THERE'S A BEND in the road in central Bucks County, a twisting perilous turn in Rte. 32, which parallels the river and brings you unexpectedly onto the hamlet of Phillips Mill. Your first sight of this tiny village will trigger a sense of dej'a vu. You've seen this place before, but you haven't. It may be a while before you figure out that a piece of England's Cotswolds has been set down here in rural Pennsylvania.
Nothing about this would be surprising, since this country was settled by English Quakers and takes its name from an English county of the same name. Like England it is noted for its country inns, though not all boast that George Washington slept within. Washington launched his surprise attack against the Hessians in Trenton from the banks of the Delaware, but more than one innkeeper on the river was a Tory and wouldn't have let him in the door.
Today the county, an hour and a half from New York and an hour from Philadelphia, is probably more famous as a center for writers and artists who have made it their home in increasing numbers ever since a group of artists settled on the Delaware banks 50 years ago to found a group called New Hope. sToday New Hope, a 250-year-old river town which started life as Coryell's Ferry, is a drawing card for the tourists. They love its narrow sidewalks, its ancient gingerbread-encrusted houses (now often converted to doctors' and dentists' offices), its antique stores and restaurants and its picturesque mule-drawn barge rides into the heart of the rural countryside.
But, whisper it gently, success may have spoiled New Hope. On a summer weekend the streets are jammed with motorcycles, baby strollers, people fighting to get into Mother's (the curent restaurant where it's at) and cars contesting for parking spaces. See New Hope, by all means, but look beyond for the real charm of this lovely countryside.
Take Lumberville, for instance. Lumberville is hardly more that a cluster of old houses, a bridge over the canal. Some wag once changed the sign at the village limits to Slumberville and it stayed that way for years, since none of the 170 people residing there thought of it as an insult. Nevertheless, Lumberville has not one but two nice country inns.
The Black Bass Hotel has been doing business here for 240 years, first as a fortified haven for river travelers in the 1740s when Indian bands still roamed, and later in the 19th century as a welcome stop-off for passengers on the canal boats which were not long on amenities. Herb Ward is the host at the Black Bass, and he has stuffed his hotel with paintings and treasures that reflect his love of English history. The Black Bass is unusually attractive, but it's the view from the dining room overlooking the canal that fills the parking lot with out-of-state license plates. You can move out of the 20th century as you sip your pre-prandial drink and watch the strollers walking the narrow towpath separating the Delaward River and the canal here. The ceiling fans revolve, life seems to slow to the pace of a gentler era and, after a while, you begin to wonder when the next canal boat is due.
Just over the hill toward New Hope is the 1740 House, a converted barn which serves only dinner to the dropin trade. The menu is written on a blackboard and you dine in a small enclosed brick terrace overlooking the Delaware. The 1740 House is booked two months in advance on weekends for overnight guests, but you could hit a cancellation for one of their 24 guest rooms, all with terraces. Harry Nessler, the owner, has furnished his inn with lovely old antiques and has added a small swimming pool. Take a swim and an early morning stroll on the towpath and you will know why you endured the throughways to get here.
My own favorite inn is the Inn at Phillips Mill, that wonderful evocation of the Cotswolds at the bend of the road just north of New Hope. When I first saw it, a young woman was washing down a dray horse outside in the courtyard and the whole scene could have been pasted on a jigsaw puzzle titled "Country Idyll." The inn was once a barn and is still connected with the rest of the farm by the courtyard, so that farm animals are not an unusual sight. The inn's sign is a cut-out pig, hanging nearly over Rte. 32, since the doorstep itself is flush with the road. The doorway could have come straight from the cover of an English biscuit tin, with pansies in tubes lining the steps and a straw wreath on the door.
When we drove up in the courtyard, Brooks Kaufman, the architect who with his wife has owned the inn since 1974, was sweeping up after the previous night's hospitality, but he laid aside his broom to show us around. The bad news is that he is booked for all five rooms from now into November, but you can have dinner with him if you call a day or two ahead. Or you can plan well ahead and be his winter guest. The living room has a comfortable sofa in front of the fireplace, which must be wonderfully cozy in December. On its mantel are carved the words of Horace: "This corner of earth smiles for me beyond all others." tThe hit song of 1936, "There's A Small Hotel," was written about a Bucks County inn -- maybe this one.
