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Touring Great Britain With the Young Can Be a Poetic Experience

March 15, 1987|ANDREW MOSS and TINA FEIGER | Moss is an associate professor of English at Cal Poly Pomona ; Feiger is director of the Women's Center and assistant director of the Emeritus College at Santa Monica College.

When we decided to attend an academic conference in Newcastle, England, our friends were dubious.

"What are you going to do with Avi (our 3 1/2-year-old daughter)?" they asked.

"Why don't you leave her with a nanny?"

"Don't you think her grandparents could take care of her?"

"Whatever you do, don't take her!"

We appreciated our friends' intent, if not the advice, but our circumstances didn't allow us to leave our daughter at home.

We cast about for ways we could make the trip fun for a small child and for ourselves. We didn't have to look much further than our bookshelf.

There, besides the atlas we used to trace the route of our vacation-business trip (London, Newcastle, Durham, the Lake District, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, York, return to London) were the volumes of writers who enchanted generations of English and American children: A. A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Beatrix Potter. At home we read their books to our daughter at bedtime; on our trip they became our travel guides on a three-week child's-eye tour across Britain.

At Buckingham Palace

To a 3 1/2-year-old, London is not just a spectacle of double-decker buses, rushing underground trains and stately black swans in the pools of St. James' Park. It is also the rituals of Buckingham Palace as viewed by Christopher Robin in A. A. Milne's "When We Were Very Young":

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace--

Christopher Robin went down with Alice.

They've great big parties inside the grounds.

"I wouldn't be king for a hundred pounds,"

Says Alice.

Or London' famous zoo in Regent's Park:

There are lions and roaring tigers, and enormous camels and things,

There are biffalo-buffalo-bisons, and a great big bear with wings,

There's a sort of a tiny potamus, and a tiny nosserus too--

But I gave buns to the elephant when I went down to the Zoo!

The zoo now has Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia, the two giant pandas given to Britain by the People's Republic of China. But to our daughter, the highlight of her visit was rattus rattus, the North American rat exhibited alongside the other rodents at the zoo. Although we questioned her preferences in animals, the spirit of our trip told us that, like Christopher Robin, she was free to relish the things she chose to enjoy.

Still, we all enjoyed reading Milne's poetry together at night in our London hotel room, and we delighted in Avi's pleasure as she compared her experience with Christopher Robin's.

A Treasure House

Before we left London we visited the London Toy and Model Museum at Craven Hall (open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m.). With its 19th-Century merry-go-round, its miniature steam-train rides for children and its outstanding collection of dolls and toys from past eras, it is a treasure house for a child's imagination.

It is also a fascinating record of how industrial change left its impact on the games and small pleasures of the child. It was a good last excursion before we left for Newcastle.

For many children raised in Southern California, riding on a train and watching landscapes flit swiftly by one's carriage window are unknown experiences. On our British Rail trip to Newcastle, therefore, Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses" became our guiding spirit:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;

And charging along like troops in a battle,

All through the meadows the horses and cattle.

Stevenson, who was born and raised in Scotland, also wrote lines in the same book to console young ones who grew up in northern latitudes. In towns such as Newcastle, a large industrial city about 50 miles from the Scottish borders, summer light extends to 10 p.m. or later:

And does it not seem hard to you,

When all the sky is clear and blue,

And I should like so much to play,

To have to go to bed by day?

We stayed five days at our conference in Newcastle, and then spent two more days in the neighboring city of Durham, whose ancient castle offered us bed and breakfast for $19 per person per night and at half-price for Avi. The castle serves as a residence for University of Durham students during the academic year, and as a B&B during the summer months.

We did not meet the castle's "gray lady" or resident ghost, but its winding staircases and hidden passages fascinated the child in all three of us. (For information write to University of Durham College, The Castle, Durham, DH1 3RS.) On our third morning we left Durham for the Lake District.

To many people, the spirit of William Wordsworth and the romantic poets broods over the lakes, and the splendor and tranquillity of the area is magnetic. But for a child, the lakes are also the home of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin and the other animal characters that inhabit the world of Beatrix Potter. Potter lived on a farm in the Lake District from 1905 until her death in 1943.

Stayed Five Days

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