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.

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.

Since, by now, I couldn't remember what I'd got up for, I lay there in the darkness mulling over how I'd got into this predicament. There was still rock music coming from the manor house.

It had all 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 fun?" Joyce said. Well, it did sound like fun. In fact it sounded too good to be true, and if it had been an ad for an American rental, 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 lady we talked to at the agency sounded very 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 buzzword with my wife. With Joyce, the picturesquer the better.

"Old Waterwheel House," the lady 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 lady continued, "lovely little shops ... "

Shops -- another buzzword. 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 lady'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 only gone to England."

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

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

I like cats. But when I am in the presence of cats my eyes and nose both 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 a shot. 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."

I was 6-foot-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 5-11.

"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 the 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.

"Yes, you'll meet them tomorrow. They're home now that school's ended. Sid's the one with the motorbike. Dennis loves boats."

It was, indeed, an all-electric house. Our landlord showed us the electric meter over the stove and showed us how to put half-pound coins into it.

"We've put 10 pounds into it. Should last you, unless you use the washer-dryer." The doctor indicated a plastic affair next to the sink, with plastic hoses and wires running out of it.

He showed us how to work the water heater. "A few minutes before your bath, you see, we just turn this little switch. All-electric so it's really quite fast."

The beds were on the second floor and appeared to have also come from the boys' room, being almost six feet long and having teething marks on one of the bed knobs.

"Just curious," I said, "but weren't there supposed to be three beds?"

"Well, actually," the doctor said, "since there really isn't room for three, unless we don't use the closet space, we put the third bed under one of the others." There really was a bed under one of the twin beds.

After he left, we turned on the water heater, and went into Hailsham for dinner.

We returned "home" an hour later to a house full of steam.

"Is anyone there?" came a voice out of the fog. It was the doctor's wife. She introduced herself.

She'd seen the steam boiling out of the upstairs windows and had come over to turn off the water heater. "We never go off and leave it on," she said. There was a reprimand in her voice. Oh, by the by, she said, "there's a party tonight at the manor house ... "

For a wild moment I thought we were going to be invited.

"The young people like to celebrate the start of their summer holiday. I do hope the music won't disturb you."

"The manor house," said Joyce. "Isn't that quite a distance away?"

"Oh, no, it's just thah."


"Thah, through the trees."

"Next door? I thought it was supposed to be a long way away, up on the hill."

"Oh well, you see, this whole area's been subdivided," she said, as if that explained everything.

As she got to the door, she turned and smiled at Joyce, "Do you like birds?"

"Oh, yes," said Joyce. "I love them."

"Oh, good," the doctor's wife answered. "I'll introduce you to our geese in the morning."

It really would not have been necessary. The geese introduced themselves several times during the night -- every time there was an emergency, like a leaf falling or a car passing on the street.

The first time, between sets in the party music from the manor house, Joyce and I both sat bolt upright in bed.

"What do you suppose that was," said Joyce.

"If that's your babbling brook," I said, "it needs work."

"You've been wheezing worse since we came to bed. Let me see that pillow."

She inspected it and pronounced it unsuitable. "This pillow is old goose feathers. Charles Dickens may have slept on this pillow, but you don't."

I was muttering about having to sleep on a bed that was four inches too short and had slats missing, and having to use a pillow full of deceased goose parts, when the manor house people started playing slow dance music.

I don't remember going to sleep, but I must have.

The next morning, we put a few things in the washer-dryer and set it in motion before going out to look over the area. It made a fine noise.

Soon after that the other noises started. The water wheel, right outside the kitchen window, was steel, hanging over an empty stream and being repaired by a man with an electric drill.

A half hour later the government masonry crew showed up. It seemed that since the brook had been diverted because of the needed repairs to the water wheel, it was an opportune time to mend the 400-year-old bridge, just down riverbed. They began working on it with an air hammer.

We were strolling the back yard when the doctor's 10-year-old daughter joined us. She showed us around the area, pointed out the empty babbling brook, which had only a minor pond or two left -- presumably so the geese, frogs and mosquitoes would have some place to live.

As we stood on a small bridge, over what looked like the English equivalent of Love Canal (Joyce and I both trying to discourage a Persian cat from rubbing against my leg), the doctor's daughter started telling us about the wisdom of not engaging any of the local pedestrians in conversation because of the proximity to the "mental home." Then her mother called her in.

Meanwhile, back at the house, the washer-dryer had stopped. Its vibrations had caused it to waltz away from the wall, pulling its own plug in the process.

At about noon of the first day in Old Waterwheel House, Dennis got his boat out of the garage, took it to the back of the yard, as far as he could get from the house, and put it up on sawhorses. Then he got a power-sander and a 60-foot extension cord and began to sand the bottom of the boat.

After half an hour of sanding he went to the house, got his radio and another extension cord, into which he plugged the radio. This one, however, was only 30 feet long, which meant he could not get it close enough to the boat to hear the music, especially since the sander was making so much noise.

He solved the problem by turning the radio up. It worked. The radio could be heard above the sander, the drill being used on the steel water wheel and the air hammer the masons were using. Even the geese could be seen to be honking but not be heard over the radio.

Both Joyce and I secretly hoped the geese were being kept awake.

That afternoon we began seeing southern England.

There was no alternative. We went to Brighton and saw the Royal Pavilion and could understand why Queen Victoria hated it so much.

At Tunbridge Wells, a famous spring since 1606, we stopped and drank and felt better for it. Of course we drank at a pub, not the spring.

At the village of Battle, where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, we stood on the spot where Harold II, the last of the Saxon kings, was killed and the course of history changed forever.

We spent an afternoon in Pevensey Castle, a famous defense since Roman times, and the 27-room antique shop across the road. We took the advice of the very nice English people we met in a pub and drove toward Dover, stopping at Rye and Winchelsea on the way.

At Dover we climbed the battlements and saw the Channel as England's defenders had seen it for hundreds of years.

We spent our week, not resting but actively looking for and experiencing the history and beauty of one of the historically richest areas in the English-speaking world.

We used our 400-year-old "home" only as a base of operations. Both of us are glad now, that we did.

But if you're looking for a "picturesque hideaway, tucked away in the folds of the English countryside," and you really need a rest, be careful. Check it out first, ask for references, look into the bona fides of the agent you're dealing with.

Of course, if you're looking for adventure, for something to remember, wing it, like we did.

There were a few unexpected bonuses in our experience in East Sussex.

Joyce, who loves birds, got an up-close-and-personal look at some East Sussex geese.

And, thanks to some ceiling beams, I did get the two inches back that I'd lost in shrinking over the years.

Of course, none of my hats fit anymore.

Bob O'Sullivan, a retired Los Angeles sheriff's lieutenant, travels extensively with his wife.