Sir Peter Ramsbotham sailed up in his little English car to the train station of Winchester and off we sped into one of the clearest, cleanest, freshest and oldest centers of the English-speaking world.
His house, mainly a 17th-century cottage although part of it was built in 1585, is white plaster with black trim and a wonderful roof of soft-colored old tiles. Sir Peter, in a rare display of bad judgment, is about to chop down the yellow Lady Banks rose at the door, and if he is not closely watched it is feared he will replace it with something that blooms all summer.
This shows that even sensible people have been infected by the modern itch for brilliant color and perpetual performance.
There's still hope, of course. Indoors, Lady Ramsbotham struck me as one to maintain a few standards, and the old cottage is so beautiful and right that a good-looking Georgian chair here and some handsome silver over yonder are not picked out by the eye from the general homey unity that is everywhere.
I washed up a bit and found myself locked in the loo, which was curious since I had merely pulled the door to. There is a pretty, if not exceptionally efficient, 18th-century brass door pull that bears no relationship to the function of getting the door open. Embarrassing, you know. In the house four minutes and already a cry for help.
The Ramsbothams, who I darkly suspect have been through this drill more than once, though like all the English they say they never knew such a thing to happen before, sprang me and then fed me lunch. Lady R. had prepared (there are no servants) that ancient English feast of carrot-tomato soup with grated orange peeling, spaghetti bolognese and apricot tart. It is understood King Alfred ate this very luncheon in a cave not far distant.
Sir Peter was the British ambassador to Washington and, like some but not all ambassadors, made hosts of friends, traveling all over America promoting British interests. People said he was the old-fashioned sort of ambassador who thought ambassadors should meet people and wow them.
Lady R.'s mother, Mrs. Blomfield (rhymes with plum-field) at the age of 91 demonstrated how wholesome the climate of Hampshire is and how both beauty and charm of conversation can be retained indefinitely. The other member of the luncheon party was Robert Mann of Tennessee, a buff of the Gothic architecture in which Winchester abounds.
Peter fishes regularly in the River Itchen, which flows through the bottom of the garden, and which is the river exalted by Izaak Walton, whose notable trout figure in the ancestry of those Sir Peter now catches.
"Throw 'em back if they weigh less than a pound," he said. "This water meadow is one of the few remaining untouched medieval water meadows in all England," he said, nodding to a savannah landscape sprinkled with loosestrife and goatsbeard and wild orchids and much else. We wandered (the English day is not complete without a five-mile walk) by a pretty 18th-century house with a footbridge, beneath which the crystal Itchen flowed and in which trout weighing 2 1/2 pounds were indolently drifting -- none of that ferocious activity known to fishermen with one on the line.
"I suspect the woman who lives here feeds them," he said drily. "Pity they're not in my part of the river. She is very nice, you understand, but perhaps we shall not meet her. She enjoys conversation. She also raises both horses and dogs. Sometimes at odd hours I come into these woods and admire the old river. You remember the line of Shakespeare's, about the sun's 'gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy.' Well, see the sun coming out on this water. How simple, but how precise that line is.
"It's a joy to come here, of course. We have owls. Often if I am meditating on the loveliness of it, and on the nature of human life, perhaps, the reverie is broken by this woman screaming at her horses, or it may be her dogs. She is blessed with a voice that carries and rebukes them -- well, I shall not imitate her particular words."
The conversational and profane lady was neither heard nor seen. But then we did not see the owls, either. There is usually a balance in life's blessings.
From Peter's house, which was his father's (he was governor general of Ceylon), the garden slopes up steeply by a series of grassy terraces to a little folly of Corinthian columns, and back of it is an ancient woods made entirely of yew trees, which have been there as long as anybody can remember or as far back as any document runs.
"They die in time, crowding each other out, but when they haven't a needle anywhere on them and you're about to cut one down, a new shoot sprouts. Sometimes I suspect they never actually die. That triangular box over there is for the two bantams. It was made by a man who is wonderful with his hands. It's just a shelter for the bantams, but look at it -- like the work of a cabinetmaker. Same is true of this little greenhouse. I'm a pensioner now and one does not fling money around. This frame cost very little and we brought it here and did our own glazing and foundations. For practically nothing we now have a place to grow tomatoes and such things."
He showed us about Winchester, the cathedral of which was the largest in the world when it was built in Norman times.
"Winchester means a great deal to me," he said. "The kings of England are buried here, from the days before London was the capital. This was Alfred's capital, of course."
The immense nave, more than 500 feet long, spread before us. The great tower fell in the year 1107; some of its rubble still fills the crypt beneath the pavement. The men of Winchester replaced it with a much smaller tower and just to be safe they used the old Norman piers as a core and added to them in the Gothic manner, so that now these stone columns are 20 feet thick.
Sir Peter paused in the two huge transepts -- the greatest display of untouched Norman architecture in England -- and remarked that it's odd, what rich and dramatic effects were got from rude dog-tooth and chevron mouldings around the arches, and capitals of barely touched stone with huge unornamented abacuses.
