It was an extraordinary reunion last night at the F Street Club.

Conference participants and members of the American Ditchley Foundation gathered to meet Sir Reginald Hibbert, the new director of the group's parent organization, the Ditchley Foundation of Britain. And while there, they previewed the design for the bell tower at the Old Post Office Building that will house the Ditchley bells, the British foundation's Bicentennial gift to the United States. Ditchley alumni present included former attorney general Elliot Richardson, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) and several other former statesmen and high-level bureaucrats.

"I think the bells compare more with the Liberty Bell in Berlin," Hibbert said in explaining the foundation's gift. "They are a mark of the respect and affection by one great nation for another."

"I still think that between the Americans and the British is the most important relationship left for us," said Lucius D. Battle, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, in describing the significance of the foundation.

The Ditchley Foundation, in conjunction with its U.S. offshoot, hosts approximately 13 conferences each year for British and American lawmakers, bureaucrats and guests from other Western European countries at Ditchley Park in England. There, in a tradition that is more than 20 years old, participants go off the record for 48 hours and discuss world problems amid the genteel English countryside.

"It took five years to decide how to use Ditchley," said former foundation director Sir David Wills, who bought Ditchley Park in 1953. "Until Ditchley, there was no place where British and Americans could meet in a quiet and relaxed setting to mull over and to discuss the problems they have in common."

"Ditchley doesn't aim at agreement," Hibbert said of the philosophy behind the private conferences. "It aims at understanding and communication."

Guests relived some of Ditchley's ambience, feasting on fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate and finger sandwiches while being waited on by quiet tuxedoed attendants. And they reexamined the importance of their experiences there.

"In 1964 and 1981 I went over to Ditchley," reminisced J.C. Turner, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers. "We talked about the Soviet Union and Western Europe and talked a great deal about Poland, NATO and unilateral and bilateral agreements. It became quite clear to me that we have a problem of continually making clear our commitment to the security of Western Europe. If we don't, it will have a serious and unhappy effect."

More than one alumnus remembered fondly the unique setting that Ditchley Park provided for the conferences.

"It would be very difficult to duplicate Ditchley in America," one conference alumnus said about the qualities that make the foundation's conferences unique. "We have none of the butlers here. It does matter. The ambience has a big impact."