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.