Because a couple had departed early, we got a peek upstairs into one of the rooms, where a large antique four-poster sat under a fabric-covered ceiling supported by the original beams. In the tiny adjoining bath, the tub was claw-footed and overhung with a dozen or more old mirrors to make faces into and to enlarge the space. Floors are largely bare and painted, and the dining room seems almost part of the river. If you stay overnight, you can order a continental breakfast to eat in bed.
But not matter how pleasant, you can't spend all your visit gazing at the Delaware or soaking in a claw-foot tub. Fortunately Dr. Henry Chapman Mercer, a 19th-century archeologist, architect and potter, made nearby Doylestown something not to be missed.
Mercer devoted his life to preserving the art of the Pennsylvania German potters. He built a castle in Doylestown using poured reinforced concrete, which everybody said was sure to fall down on his head. Then, to prove them wrong, he went ahead and built a tile works the same way. Mercer tiles became so famous that they were installed all over the world. The Gardner Museum in Boston has some; so does the John D. Rockefeller estate. The tiles in the National Press Club in Washington are Mercer tiles.
You can go through both the tile works and the castle on guided tours, and if you have time for only one, choose the castle -- right out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale book. You expect to see a princess combing her long golden hair in a tower room. Vaulted ceilings arch overhead and the concrete walls are adorned with every possible variation of tile. It is hard to imagine such splendor for only one man, but Mercer never married; he made his tiles his life and surrounded himself with treasures from his travels. Don't miss the Columbus Room, dedicated to the memory of his aunt, where the story of the discovery of the New World is told in tile.
Mercer loved at least once, a dog called Rollo, whose picture survives among the enormous collection of steel engravings. Rollo's pawprints are preserved in the concrete of the steps to the Columbus Room.
In 1913, Mercer built yet another concrete edifice and stuffed it with a remarkable collection of pre-industrial artifacts he had collected. It's like wandering through your grandfather's attic. Everything is here, from a child-size decorated sleigh to a lifesize figure of Buffalo Bill staring sternly out toward the horizon. James Michener, wandering through here, is said to have remarked, "We have a national treasure here."
In the mood for shopping? Pedler's Village, in nearby Lahaska, is a shopper's heaven for everything from Williamsburg reproductions to hand-turned pottery. Forty-two attractive stores are clustered together here in an unusual village layout, all competing for the tourist's dollar. A restaurant or two are included, but knowledgeable natives go round the corner on Rte. 202 to the Soup Tureen, a small jewel of a restaurant beyond the limits of Pedler's. While the crowd stook in line at the Pedler's Pub, we dined on homemade soup, stuffed mushrooms, spinach crepes and pecan pie made on the premises. A display of farm implements on the wall and a sleeping black Labrador retriever made things homey. The Soup Tureen is a real find.
If you have the time to explore Bucks County, the possibilities are endless. You can drop in at the Washington Crossing State Park for a review history lesson of the famous Hessian surprise party; visit the recreated home of William Penn near Tullytown; see Fallsington, where two dozen 18th-century houses survive, many occupied by descendants of the original owners. You can climb aboard the New Hope Steam Railway for an hour's trip through the country, or you can let the mules on the canal pull you through a green tunnel for a peek into the back yards of homes on the canal.
We chose to search out some of Bucks County's 13 covered bridges and elected to begin with nearby Van Sant Bridge on -- what else? -- Covered Bridge Road, which was sweet-smelling with the breeze off the pasture land and roofed with overhanging trees. When we got lost, we threw ourselves on the mercy of a passing farmer who went out of his way to lead us to the bridge and then pointed out the finer points of its construction. In his father's day, he told us, they were called kissing bridges, since you pulled up the horses and, under cover of darkness, kissed your girl.
The Bucks County Historical-Tourist Commission, 1 Oxford Valley, Langhorne, Pa. 19047, will give you the leaflet mapping out a self-guided tour of the bridges.