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.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oxford, London, Sam & me

Originally published in The Globe & Mail Mar.22,2000
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 a couple of BritRail passes. This time, it would be an autumn trip with three children in tow, all under 9, (which means 18 Beanie Babies, 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 was growing a few more teeth at the time (molars), was long overdue for some sort of life-threatening sickness (probably Ebola), had just learned to run (sideways) and was developing an alarming fondness for anything edible (and sugar-coated) or toylike (and plastic-coated).
Well-meaning but totally 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 Sam 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 for self-appraisal; the opportunity 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 massive monuments to long-dead heroes anywhere near as interesting as playgrounds with junior-sized teeter-totters, and real flesh-and-blood neighbours?
Afternoons came and with them, Sam's sleepy time. At first, as we and the other two children recovered from jet lag and adjusted to mushy peas and beans on toast, we all took it easy. But the Glories of the Empire awaited. There were Lakeland Fells to climb, architectural landmarks to visit, worthy pubs to frequent . . . and we grew restless.
But 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 days 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 into cavernous museums, through market squares and on adventures in search of dragons and elves, I pushed Sam in a peaceful sleep-walk through the landscapes of my dreams.
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. Baby Sam slept in tranquil oblivion nestled 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 proportion and rigorous symmetry of the Georgian architecture 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 three hours? Sam and I spent as much time just crunching through the russet leaves of a deserted autumnal 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.
In the walled garden of Rhodes House, I thought of my little charge's future. Scholarship material? 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 millennium construction site at the British Museum, circling the model of The Great Court for half an hour, reading captions, soaking in the freedom of a slowed pace. We walked the paths of Regent's Park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, avoiding the yells from impromptu football games by a safe margin, shielding sleeping ears from the laughter behind the next hedge, lightly crossing the cobbles, greatly enjoying the peace -- peace in the centre of the metropolis.
It would never have been like this without Sam and his annoying, confounded, frustratingly restrictive 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 on, camera blazing, 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 subtle shadings of beauty.
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.
My wife 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.

-March 2000 see original article in Globe travel archives, go to

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