Many excellent folk are buried in the floor -- the slab over Jane Austen's grave says nothing about her literary excellence, by the way, and you walk over Izaak Walton without being reminded that he alone raised the river pike to glory in this language.
The iron hooks of the stone columns were put there to hold the vast 30-foot tapestries of Charles V of Spain, on the occasion of the marriage of Mary Tudor to his son in 1554.
To the north of that wall, outside the church, St. Swithin was buried in 862. His bones were moved into the earlier church on this spot in 961 and into the present cathedral in 1093, but were scattered by Reformation barbarians in 1538. Sir Peter knows, I think, every inch of the cathedral and his tour was remarkable. When the tremendous pipe organ worked itself into a particularly virile roar he fell silent, then continued on the wonders of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre with its astonishing 12th-century paintings, and the black marble baptismal font brought from Belgium in 1150, carved with facing birds, as in ancient Persian textiles (which were perfectly familiar to Europeans by 800).
"The oldest thing in any church is usually the font. It's small enough to be preserved, and since it is always being used, it is not lost, or changed to meet the new style and fashion."
There is a beautiful stone screen running along the sides of the choir, separating it from the ambulatory, and on top of the wall are six chests painted in rich colors, containing the bones of the Saxon kings. King Canute is there, and King Kynegils (died in 641) and six other early kings.
In the choir the wooden seats lift up and are carved beneath with secular subjects from daily life. The letter commissioning them (they were installed when the choir was modernized in 1308) is still preserved.
It amuses Sir Peter to reflect how many tired rumps have leaned back against them over the centuries.
A last look at the chests containing all that's left of the Saxon kings, and Peter says he is very moved when he looks at them.
"One thinks, well, what has really changed in a thousand years? The same worries, and men still behave badly. Except I do think there is more compassion now and that is something."
In the car we pass through an avenue of 200-year-old beeches leading to the Ramsbothams' gate, and through it a soft long light gives it much the same quality as the ancient church itself. You can look down at the crystal river. Peter slows the car:
"You can see the river there. It is quite big. I fish in it. It is very quiet. You remember the window in the cathedral with the colored glass panel showing Izaak Walton fishing in this river. 'Study to be quiet,' he used to say."
Sir Peter fell into a less quiet mood and spoke of the time when he approached Andrei Vishinsky, the Russian minister. Peter was in his early 30s, and had been amazed at some meeting where Vishinsky reached behind him from time to time when he needed some precise figure, and always the Soviet aide had the correct document ready and put it in the minister's hands, though Vishinsky never looked back -- he assumed the aide would have it ready.
"You remind me of Queen Victoria," Sir Peter told him.
"I was quite young, of course," Ramsbotham said with a laugh. "But Vishinsky had probably not been compared very often to Victoria, and asked why I thought so. I said that the queen when she sat down always just plopped herself down, assuming somebody would push the chair under her. And of course they always did."
Peter kept his eyes out for birds; he is a great birder, and you never know when you might see a green-sprackled tottensill or whatever they have in Hampshire.
His hair is longish and straw-colored and the light falls as if on wax on those parts of his skull not so densely thatched as formerly. He smiles a good bit and laughs often. He drives sometimes (when he knows the road by heart and nothing is coming) like Lyndon Johnson with a wasp in his sock. He says some kind things about Gerald Ford, who he thinks is underrated in America. He recalls the old embassy cat (now with God) who was missing most of the tail but gave itself lordly airs and stepped on people's feet at dinner, no matter how grand they were. And the night Lady Ramsbotham dropped her Persian earring on a figured carpet in the Egyptian Embassy of Washington, and half the ambassadors of the capital displayed the seats of their pants as they felt about on the floor for it, as Lady R. clutched her throat in dismay.
He is working now on a water garden at the edge of his river. He knows every sapling of his neighborhood, every sedum sprouting out the old walls, and probably every trout that hangs out by the profane lady's house instead of swimming up to his flies.
If he breaks out a pretty showy wine for lunch he says nothing of it. It would make no difference if the guest knew or not. It would merely be important to offer something a bit special.
And yet Sir Peter is not a very flashy creature and his modesty more than once may have caused people to underestimate him for a time, though people are surprisingly clever and usually discover for themselves.
He leapt out of the car at the train station to see us on the right track, and it was curious, the way the late light hit him. Upon my soul, very like a Saxon king, the wind ruffling his country man's hair.
It was not very Christian of me, of course, but I thought by contrast of some of the great flash-in-the-pans one meets in great capitals, who toot their horns and make golden presentations of their talents and who do not fish much or prowl about looking for sparrows (which are always called some amazing name).
And men of that sort often flourish and overshadow for a time the yeoman virtues of solidity and so forth. I was embarrassed to be thinking such things but when Sir Peter waved farewell this ungenerous thought struck me, of those who will not enter, if they live a hundred years, the quiet world of the pale streams and the bantams, having no interest in such matters and no claim to be part of them. Unable to enter even into your typical solid man's anxieties, if he ever had any, or his embarrassments, if he ever had any. Or his comfortable cottage or his field or his fish stream or his honor or his peace.