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Four Happy Days
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Picturesque villages dating from the Middle Ages ... a spectacular fairy tale castle ... massive centuries-old cathedrals ... the most stately of England's stately homes ... carefully preserved ruins and artifacts from Britain's Roman past ... the fully restored 18th century flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson ...

All that, and more, is easily reached via BritRail from London. Some of the extraordinary sites are just a 25-minute train ride from the city, none more than 90 minutes away.

My wife Gerry and I saw them all in four leisurely day trips, heading off first to St. Albans for a look at the village's ancient Gothic cathedral and the ample evidence of the village's 400 years as one of the Roman Empire's most important western outposts.

We were immediately charmed by St. Albans, its narrow, curving streets, laid out as they were centuries ago; rows of red brick Victorian buildings; greenery, bright flowers and chirping birds.

The art-filled cathedral overlooks the large, lushly landscaped park bearing the village's Roman name -- Verulamium -- that's just a short walk down High Street from the rail station. Verulamium Park and its two small lakes are quite popular with villagers and their many feathered friends -- several species of songbirds, and honking, cackling ducks, geese and swans that waddle comically among park visitors.

Although Verulamium was all but abandoned with the fall of the Roman Empire 1500 years ago, sections of the amphitheater that was central to its diverse and sophisticated cultural life are still standing near the park, as are parts of the city's original walls and other structures.

Everyday life in the Roman city is explored in fascinating detail in an adjacent museum, through audio and video presentations and exceptional exhibits. Jewelry, clothing, coins, household utensils, pottery, musical instruments and many other found objects are displayed imaginatively. So are restored or re-created rooms from Verulamium homes, some with the original art that was painted on the plaster walls. We also got to view a collection of probably the finest Roman mosaics outside the Mediterranean region, seemingly as bright as the day they were crafted.

Next day, we explored the lifestyle of the British nobles who lived -- and still live -- in a magnificent castle surrounded by an 1100-acre park on a hill high above the medieval village of Arundel.

The guidebooks are correct: Arundel Castle is one of Britain's most spectacular castles, a completely intact Gothic edifice that defines what a castle should be. It's the ancestral home of the Duke of Norfolk and his family, but though you can't visit their living quarters, you can view their priceless collection of old masters' paintings and other art, antiques and furnishings that make the inside of the castle as beautiful as the outside.

One of the several bedrooms shown is furnished as it was for the visit of Queen Victoria during her Golden Jubilee in 1887. In keeping with the style of the day that called for as many as six mattresses, the bed was so high that Victoria, who was less than five feet tall, had to use a ladder to get in and out of it. Why so high? Gerry asked a friendly warder. Well, he said, rats and other critters commonly ran around bedroom floors in those days, even castle bedroom floors.

There are exactly, believe me, 139 steep stairs leading to the castle keep -- but they were well worth climbing, though slowly and carefully, for sure. The view was special: Acres of green valley land, ducks, swans, geese, cattle and sheep, many ponds, a river near by, low hills in the far distance and, immediately below, grassy knolls brilliant with wildflowers.

It's a relatively long but pleasant walk back to the rail station. We stopped along the way to visit the imposing Arundel Cathedral, properly the Cathedral of Our Lady & St. Philip Howard -- a rarity among English cathedrals in that it's Catholic rather than Protestant.

Another long but pleasing trek for us the next day in pretty medieval Stamford, partly along the banks of a river overhung with willows dipping gracefully into the water. The river -- the Welland -- cuts through the center of the village, pointing the way to Burleigh House. It's the largest and probably finest Elizabethan mansion in England, built five centuries ago but beautifully preserved.

The art treasures rival -- if not excel -- those in Arundel. Particularly striking are the painted murals covering several walls, ceilings and staircases, centuries old but gleaming.

We shifted from art to history on the final day trip -- at Portsmouth, where the British celebrate the long, storied past of the Royal Navy, once mighty ruler of the seven seas.

The history is told in several buildings at the edge of Portsmouth's historic dockyards, through videos, photos, paintings, statues, dioramas, ship models, figureheads, weapons, uniforms and other memorabilia.

Lord Nelson, perhaps the most popular of all British heroes, gets the entire floor of one building, and the absolute highlight of the museum complex is a guided tour of his thoroughly restored and fully operational flagship, HMS Victory, on which he led the English to victory against the French and Spanish armadas at Trafalgar in 1805.

Life in Nelson's navy wasn't easy, we learned. The food was atrocious, of necessity preserved with heavy doses of salt, sailors were frequently flogged to maintain discipline and slept in constantly swaying hammocks. If a sailor died, as many did, a needle was run through his nose to make certain he was dead and then used to sew him up into his hammock, which was then tossed overboard. Just about the only solace for the 800 crew members, many as young as 14, were the abundant rations of booze -- 56 pints of beer a week or a comparable amount of wine, rum or brandy. That's right: 56 pints!

We settled for a pint at a cheery Portsmouth pub, in celebration of four happy days of travel.

Copyright Dick Meister