I had expected taking two-year-old Tilly into London to be challenging, fraught with avoiding tantrums on public transport and her running off in crowds. I never guessed it would instead be a defining experience, breaking down the barriers of toddler life and reappraising my role as a stay-at-home dad.
London is a curious beast, offering much but being pretty demanding with it. We hadn’t thought it made for a naturally toddler friendly experience and kept putting it into the ‘when Tilly is older’ file of days out, preferring smaller scale venues instead. However when a media event came up for us to attend, I decided it was time to fight the fear and take on the capital.
In theory reaching London is a fairly straightforward if rather plodding train ride away for us but the cancellation of our intended train put our punctual arrival at risk and quickly raised anxiety levels. Getting on a more crowded train than normal wasn’t a great start as it immediately made Tilly defensive about the seats. Fortunately after a few dicey moments and unhelpful looks from stern-faced commuters (of which I was one just a year ago), Tilly settled down for the journey. Although not keen about having to sit next to other people, she enjoyed spotting other trains out of the window and the transition from countryside to the urban landscape.
After a full morning at the event, I decided we’d hit the Royal Parks, which I know well having worked nearby them for several years. Tilly wilted on the way and so came the biggest test of all: whether she would nap in a strange and noisy place. Our days out having been strictly curtailed by the need for a lunchtime nap, meaning we’ve only ever gone anywhere for a half day; the prospect of a lunchtime meltdown or evening tantrums following little sleep just felt like too big a risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained I though so we kept going. While Tilly was sleeping I popped into a branch of Pret for lunch. The hubbub was loud and the music was louder. If she was going to wake this would do it. But she kept sleeping.
Lunch consumed, we headed to the parks and asleep she remained until jostled by a group of students while trying to reach some accessible loos, the ones in Pret being down a steep flight of stairs, completely out of the question with the pram. Tilly had napped for an hour, all told. She rubbed her eyes and without complaint was ready to explore the parks. Phew.
We spent most of our time in St James’s Park, a nicely landscaped park adjacent to Buckingham Palace and with a lake that boasts several pelicans. It didn’t take long before I was commanded to locate the pelicans. We did eventually track them down, although they were staying close to their island today rather than getting up close and personal with the tourists. Nevertheless, Tilly was happy and she was ready to leave the pushchair and explore for herself.
On one edge of the park is one of my old places of work. It was the first time I’d been back since leaving a couple of years ago and it made me reflect on the choices I’d made. Would I be happier back in there, being a cog in the corridors of power? Meanwhile Tilly was loving the paths, the grass and the pigeons, who she had decided needed catching. I blame this on me singing the “catch the pigeon” song to her from the Dastardly and Muttley cartoon a couple of weeks ago. We roaming and explored, taking in flowerbeds, Horseguards Parade with its soldiers, Trafalgar Square, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. Tilly was keen to go on the London Eye – something for our next visit – but most of all she relished rushing around and taking it all in from her own minute perspective.
It had been a long day, longer than anything Tilly had done before and it was time to take the tube back towards home. We were a little tired, bored and grumpy on the train but what a day it had been. As we trundled home it gave me time to reflect on the day and the direction we’d taken.
One striking change is that being in London with a toddler is a wholly different experience to that when you work there. As a veteran London commuter you have your own haunts and rather poo-poo the tourist trails. However to revisit the city through the eyes of someone who has never seen any of it before opens the place up to you afresh. No longer the same old sights, it becomes exciting and adventurous and yearning to be discovered.
On the journey home I felt a certain glow; Tilly’s delight and enthusiasm had rubbed off on me. It had also made me realise that I was where I wanted to be: my place is running around in the park with her rather than being in the building next door. Finally we arrived back in our town, where as usual the streets were uncrowded while the playground was buzzing and friendly with familiar faces. It’s a balance that feels right.