(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on Orford, N.H., in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly said the town was part of the nation's first interstate regional school system. The first such system was the Dresden School District, which started in 1963 and includes the towns of Hanover, N.H., and Norwich, Vt.)
ORFORD, N.H. -- It's easy to see why, after visiting this small town in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, Washington Irving proclaimed in 1832, ''In all my travels in this country and in Europe, I have seen no village more beautiful than this. It is a charming place. Nature has done her utmost here."
In many ways, Orford is the town that time forgot. Its character today remains largely undisturbed from Irving's time. The placid meandering of the Connecticut provides the unchanging backdrop. But complementing and enhancing the bucolic setting is a stunning man-made feature, a majestic row of mansions set up and back beyond sweeping lawns and white fences more than 100 yards from the main street.
In the Orford Social Library, where we had gone to look into the town's history, we met Ann Green, one of three selectmen.
''The area north of Hanover is known as the Upper Valley -- that's what the locals call it," she told us.
In another minute, we were joined by a striking white-haired woman.
''Here's Julia!" said Green, as she introduced us to Julia Fifield, the 99-year-old grande dame of Orford.
''I came to Orford with my family in 1935 and I've lived here off and on ever since," said Fifield, who lives in one of the stately homes. ''Those are the Ridge houses."
In 1761, a year after the British captured Quebec and signed peace treaties with Native American tribes, the land that is now Orford was chartered from King George III through the royal governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth. The town draws its name from Britain's Earl of Orford.
The area's first permanent settlers, John Mann and his family, moved north from Connecticut in 1765. Eight years later, the town's first minister, the Rev. Obadiah Noble, eager to escape the spring floods down by the river, purchased land from Israel Morey and became the first to situate his house up on ''The Ridge." For more than 30 years, his was the sole structure there.
In 1804, Morey's son Samuel, whom a former town historian, Alice Doan Hodgson, called Orford's ''resident genius" (his patents lay claim to the invention of both the steamboat and the internal combustion engine), purchased the Noble house. He used it as part of a new structure, a Georgian-style house with Palladian windows that he faced west across the river.
Over the next 35 years, between 1804 and 1839, prominent Orford citizens built six more houses on The Ridge of similar Bulfinch style (after eminent Boston architect Charles Bulfinch). A seventh house, the 1814 home of general store proprietor John Wheeler, is thought to have been designed by Asher Benjamin, a student of Bulfinch.
The Hinckley House, the first brick house in Orford, is the only one not painted white (it is yellow).
''That's the house with the Rufus Porter murals," Green said, referring to the work of the 19th-century New England painter.
Fifield lives with her daughter in the Stedman Willard House.
''You can't miss it," she said. ''It's the only one with a porch."
As a group, the seven Ridge houses have been praised as among the finest specimens of Federal architecture in the country. In 1977, the entire Orford Street Historic District, encompassing more than 30 structures on the main street, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Later, our dinner plans provided another taste of Orford history at the town's only eating establishment, Peyton Place Restaurant (the current owners are husband and wife Jim and Heidi Peyton) in Mann Tavern, in the 1773 Colonial home of town founder John Mann. It was clear the Peytons take an interest in the restoration of the property.
''This is a lifetime project," Heidi assured me.
Dinner in the tavern room didn't disappoint: delicate crab cakes, steak and pommes frites, and sherbet and rhubarb puffed pastry.
Afterward, we followed Bridge Street and crossed the river into Vermont on the lushly green Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge (also on the National Register).
On the other side, in Fairlee, the difference was apparent immediately. While Orford oozed sleepy 18th-century charm and gentility, Fairlee, though still small, immediately offered drive-through ATMs, service stations, and a diner. Despite their different characters, the two towns cooperate in many ways, including the Fourth of July parade and the nation's first interstate regional school system.
We returned home refreshed from our Upper Valley trip, feeling privileged to have visited this ''charming place" where, indeed, ''nature has done her utmost."
Douglas M. Eisenhart is a writer and editor with BostonWorks. He can be reached at email@example.com.