Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Monday, January 27, 2014

London,Oxford,Sam & Me

Travelling with an architects' eye (and a baby)

We knew not what to expect, my wife and I, when we set off for six long weeks of trekking around England. We'd been there before, but then it was just the two of us, a bit of loose change and an architecture guide book. This time, it would be an autumn trip with three children in tow, all under 9, (which meant six extra backpacks, a baby seat, a stroller, and enough gummy bears to drive toothpaste shares through the roof.) And as with the English weather, we had no way of predicting if things would be fair or foul, stormy or calm.
Yet we were fairly certain of one thing at least: Samuel would make life difficult for us. Sam is 2.

Nothing wrong with 2, of course; some of our nicest friends had once been 2. But Sam, being 2 and proud of it, was out to undo what he could of our adventure. He had just learned to run (sideways), was long overdue for some sort of life-threatening sickness (probably Ebola), and was developing an alarming fondness for anything edible (and sugar-coated) or toylike (and plastic-coated).

Well-meaning but heartless friends had smiled weakly and suggested meekly that perhaps we should consider leaving Sam at home. Rumour had it that we were taking nannies in sufficient numbers to post a round-the-clock watch on him and his habits of mass destruction. Yet in the end, we went it alone, ready to take whatever he could throw at us.

What he did throw at us (apart from masticated gummy bears and half-empty bottles of HP sauce) was the chance to take stock and ask some slow-motion questions of ourselves. Did we really need to travel at that old hectic pace, cameras blazing? Did two cities in one day mean as much as one city in two weeks? Were frantic flybys as rewarding as measured contemplation?

Sam was a bear without his afternoon nap, and it soon became painfully apparent that we'd either have to sit inside every afternoon, losing the best part of a day’s exploration, or he'd have to sleep while we explored. The choice was between Simmering Frustration (and British soap operas) or Travels With The Amazing Sleeping Baby. We opted for the latter.

We went on tour, baby Sam and I, during the afternoons. While Katy took Harry and Molly on adventures in search of dragons and elves, I pushed him in a peaceful sleep-walk through the landscapes of my own Grand Tour.

I'd been to Bath before and marched through its crescents and squares like any duty-bound student of architecture, but this time it was different. My pace was slow and the rhythm of my walking was measured, thoughtful. Sam slept in tranquil oblivion beneath his horsey-blanket, Curious George next to his blushed cheek. At such a pace, the nuance of the honey-coloured stone wasn't lost on me, and hardly a doorway in John Wood's Royal Crescent escaped detailed analysis.

I studied the serene Georgian proportion in complete silence under the October sky, walked the leaf-strewn side streets, chatted in hushed tones with doormen, followed the movements of the clouds as they hurried towards winter.

It soon became a habit, these afternoon strolls; quiet, thoughtful, introspective. Strolls that would once have been frustrated aggravation became walks of discovery. I began to see just how much I'd been missing. The tour books had lied: a city a day? Walking tours that cover the centre of Oxford in just two hours? Sam and I spent as much time just crunching through the russet leaves of a deserted  Botanical Garden, the shadows of Magdalen College growing long beside us. Nothing could give one the sense of quiet contemplation that can be achieved at the controls of a stroller filled with a sleeping two year old.

With time to observe, my pencil and sketchbook came back into play. On the banks of the Cherwell, punters passed silently as under the blankets, Sam sailed on plush waves to the land of nod, sung to sleep by the ancient stones around him that "whispered" as Matthew Arnold put it, "the last enchantments of the Middle Ages."

Weeks of such afternoons passed, the stroller wheels showing their age, axles squeaking. We passed through villages and small towns, ruined abbeys and walled gardens and arrived finally in the hectic bulls-eye of action: London.

We studied the vanguard of modern London’s construction boom, circled the Great Court of the  British Museum for an hour, studying details, soaking in the freedom of a slowed pace. We walked the paths of Regent's Park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, avoiding impromptu football games by a safe margin, lightly crossing the cobbles, greatly enjoying tranquility in the centre of the metropolis.

It would never have been like this without Sam and his annoying  need for an afternoon nap. I would never have slowed to this pace without the pace of a slumbering child to slow me. I wouldn't have noticed the frozen angels in the cathedral close in Salisbury without him, or had time to solve the maze at Hampton Court (twice). Instead, I would have rushed headlong, striking names from the list I had mentally prepared back in architecture school. Shooting photos, marching through history, missing the minute details, the quiet lanes, the glories of an architecture that took time to absorb.

“Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe”,  said Heraclitus in 500 BC. Heraclitus knew his babies, I'd say.

Katy and I had given our family a six-week trek through the heart of an autumnal England. Sam, his little blonde head oblivious to it all, had given the subtle shading of the ancient stones back to me.

Originally published in the Globe & Mail and in PERSPECTIVES mag.
David Gillett

Monday, November 11, 2013

Walking The Wild Lands

Ominous storm clouds framing her jolly face, Mary Whistance offered us some pre-walk advice in her cheery Welsh lilt: “Tomorrow is the best day of the whole trail. Hergest Ridge is a right lovely walk. Steep though. And if a storm comes on, you’re in for it. A walker died up there last month, so he did. Poor lad, a boy and a half he was! Three days before they found him.” Her smile fizzled when she stole a furtive glance at the brooding sky.
It was the third day of our 136-kilometre walk north along the Offa's Dyke Path, which loosely follows the Welsh/English border.   While we ate our Welsh fry-up breakfast ("Job done tidy! You slaughtered those sausages , you did!") Mary's warning added fuel to the theory forming in my mind: Nothing on this long-distance path is as it first appears. This is a land of mist and magic.
The Offa’s Dyke Path is named after King Offa of Mercia who, in the 8th century, built the dyke as a sort of poor man’s Hadrian Wall to keep the marauding Welsh mountain men at bay. Zig-zagging from Chepstow in the south on the Bristol Channel, north to Prestatyn on the Irish Sea, it is sometimes a great bank up to almost eight metres high with a deep ditch to the westerly Welsh side. It is a fascinating raison d’ĂȘtre for a National Trail: a route that follows a engineered landscape rather than a geographic feature such as mountains or a coast line.
That does not mean the path, Llwydr Clawdd Offa in Welsh is an easy stroll through a bucolic British postcard. To be sure, it has its moments of breathtaking views across lush green valleys dotted with remote villages, hills rolling off into the distance. But once up close and personal, the green hills are two-hour uphill slogs littered with climbs over countless styles,//what do you mean by this?/// the path itself strewn with ankle-twisting rocks or mud the consistency of sticky-toffee pudding. It is wild country, this border land known as the Welsh marches, home to centuries of raids, skirmishes and midnight sheep-stealing. Fortunately, the wild is tempered by the homey pubs and friendly B&Bs spaced at walkable intervals.
My wife and I had chosen to do the southern portion of the path – considered by many to be the best half – from Chepstow to Knighton, a doable six-day walk. (Those wishing to do the whole 285 kilometres should allow at least 12 days with rest time added.)
Since it was mid-September, we’d prepared well for rain but soon learned that British weather reports are notoriously pessimistic and usually wrong. Every night we’d hear rumblings at the pub and earnest predictions on the BBC: tomorrow will be wet, windy and turning cold.
But our heavy rain pants and ponchos stayed in our packs and we went digging for sunblock instead.
As Mary had warned, it was just as well. Several sections of the path are well above 500 metres, and what can be an annoying breezy rain in town can be deadly on the heights of the lonely Black Mountain Moors.
We learned quickly that the path is a smorgasbord of variety. One moment, it traverses a cool, wooded ridge high above the Wye Valley. The next it drops down and passes the magnificent ruins of Tintern Abbey, founded by hardy Cistercian monks in 1131. A few miles later, it crosses a cast-iron bridge, built at the smokey heights of the Industrial Revolution, when the Welsh Hills were ravaged for coal and slate. Then it’s through a lonely windswept moor with distant views west to Brecon Beacons and east to the Malvern Hills, mountain sheep our only company.
Some days we’d never meet another soul for hours, leading to suspicions that the Offa’s Dyke is Britain’s best-kept long-distance hiking secret. But just as the changeable weather was never predictable, suddenly a bustling town would unfold in front of us.
Two hours after a knee-popping descent from the desolate heights of Hay Bluff in the Black Mountains, where on a clear day one is treated to a good view of magnificent Lord Hereford’s Knob, the path bisects the town of Hay-on-Wye. We made straight for the Granary Cafe for two bowls of organic Gooseberry crumble and coffee.
“Something really smells in here,” said Katy, tactfully surveying the room.
“Yea. Us.”
But sheep dung and mud is a ho-hum reality in Hay, famous for its 30 bookshops – including the Murder and Mayhem Bookshop, the Poetry Bookshop and the Sensible Bookshop – the popular Hay Festival and Richard Booth, the self-styled king of Hay, who lives in the castle surrounded by groaning shelves of ancient books and notices brashly proclaiming political independence from Britain. We’d scheduled a rest day here and it was worth it. For a couple of Canadian bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye, the world’s first self-proclaimed “book town,” was bittersweet: So many books, but no way to carry them.
It was good we didn’t try, since the next day, our second last, was a gruelling 27 kilometres up and down over some of the most heart-stoppingly picturesque A.E. Housman countryside imaginable, liberally strafed with more than fifty stiles, a few questioning bulls, a fierce (but muzzled!) Rottweiler and hundreds of sheep.
The last night, tired but unbowed, we reached the comfy, isolated hill town of Knighton, the official end of the south half, start point for the wilder northern section and home to the Offa Dyke Centre with T-shirts, books and strange King Offa mannequins.
Staying with the Sharatts, who had a cozy sitting room well-stocked with maps and trail guides, was a fitting end to our trek. Not only did Pat tackle our long overdue laundry, but Geoff was a fount of helpful advice and knowledgeable comment.
“Too bad you’re ending it here,” he said in an enthusiastic lilt. “Because tomorrow’s stretch is the best part of the walk: most variety, best scenery … and toughest. Steep too. If the weather comes, you’re in for it.”
Now, where had we heard that before?
The Offa’s Dyke Path is rated “hard,” and is best suited to experienced hikers with proper gear. It can be walked in either direction, but is usually done south to north, so the sun and wind will be mostly at your back. The trail is generally well marked, with white acorn symbols indicating the route. But in many places, especially in rain and fog, it is easy to lose your way. Carry a good set of maps and a compass.
Getting there: Buses run daily to Chepstow, the southern start point, from London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports. Train service to Chepstow is also good, typically running through Newport.
When to go: The trail can be walked any time, but prime season is April to October. (In the off season, accommodations will be harder to find.) In spring, the days are longer and sometimes a bit wetter. The fall is a beautiful time to walk, but days are much shorter.
Where to stay: The Bear Inn is an atmospheric 16th-century coaching inn. Located in the middle of Hay-On-Wye, close to all the bookshops, restaurants and pubs. Inventive local cuisine and snug, well-decorated rooms make it a memorable stopover. Double rooms from £70 ($118) a night;
Geoff and Pat Sharratt have been hosting walkers since 1999 in their spacious Victorian house, now known as Westwood**, a B&B in Knighton. They have lots of maps and guides and are well-versed on the trail and the weather. From £25 ($42) a person a night; 1-54-752-0317
For more information, visit the Offa’s Dyke Assocation for planning tips, accommodation ideas and to order guides and maps.
 **PS: Geoff Sharratt wrote to tell me their  B&B is now closed. So sad. But he added that the story has been passed around Knighton, which is not so sad.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Britain's Best Kept Hiking Secret

