It was a damp August morning, the day after Prince William's christening, when I went to interview Prince Charles. Once past the scrutinizing London bobbies at the gate, the front door to Kensington Palace was open. Princess Diana had just left with a lady-in-waiting for what seemed to be a shopping expedition. In the hallway was a wooden contraption for speedy removal of the Prince of Wales' grimy polo boots.

Given all the splendor and history of Britain's royal family, the scene somehow managed a domestic feel.

The official greeter was Fisher, the butler, decked out in traditional striped pants, but also wearing black, American-style penny loafers, a touch he may have picked up in the years he spent in California working for Bing Crosby. The prince, he said amiably, was working in the study but would duck out to visit his son while I fussed nervously with tape recorders and cameras waiting for the interview to start, a few minutes past the appointed hour of 10:30 a.m..

For all his 33 years, Prince Charles has been one of the world's most familiar figures. Yet relatively little is known about what he believes because he is rarely interviewed, deliberately so. His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, never meets with reporters. In fact, that session with The Washington Post on Aug. 5 marked the first time Prince Charles had ever sat down with an American journalist for a full discussion of his opinions on the world around him, his job and his guiding philosophy.

Why the prince chose to meet with the Post at this time was never explained. But arranging the interview was emphatically not a casual matter. Every step from the initial response to the newspaper's request until today's publication was carefully planned and anxiously monitored by Charles' staff -- and often by Charles himself.

Late last year, Leonard Downie Jr., then the Post's London correspondent, wrote to Prince Charles' press secretary Warwick Hutchings, suggesting an on-the-record interview. To his surprise, considering the odds against a positive answer, Hutchings replied that an interview would be arranged in the second half of 1982. Downie was delighted -- except that he was scheduled to return to the States in June. So anticipation of the Prince Charles interview became part of the legacy he left me, his successor.

In July, the prince convened the semiannual meeting at which such items as the Post interview are scheduled. The date was chosen, as was the location -- the prince's study at his Kensington Palace apartment. The main stipulation was that the prince would be able to review the transcript before publication and revise his remarks where he thought necessary. In the end, while the palace kept the text for two weeks after the interview, the only changes made were insignificant and altered no point of substance.

In addition, the subjects to be covered in the session were submitted in advance. The prince declined to be questioned about his wife or infant son and how they have changed his life. He also refused to speculate on why the British royal family's stature was so high, although, as the reader will discover, discussion of the family's role and function are a major element of the interview. One hour was set aside of which perhaps 10 minutes were used up in pleasantries and a photograph session.

Kensington Palace is a nearly 400-year-old sprawl of royal domiciles in one of London's beautiful and centrally located parks, not far from the main residence at Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles and Princess Diana moved into an apartment in the palace in May. Other members of the family including Charles' aunt, Princess Margaret, also live there and have separate entrances.

Compared to the imposing, almost forbidding grandeur of Buckingham Palace, with its great halls and uniformed servants, the prince's apartment looks a comfortable -- if decidedly elegant -- place to live. The downstairs foyer is a blend of antiques and fresh flowers set off with cheerful pastel green and pink carpeting. The first entry in the new occupants' guest book last May 20 is "Spencer (daddy)," the father of Princess Diana. The mensroom is decorated with an array of the prince's awards, decorations and honors.

Fisher the butler, (his first name, I can reveal, is Alan) makes visitors feel welcome with hearty patter. He spent 20 years in the U.S. and seemed surprised and then pleased to discover that The Washington Post's London correspondent was a Yank. After coffee was tendered and declined and something stronger proferred if neccesary or desired, Fisher escorted Daisy Hayes, a free-lance photographer hired by the Post for the occasion, and me to the second-floor study. While we arranged ourselves, we indulged a certain inevitable curiosity about the royal artifacts and desk clutter.

The study is a good-sized room but hardly massive. It overlooks a quiet courtyard at the center of the palace complex. On the walls are portraits of the queen, the queen mother, and the late Lord Mountbatten, who was Charles' favorite relative. On the tables and in cabinets are books ("Adventures in High Endeavor" was one) magazines like Punch, pictures taken at Charles and Diana's wedding, and presents, including a wooden case inscribed to Prince William from his godfather Laurens van Der Post, a South-African-born writer who is another of Charles' heroes.

Among the papers on Charles' desk was a small photograph of an obviously delighted new father holding his baby son. Charles is plainly not a clean desk man. Papers covered the top. Two comfortable arm chairs in front of the fireplace were pointed out as the place for the interview.

Charles arrived. A visitor is expected to nod, mumble greetings to "Your RoyallHighness" and then shake hands. Such opening moments are unavoidably awkward and the prince seemed relieved to finally be in his chair with the interview underway.

After all the thousands of pictures and descriptions of Charles, there is nothing unexpected about his appearance. He is about 5 feet 10 inches tall and well built, with brown hair and a ruddy complexion. He has the look of a man who takes good care of himself and is well cared for. His dress is immaculate. He was wearing a medium-weight gray suit with highly polished brown loafers, a fashionably narrow gray tie, french cuffed shirt and a maroon pocket handkerchief. His wedding ring and a crested signet are on his pinky. He wore a gold watch with a dark brown leather band.

The prince's gestures and voice are animated and once embarked, he seems to enjoy answering questions about his views. But to this visitor, at least, his good-humor barely masked an intensity of introspection, a strong sense that he must justify to himself and the world at large the extraordinary position which he inherited. Prince Charles, as he stressed throughout the interview, is a man still defining what he is and what he should be doing.

In the evolving position of Britain's royal family over the years, its responsibility has been increasingly to reign and not to rule, to play a ceremonial, unifying function in the country's life but not to govern. Being consistently above politics and still able to play a meaningful part in the nation's affairs is the delicate balance which the queen and her son, in particular, have to strike.

Each public expression has to be weighed for its impact -- which is why interviews are so rare and so much care went into this one. While the prince is undeniably a public figure, he also attempts to preserve a measure of privacy. Before the tape was turned on in our session, he recalled with some pain (as he has to other interviewers) the trouble he made for himself when he once observed to a womans' magazine that he should marry about the time he was 30. As he approached that age, speculation about princely romances in the British press reached frenzied heights. That, he said, is why he chooses not to talk about his personal life or predict the course of his future.

These self-imposed restraints and extreme caution add to the distance a visitor feels from the prince. He is only a few years younger than I am. Some people even say we look a little alike. I longed for the opportunity to say directly, "Look, lets be friends. Tell me how it really feels to be the Prince of Wales. Would I like it?" I would want to know more of how he feels about inheriting his wealth and position where so many others live in squalor. I would like to know whether he is content to wait for decades to reach the throne as his mother, the queen, only 54 and at the top of her form, has said she would never abdicate. I would like to know if he is ever worried or frightened and about what.

There are strong hints of the prince's views in the answers he did permit himself. Even if he cannot bare his soul, he is plainly thinking about questions such as these.

Others who have met the prince report the same reaction as mine, a yen to get closer, knowing that it is not possible. This is a tribute to the mystery and majesty of British royalty, but also to Charles' charm and earnestness.

All in all, he is the sort of fellow you'd like to get to know better.