August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

On Saturday, July 21, Sir Paul McCartney and his lady love of almost two years, Heather Mills, headed to England’s Lake District. Checking into the Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel (where the antique-filled rooms start at $270 per night), the couple spent their afternoons exploring the property’s gardens and neighboring villages. They were still out and about on Tuesday, “strolling arm in arm,” says one local, John Woodward. “They seemed very much in love.”

With good reason: A day earlier, on July 23, McCartney, 59, had proposed to Mills, 33, on bended knee. “It happened all of a sudden,” Mills told reporters later that week. “It was romantic.” Added the ex-Beatle: “We are really happy.”

McCartney’s joy comes as a relief to those who witnessed his despair after Linda, his wife of 29 years, died at 56 of breast cancer in 1998. With Mills in his life, “Paul looks like the Paul I once knew,” says Carla Lane, a friend of Linda’s. “He’s so happy, he has the face of a teenager.”

Mills, a former model who lost part of her left leg in 1993 after being accidentally struck by a motorcycle cop and now campaigns on behalf of land mine victims, caught McCartney’s eye at a May 1999 London charity event, and the couple began dating that fall. Their courtship, as McCartney has said, wasn’t easy for his children—Heather, 38, a house-wares designer; Mary, 31, a photographer; Stella, 29, a fashion designer; and James, 23, a guitarist. But “everything is cool now,” says author Tony Bramwell, a McCartney chum. “They’re reconciled to the fact that their dad is getting married again.”

Mills has adapted too. “She knows wherever Paul goes Linda’s name will follow, but she’s accepted that,” Lane says. “And I know Linda would approve. She’d say, ‘Yeah—Heather’s great.’ ” And focusing, no doubt, on the nuptials, to be held sometime in 2002. “It’s going to take about a year to organize,” says another friend. “Heather wants to have something big.”

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