Front page of the Saturday November 2 Globe and Mail Travel section...

Read it online here  and wait for me to post the whole thing,
(pictures and all) soon.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Katy, by Anthony Jenkins

A lovely little illustration in the Globe & Mail Travel section by Anthony Jenkins, the Globe editorial cartoonist...showing Katy Gillett atop Stanege Edge, Derbyshire, England. Yes, she is striking the pose made famous by Keira Knightley in Pride and Predjudice, at that point in the movie which is arguably the most moving 12 seconds of non-dialogue film in cinematic costume drama history.

Yes, she has a very long neck. And yes, those are hiking poles in her hands.

"Why?" you ask, and not without reason (I must confess).

Never fear, dear reader. You can (of course) read the whole article at

....and for comparison, at left is a photo of that lady on that rock....

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

There and Back Again.....

Read "There And Back Again" in the December issue of the Canadian Builder's Quarterly. Oddly enough, this article came out the same month that the new Hobbit movie opened in Canada. For Tolkien aficiandos, the title couldn't have been better (or worse,depending on your point of view. However, as of this writing, I have yet to be comissioned to design an underground house with grass roof, round windows and doors and an excessively large pantry...

Read the article here:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Coming soon: an article about David Gillett Design and my alma mater University of Toronto John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, in the most recent issue of.....

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why are (some) Buildings Ugly?

It may seem odd, but I'm happy to have one of my house designs featured on the cover of an architectural magazine whose theme for the month is "Why are (some) buildings ugly?"  Of course, I designed it to be ugly...but that's probably obvious. I had an email from a long-time client who said he actually likes it. But does he want to build it?

You can read the whole issue of Perspectives magazine(for whom I've done several illustrations) at