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Britain: Town and Country

Many British interiors are based on reverse snobbism and the deliberate dowdiness of the "country-house look." This reflects a belief that rooms, like people, should develop, bit by bit, over the years. See this carried to its limit at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, which has been open to the public for only a few years.

Comfort is what's important in the manor houses--go to Knole in Kent to see the earliest upholstered sofa in England. Knole was Vita Sackville-West's ancestral home of which she wrote extensively but could not inherit. Now it's National Trust property.

At Wilton, in Wiltshire, study the renowned cube and double-cube rooms, famous since the 18th century for their perfect proportions. In northern England, visit Castle Howard, setting for the TV series Brideshead Revisited, though not the house Evelyn Waug wrote about.

In Scotland, visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh where Mary Queen of Scots lived. The tragic Mary preferred its interior Renaissance sophistication to the brute fortifications of Edinburgh Castle. Queen Elizabeth agrees; Holyroodhouse is the official residence of the royal family when in Edinburgh.

See Cawdor Castle in Nairn for a sensibly-sized, moated and crenallated keep that successfully mingles 17th-century tapestries with tartan carpets and displays of muskets with peat-warmed domesticity.

For great 20th-century design, go to Glasgow (designated as Britain's City of Architecture and Design for 1999). Visit the house of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose art-nouveau lines and color can also be seen at his turn-of-the-century Glasgow School of Art.

If you can't leave London, go to Sir John Soane's home and museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields to see this extraordinary interior by the leader of the 19th-century Classic Revival, a semi-secret even among Londoners. In Shoreditch, see the Geffrye Museum, a series of tiny alms houses originally built for aged furniture and metal workers of the area, with rooms furnished in historic but modest style from Elizabethan to modern.

And allow time in the Victoria and Albert Museum ("the V & A," to natives) for its comprehensive collection of decorative arts. (Albert's Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 was, of course, a seminal event in European design.) Don't miss the fantasy Gothick library from Strawberry Hill or the William Morris rooms.