THE bells were striking noon as tourists and parishioners filtered into York Minster, England's largest cathedral. In a pulpit high above the central altar an Anglican priest intoned a midday prayer. Around us people slid into pews and bowed their heads. Meanwhile, my husband and I were desperately trying to interest Greg, age 5, and Erica, 20 months, in the animals that were carved into one of the crypts in a side altar. ``Look!'' we whispered. ``Look at the lion! Look at that blue flower in the staine d-glass window!'' To no avail. Greg kept yanking my hand, asking when we could go to the park. Erica kicked in her father's arms, refusing to be deterred from the forbidden pleasure she'd only moments before discovered - banging her stroller against one of the cathedral's echoing stone columns. Her cries of frustration filled the nave, and we fled. This is the stuff of parental combat stories; but in fact, the tantrum in the cathedral was a rare occurrence. As we ate soggy fish and chips in an overpriced restaurant later, having failed so miserably at introducing our children to the grandeur of one of the world's great cathedrals, I realized I had nonetheless become a convert. I really liked traveling with children. Our visit to the minster had been aborted not because children and cathedrals don't mix, but because we'd neglected one of the cardin al rules of travel with young children: Never take them sightseeing when they are hungry.
These were rules we discovered during the three weeks we spent in England a few summers ago. They seemed to fall under a general rubric: As long as you anticipate their needs, you can have a wonderful vacation traveling abroad with your children.
I was not always so optimistic. Like many parents, after the birth of our second child I'd become skeptical about the feasibility of adventures beyond an hour's drive to the beach. Indeed, it took my husband most of the previous winter to convince me that the four of us traveling together could have what might remotely be conceived of as a vacation.
The two of us had been to England several times before, and I had definite memories of what such a trip entailed: uninterrupted mornings in London's museums and bookstores, evenings in the theater, dinners in Indian and Chinese restaurants, and long walks in the country. It was impossible to imagine children fitting into such scenes.
What I failed to anticipate were the other, equally compelling scenes, into which we were drawn precisely because we were traveling with children. Greg did not care that the son of William the Conqueror is buried in Winchester Cathedral (``killed by a stag in the forest,'' reads the laconic description on the tomb), but he and his sister showed us other attractions: a mirror reflecting the transept's ancient columns, a black spaniel sniffing the park benches outside.
Some experiences, of course, had to be sacrificed. We never brought our children to the theater or to a concert, we dined just once in an elegant restaurant, and we visited only one museum - the Bront"e Parsonage in Haworth, where we passed a rainy morning exploring the graveyards and moors. We visited the National Zoo instead of the National Gallery, clambered on castle ruins rather than touring the interiors of manor houses, admired the swans in Regent's Park rather than the pirouettes of ``Swan Lake. '' And to our surprise, we only occasionally missed the cultural experiences we'd before considered essential to a trip abroad. Instead, we had other pleasures: reading the English comic book ``Beano,'' traveling on the top of a double-decker bus, holding six newborn rabbits in a friend's garden. Because of our children, we saw a more domestic England than we'd seen before, one of animals, afternoon tea, walks along rivers ... and more animals.
On our first afternoon in England, Greg gave me an important lesson in traveling with small children: the futility of trying to impart to them an adult's sense of history. After lunch in the village of Petworth, we visited the local playground, then wandered into the 11th-century church of St. Mary's. As we paused at the end of one of the dark aisles of the sanctuary, I explained that the imposing baptismal font rising above us had been standing in that church for over 900 years. ``You've never seen any thing this old before,'' I said. He wasn't the least bit impressed. Why should he care that the marble had been carved 400 years before Columbus even set sail across the Atlantic? His idea of old was his grandmother back in New Hampshire.
HE remained equally unmoved by the thatched roofs we glimpsed from the motorways and the dates carved in crumbling tombstones in the cemeteries. His England was the England of the present moment: the Indian wearing a turban who gave him a cookie in the bakery, the wooden horse in the shopping mall, the goose that snatched a piece of bread out of his hand in Regent's Park, the rumbling London subway, the Tube.
Before we left for England, a few skeptics asked me if we thought our children would ``get anything out of the trip.'' Even now, the question strikes me as irrelevant. We had three weeks without our usual distractions, time to just enjoy each other as a family. And we spent this time in a country where everything - landscape, architecture, accents - was wonderfully unlike what we see and hear at home. Our children were, of course, attracted to the same sorts of pleasures in England that they enjoyed the n in Maine, but for my husband and me there was a difference between feeding ducks in St. James' Park in London and feeding them at Johnson Pond on the Colby College campus, and it was a difference we relished.
Erica was, of course, too young to remember anything of the trip now, but Greg still recalls much of what appealed to him: riding the London subway, walking on top of the city wall in York, the castle ruins in Wakefield, the games he played with other children. A few days after we returned he told us he wanted to go back to London and travel on top of a double-decker bus again.
``We'll go back sometime,'' we said, still weary from jet lag and overwhelmed by the stacks of unopened mail, the half-unpacked suitcases standing reproachfully in the hall.
He looked up at us hopefully, his eyes full of confidence in this promise. ``What about tomorrow?'' he asked.