation.

This last part of the blend may be the most important. Most villagers, even a century ago, traveled little. Today, in spite of the train and the car, villages still frequently give visitors a feeling of separate identity. They seem self-sufficient even if they are not.

Villages speak of an age when society was more ordered and comprehensible. The truth is that many villages were feudal in origin, where cottagers, vicar, and lord of the manor all knew their respective places. They are rural, even when they grew up to house workers in some industry like iron or coal. Usually villages housed farm workers or supported rural industries like weaving.

Some of these qualities may explain why Castle Combe was chosen as the location for the 1967 film ''Dr. Doolittle.''

Castle Combe has cottages going back to the 17th century. Its manor, although Victorianized in the 19th, dates to the 16th, its market cross to the 15th, the chancel wall of the church to the 13th century. No doubt archaeologists would find underneath the foundations of the hillside village's mellow stone buildings even earlier origins. For the movie, the little river was partly converted into a temporary harbor, though the seaside is miles away. Otherwise, ''Doolittle'' filmmakers said, the village was perfect, just perfect. They couldn't have built it better themselves, they commented. Well, perhaps not, given the time. A truly good village takes six centuries or so to come into being.

IN spite of the ravages of time, many British villages are still quite intact, and offer tourists a multiplicity of entrancing pegs on which to hang a vacation.

Traveling to even a few will take you off the beaten track. It will be a vacation unique to you, not one dreamed up by a tour company. Let others go in bus loads to Bath, Oxford, and Stratford. We are off in ones and twos to Coxwold, Widdecombe-in-the-Moor, Leighton-Bromswold, Keld, and Dent.

All you need is a map or two, a guidebook or two, and a car, and off you go to Smarden in Kent, or Slaidburn in Lancashire, to Bibury in the Cotswolds, or Blanchland in Northumberland. Some such villages may be gathering places for other tourists, but a great many more are sleepy, remote, and a bit surprised to have you visit them.

Half the fun of a village tour is discovery. And discoveries are almost inevitable, since one of the paradoxes of British villages is that although the most attractive of them seem far from the madding crowd, in a given area you will tumble on hundreds. En route to some chosen village, you will pass dozens of signs to others with enticing names. (The names of English villages are a pleasure: Cherry Willingham, Middle Wallop, Imber, Giggleswick, Coddenham, and Chiddingfold. But some with unpromising names are real gems, too.) You should unhesitatingly turn off and head toward them, along some lane narrowing between steep banks or a ribbon of worn asphalt, open to the sky, meandering across sheep-dotted moorland. You may find a hamlet so minuscule that you scarcely notice it. Or you may find a village, its clutch of houses in a cozy little valley like duck eggs in a nest.

Such villages may have a green, a pond, a school, a tiny shop that sells everything, a pub, and a church. Or if they do not still have all these ideal features, they probably had them once, and you could turn detective and ask some local resident (spotted dead-heading carnations in his cottage garden, perhaps -- not inevitably some retired big-city accountant or lawyer who commutes) where they were. Schools, vicarages, and shops have sometimes become private houses -- but at least this means that they are preserved.

The Automobile Association (AA) of Britain (similar to the AAA in the United States) publishes a guide (''Explore Britain's Villages,'' by Susan Gordon) that describes 100 villages. It is a good aid to planning a trip, but it is limited. I recommend choosing a specific area first. It could be Kent, east of London. Or the Cotswolds, northwest of London. Both areas are crowded with delectable villages. Once there, go to a small shop and buy a mile-to-the-inch map. You will have a week at least of pure pleasure ahead of you. It would be just the same in Dorset, Cornwall, Derbyshire, North Yorkshire, or Northumberland.

You could stay in one hotel and return nightly. (''The Which? Hotel Guide 1995,'' edited by Patricia Yates and Anna Fielder, and published by the Consumers' Association, London, is helpful.) Or you could find a bed-and-breakfast each night. In the larger towns, Tourist Information offices often have lists of B&Bs. But driving until you find one is more daring.

Some villages cater to tourists more self-consciously than others. This does not mean that you should avoid them. Bibury is amazingly popular, but not spoiled. On a bright morning, wandering past lovely gardens and over the little 17th-century bridge up by an ineffable row of cottages, or just sitting on the wall by the river and watching the ducks, is hardly to be missed -- even though scores of other tourists may be doing the same. Smarden in Kent is another utterly ''right'' English village, much visited, but free of touristy ticky-tacky.

Another way to select villages is to discover those with people-associations. Worthwhile examples include Stinsford in Dorset (Thomas Hardy called it ''Mellstock'' in his poems and novels); East Bergholt in Suffolk (birthplace of landscape painter John Constable); Selborne in Hampshire (18th-century naturalist Rev. Gilbert White observed and recorded the minutest events in nature around him); or Grantchester on the River Cam in Cambridgeshire (in ''The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,'' poet Rupert Brooke wondered longingly, ''Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/ And is there honey still for tea?''

The only way to find out is to go and see for yourself.

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