The word "charming" is in serious jeopardy of being overused by the visitor to England's Cotswolds area.

But, what other word covers the delight of picturesque villages cuddled in valleys or boastfully crowning rolling green hills, the clean bright burble of shallow rivers meandering through wood-fringed fields, lush farmlands polka-dotted with sheep, thatched and lace-curtained cottages surrounded by country gardens, sandstone churches with their moss-grown burial plots exuding history?Simply charming.

For me, it was England at its best - a geographic relic of an earlier time, a less hectic venue than the English cities, which are too much like American cities to hold the same kind of appeal.

The Cotswold Hills, lying between the Thames and Severn valleys in south-central England, are an easy day's excursion from London. The hills themselves are the source of the magic. They create a softly undulating landscape where sheep still graze as modern reminders of an era when wool and cloth made Cotswold farmers rich. The hills also provide the characteristic golden limestonefrom which houses, barns, churches and public houses all are crafted.

A drive through the Cotswolds (on the wrong side of the road by American standards) can be an adventure. The country roads are narrow. Often, the view of fields geometrically defined by hedgerows or stone walls disappears and you find yourself in a narrow green canyon, only to bob out again to more of the green rolling vista.

Periodically, the road widens into a community where time seems to have stood still. Even a stroll along a short street can produce delights such as the sign in Clifton that advertises "Filthy Ale and Disgusting Food" to tempt you in. The first attempt at truth in advertising, or a clever ploy to entice the curious? Judging from the trim, old-world appearance of the pub behind the sign, it's the latter.

The Cotswold villages are bits of successive historic eras juxtaposed, many dating back to the pre-Christian Roman era - and even earlier.

At Chedworth, the remains of a Roman villa of the 2nd to 4th centuries attest to the good living the Roman conquerors sometimes enjoyed in their distant territories. The partially restored villa retains traces of central heating and sewage systems, an elaborate bath complex (but not the match of the ruins at Bath), sculptures and frescoes that say "Rome was here."

Bath, with its natural hot springs, gave the Romans the ideal opportunity to create a complex where the social activity of bathing was at its zenith. They called it Aqua Sulis, naming it for a Celtic deity, probably as a conciliatory gesture toward the locals.

After the Romans had faded into another chapter of British history, English nabobs picked up where they had left off. "Taking the cure" was the rage for the gentlefolk of the 18th century.

The ruins have been restored to the extent that a tour is a marvelous touch-and-see excursion into history.

But don't expect to bathe in Bath's famed hot springs. The restored ruins, where naturally warm water (115 degrees Fahrenheit) pours into the aqueducts at the rate of a quarter million gallons a day, is strictly for looking. No bathing is allowed.

However, if you get to Bath during one of the frequent English showers, you may conclude you've bathed. If, in fact, you can get anywhere in England without being rained upon, you've missed part of the experience. Take an umbrella and a smile and make it part of the fun. We ducked into a concrete "guard house" outside a local museum to let the worst of a storm pass, and provided entertainment for the locals who drove past and grinned at the American sissies.

The impressive Bath Abbey, built and rebuilt since the early centuries of Christianity, with each succeeding wave of people adding its touch, features stone-carved angels who ascend ladders up its towers. They symbolize a dream in which God commanded a bishop to restore the ancient church. If you can make it during a choir rehearsal or organ recital, as we did, so much the better.

The ubiquitous British bed-and-breakfast is at its best in the Cotswolds, I believe. Accommodations range from truly household enterprises where you eat with the resident family to full-blown hotels that pass themselves off as bed-and-breakfasts. Prices range accordingly. Look for the B&B signs. They're everywhere.

You could spend months exploring the Cotswolds. We had less than a week - enough only for a taste of what could be an enduring banquet. Among the highlights:

Blenheim Palace - The jewel of Woodstock, the palace was constructed for Sir. John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, in recognition of his service to Queen Anne. It bears the name of his crucial battle at Blenheim (now located in Germany), where he defeated the French. The baroque design and the elegance of the furnishings and decor are reminders of an age when titles meant more than they do today. Visit the room where a more widely recognized Churchill, Winston, was born. His mother was visiting Blenheim at the time and his precipitous arrival was attributed by some to her horseback ride on the day he was born. Eat lunch on the patio, stroll the massive, richly cultivated grounds. Wander along the River Glym to the waterfalls. And when you leave the palace, walk through Woodstock to the Oxfordshire Museum for a look back in time to when even the dukes were still to come.

Bourton-on-the-Water - For 30 miles, the Windrush River meanders through the Cotswolds, providing sustenance for people like those who settled this spot, whose name recognizes the importance of the stream. Less than two feet deep as it passes through town, the Windrush is ideal for the waders who bypass bridges to get from one side to the other. (One of the earliest known bridges in the town was built by the Second Legion of Romans as they laid their roads through England). The town has become more touristy than some, with an auto museum and another that provides a showcase of Bourton farm life in the past. There is an aviary, too, located beside the Windrush where water fowl seem to swim over their own reflections in the river. For a change of pace, there's a perfumery, redolent with the natural scents used in its mixtures. No chemical concoctions here, and a stop in the perfumery garden manifests why not. An amazing variety of aromas is there for the sniffing.

Stow-on-the-Wold - Sheepmen still bring their flocks to Stow's annual market, but the horse markets draw more interest. Tinkers, gypsies and other horse-fanciers are among those who come to town for the events, some arriving in horse-drawn vehicles. The venerable old Church of St. Edward thrusts its square steeple into the sky and invites visitors in for a look at stained glass - not on the scale of the big cathedrals and abbeys, but pleasantly in keeping with the town. You can still grab a bite, too, at the Royalist Inn, which claims a history dating from 947 and the record for being the oldest inn in England.

Twila Van Leer recently vacationed in England. TRAVEL