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400 -Year-Old Hideaway Where the Gentry Lived

October 18, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a Canoga Park free-lance writer .

I woke up in the dark, disoriented, sat on the edge of the bed and remembered where I was. It was "our 400-year-old hideaway" in East Sussex, England.

Slipping into my house shoes, I stood and walked toward the stairs to the lower part of the house and the bathroom.

In three steps I caught the ceiling crossbeam right in the center of the forehead. Reeling backward, I caught the beam behind it in the back of the head and abruptly found myself in bed again.

"Would you knock off the noise," came the muffled voice of my wife. "I'm trying to sleep over here."

Joyce gets testy about having her sleep disturbed.

By then I couldn't remember what I'd gotten up for. I lay there in the darkness, mulling over how I'd gotten into my predicament. There was still rock music coming from the manor house.

England's Best

It had started with an ad in the paper. The ad had pointed out how travelers now had the chance to meet the real England by booking a "place of your own" for a full week.

"Our listings," the ad said, "include a wide selection of properties, the best that England has to offer, from a simple honeymoon cottage tucked away in the folds of Britain's rural heartland to larger country properties, where for centuries the gentry have lived."

The hook was in and set.

"Doesn't it sound like fun?" Joyce said.

Well, it did sound like fun. In fact it sounded too good to be true and if it had been an American ad, I probably wouldn't have fallen so quickly, but it was British. Would a people who had referred to World War II as "the unpleasantness" be likely to overstate anything? Hardly.

The woman we talked to at the agency sounded proper, very British.

"Oh, yes, we've checked them all out personally. Does the idea of a little vine-covered cottage with green shutters, a white picket fence and a true English garden, a half square out of Tunbridge Wells. . . . Oh, I see that's taken. Here's a lovely one, even better, quite picturesque."

She'd hit a real buzz word with my wife. With Joyce the more picturesque the better.

Babbling Brook

"Old Waterwheel House," the woman said, "all brick, vine-covered, 400 years old, two floors with beamed ceilings, fireplace, television, washer-dryer, all electric, sleeps three and it's by a babbling brook and has an authentic water-wheel."

Joyce was beginning to breathe hard.

"A hundred yards from the manor house and only a mile from Hailsham," the woman continued, "lovely little shops."

"Shops," another buzz word. Joyce's eyes began to lose focus and she grabbed the arm of her chair for support.

"And, if you like scones, there's the loveliest little tearoom."

I had to stop the description. Joyce was beginning to hyperventilate.

Our deposit was in the woman's hands in minutes.

But from that time on, whenever we called the agency, we had the distinct feeling we were talking to teen-agers. The lovely lady had "gone back to England to find more rentals."

"Gone back to the United Kingdom?" Joyce asked.

"Oh, hey, nothing like that. She had only gone to England."

"That's what I said. The United Kingdom."

"Oh, hey, that United Kingdom, right on. Yeah, that's it."

A Feline Welcome

I like cats. But when I am in the presence of cats my eyes and nose swell shut and start to leak and I breathe like an old church organ.

On driving into the driveway of Old Waterwheel House, two cats, one Persian and one Siamese, appeared, and one got into the car as I opened the door to get out.

The house, "tucked away in the folds of Britain's rural heartland," was in the same fold as a whole flock of other houses, one of which, our landlord's, was separated only by a driveway.

I met our landlord sneezing.

Joyce handed him the cat and explained the situation.

"Oh, how frightful," he said. "But then, I'm a doctor. If it gets simply too terrible I can give you some tablets. Come, I'll show you the cottage."

He led us inside a two-storied, vine-covered brick cube 10 feet from his own back door.

"You'd best mind your head," he said. "We're not used to big fellows like you."

Measure for Measure

I was 6 feet 2 once but I've been shrinking for the last few years. The beams on the ground floor allowed for 6 feet 1 inch of clearance. If I tilted my head or remembered to drop the spring from my step, I could make it downstairs. Clearance upstairs where the beds were was about 5 feet 11.

"We've had the windows open, airing it out. Afraid the cats have had the run of it. Hope you don't mind too much."

I had an emergency pill for such contingencies and I took it, but as he showed us around it became apparent I'd need a lot more. There was cat hair everywhere--except on an overstuffed couch that took up a third of the "living-dining area" on the first floor. I commented on it.

"Oh, yes. Well, I suppose the cats have tried it and didn't care for it. It's not too comfortable, actually. It was in the boys' room before we brought it over."

"The boys?" asked Joyce.

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