Alert on the early watch

Year 8 Royalists got down to the detail of life during the Civil War. Dave Manning explains

The ancient axiom of, "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand", is the philosophy behind the living history teaching at Woodend middle school. Our events also act as a focus for the pupils in their learning. Like an athlete or sportsman, having a race or a match to compete in helps with motivation and gives sense to training.

Living history at Woodend began in 1981 in a simple way. Improvisation and role play about Victorian life was enhanced and given greater credibility by using costume, so that we had Victorian-style children in our Victorian school. Further realism was added by visiting the local industrial museum to examine the machinery and the Victorian classroom.

Through the 1980s and 1990s further projects were developed, gradually bringing in more specialised help, such as the English Civil War Society and the staff at Danelaw Village, Murton Park, near York. As well as seeing stimulating presentations in school, our pupils also travelled to the reconstructed Vikingmedieval village site, and spent a day as medieval peasants, undertaking a variety of tasks such as grinding corn and working in the fields.

Last year Dave Thinwall, project director at the village, and I, decided to take the village-style day even further with a Year 8 group.

Our aim was to have our students living and acting as a 17th-century civil war garrison. As in all our previous work, realism was a major factor, and the only concessions to 20th-century living were sleeping bags and a flush toilet. To give the children the necessary background, a tremendous amount of cross-curricular work went on in school before the event. Parish records were researched to provide names of people who existed prior to and during the years of the English Civil War. From then on, all the work undertaken revolved around these characters, their families and their relationships.

The issues of politics, religion and economics were discussed and examined from the point of view of our characters. Fierce debates took place as to whose side we should be on, although this issue had already been decided. To add to the authenticity, our camp was set on the anniversary of the Battle of Adwalton Moor which took place on June 30, 1643 on the outskirts of Bradford. As Bradford was strongly for Parliament, we became a Parliamentarian force awaiting the arrival of the Royalist forces under the Earl of Newcastle.

Truckle beds were made in technology lessons, 17th-century songs and dances were learned and practised in music classes; a standard copied from a Civil War design was produced. A group of students made costumes during lunch times and after school. Barratts provided us with "desert boots" to make the boys' shoes. Wooden tubs, made from solid oak and waterproofed, came from Sam Smith's Brewery. Horses were taken to the site, tents of suitable vintage were begged or borrowed. A local farmer provided much of the firewood, as all cooking was done on open fires. All the artefacts such as pots, bowls, spoons, tubs, baskets, tables, candle sticks and weapons were realistic reproductions. Funding for muc of this came from donations from local businesses.

My ambition that children should learn from, as well as about, history was in many ways achieved. Not one of them could believe how much effort went into the preparation of a meal, the sorting and chopping up of food and the continual quest for firewood. While initially excited by guard duty, the boys came to dread it - it was so tedious. The girls quickly discovered that they preferred the life of a 20th-century woman to that of their 17th-century sisters.

Last year's week was such a success, we decided to undertake a similar event this year. As we had to work earlier in the year, we realised that a tented camp would not be suitable for the middle of March. A venue had to found and we procured the use of Bolton Castle in Wensleydale through the kind permission of its owner Lord Orde-Powlett. As this was garrisoned during the Civil War by a group of Royalists fleeing from Marston Moor, once again our aim of having a real background to events was achieved.

Building on the experience we gained last year, we added to the realism by having reproduction armour for the boys and shoes instead of trainers for the girls (although these were looked on by most in quiet disgust). A whole pig was spit-roasted in the courtyard and, during the evening, a banquet was held in the main hall of the Castle where the musical accompaniment for the meal and the dancing was provided by the period musicians, Misericordia.

Light from the flickering candles and the huge roaring fire, reflecting off the laden tables and the 70 to 80 costumed dancers and onlookers, gave an unbelievable atmosphere to the banquet. That evening, as throughout the day, people gravitated towards the fireplaces to warm themselves. Former students who had asked if they could do it all again were all in agreement that this year's event was better than last.

A "real" enemy was also provided by several stray Parliamentarians laying siege to the castle, so the boys had to be on 24-hour guard duty rota. Getting out of bed at 3am on a cold, dark morning was not the best part of their weekend, but certainly helped them realise that a soldier's lot was not always a happy one. Students undertook a host of tasks such as scrubbing floors and tables, chopping wood and making candles.

Because the castle was open to the public between 10am and 5pm, we worried that visitors in 20th-century clothing would detract from the ambience we were trying to create. But amazingly, the children carried on in role, giving the visitors an unexpected insight into what a living castle might have looked like in the 17th century.

The children were learning from history and asking questions. Did they wash? If so, with what? How did they clean their teeth? Why did the women and the children follow the army? Why were roles much more clearly defined then? Much more meaning was given to the traditional history of kings and dates. The 1640s now have relevance; Edgehill, Marston Moor and Naseby are more than crossed swords on a map. Charles, Cromwell, Pym and Laud are people with feelings and beliefs, albeit different to ours.

Dave Manning is head of history at Woodend school in Shipley

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