For five years, a scribe worked in a mud hut on an island in the North Sea.
His task was eye-straining, back-breaking and interrupted by having to attend eight church services a day. There were also periods when his fingers were too cold to guide his quill on the vellum page. Yet the result is one of the world's greatest works of art in book form and is now the inspiration behind 40 treasure troves available to schools in north-east England.
The book in question was the Lindisfarne Gospels, created between the years 715 and 720 by a monk working in the monastery founded on what is often known as Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland. An exquisitely illuminated manuscript copy of the four Gospels, it was created by one the greatest artists of the Anglo-Saxon world; gained its own cult status; was used on ceremonial occasions as a service book on the high altar of Durham Cathedral and is now housed in the John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library in London next door to St Pancras railway station.
Last year, it was the subject of a special exhibition at the library, a spin-off from which was a specially written book, Painted Labyrinth, about the world of the Lindisfarne Gospels. A copy was given to every school in the north-east and a team of three teachers and educationists from the region visited the exhibition.
Along with the North East Museums Libraries and Archives Council (NEMLAC), they have now devised an educational resource box called a Labyrinth for Learning. Forty of these identical boxes exist. One can be accessed at the British Library, the other 39 are available for use (each for half a term) by every school in the north-east through the School Library and Museum Education Service.
Rather than being "yet another" resource for key stage 2 about the Anglo-Saxons, it has been designed to explore how an ancient artefact speaks to us today and to work at all levels from KS1 to sixth-form, across the ability range and in most curriculum areas. The truly remarkable thing is that it achieves these aims.
Among the contents of each box is, surprisingly, an Islamic prayer mat. Its inclusion was inspired by the "carpet page" that prefaces each Gospel in the original: a full page painted with a richly coloured pattern, looking like a Persian rug but built around the Christian cross. Teaching notes suggest ways of exploring how carpets can be used as welcome mats, for prayer (as Coptic Christians still do), as a place on which to listen to a story and as a basis for maths work on symmetry.
There is also a replica of the sanctuary knocker on the door of Durham Cathedral with suggestions for exploring (in RE, history, PSHE and English) what might happen to a poor, medieval farmer tempted into stealing a neighbour's cow - and how a place of worship could provide sanctuary (but only for 37 days).
Another imaginative and inspirational item in each resource box is a handwritten artist's notebook by Stephen Livingstone, head of art at Spennymoor Comprehensive in Durham and one of the team (led by Sarah Scaife) that developed the boxes. There is also a video, CDs of wildlife sounds, tide tables, mortar and pestle for making paints, fossils, coins, kaleidoscopes, maps, OHPs, posters and four contemporary original hand-made books.
The helpful teacher's guide stresses the box is intended to develop thinking skills, problem-solving and "whole brain" approaches to group and individual activities. Imaginative and inspirational it may be, it can nevertheless be closely linked to the curriculum at various key stages as shown by the reassuring grids. The only doubt about its practicality arises from nightmarish thoughts about checking its multifarious contents at the end of any lesson.
REACHING THE REGIONS
The Labyrinth for Learning boxes are the first fruits of a British Library "Reaching the Regions" initiative designed to make its collections both relevant and accessible across the country.
Partnering the British Library in this project are the new regional agencies for museums and libraries - the first to join up being the North East Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (NEMLAC) which is developing other projects with help from the Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham and the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Middlesbrough.
The south-east body (SEMLAC) also has various projects under way. "Reel Life: Saturdays in Film and Sound" explores popular culture from football matches to shopping, pubs and the countryside and has drawn on the extensive South East Film and Video Archive to make a related DVD available through regional libraries. There are also projects about Thames riverside pubs and Alice in Wonderland.
* The British Library is at www.bl.uk while the dedicated "Labyrinth for Learning" is at www.lindisfarnegospels.org * Details of SEMLAC projects www.journeysthroughtime.org.uk l Other NEMLAC programmes www.nemlac.co.uk