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Flagships of the arms race at sea

Opening three pages on the latest Sandford Awards for heritage education, Lyndsey Jones visits Portsmouth's historic dockyard.

The history detectives are hard at work, investigating evidence of what a sailor's life was like in the Tudor times. A burnt piece of wood still has a distinct smell about it - the group of Year 5 pupils from Christ Church CE Middle School in Ottershaw, Surrey, deduce that it came from the galley cook's fire in the Mary Rose 400 years ago.

Some rope smells of the tar that kept it waterproof, and a heavy stone ball turns out to be a shot for the guns of Henry VIII's favourite warship, which sank on July 19, 1545, during a battle with the French in the Solent.

The nine and ten-year-olds are handling some of the original artefacts recovered from the wreck, raised in 1982, that forms the centrepiece of the Mary Rose Trust at Portsmouth harbour.

Lynne Middleton, science co-ordinator at Christ Church, says: "It's important for the children to be able to handle the artefacts. It brings alive the characters from the Tudor times. A sinking ship and its treasure is a good place to start teaching history. I've found it helps pupils to retain knowledge and improves their recall of the subject."

This hands-on approach is not only a key attraction for schools planning a visit, it is also one of the reasons why Flagship Portsmouth Trust has won a prestigious Sandford Award for excellence in heritage education.

The award from the Heritage Education Trust highlights all the dockyard's attractions, including the Mary Rose; Nelson's HMS Victory; Britain's first iron-hulled armoured warship, HMS Warrior, built in 1860; the Royal Naval Museum and Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and endorses its impressive educational initiatives.

Each attraction has sets of worksheets or teacher's guides, which are mainly geared towards key stage 2 and aim to link in with the curriculum, particularly life in Tudor times and Victorian Britain.

However, the whole site caters for all ages and offers plenty of opportunities for cross-curricular work, with history all around the site, technology and engineering on Warrior and basic home economics and medicine on Victory (Lord Nelson's body was pickled in brandy to preserve it on board so he could be buried in Britain).

Lively guided tours give a factual insight into the routines, punishments and comradeship of life on board Victory - and the sharp contrast between the splendid quarters of Lord Nelson and the cramped conditions for most of the crew.

By comparison, the Warrior seems huge and even modern. She was the catalyst that sparked an arms race in warship building. As quartermaster Ivan Haywood points out, she could withstand her bow and stern being blown apart, becoming a floating gun platform and housing all the crew.

Here, pupils can climb into hammocks and go through gun drills. Once again, the emphasis is on getting the children actively involved rather than lecturing them. "A lot of the sessions are run by the children. It depends on their feedback and how they react. Some are intrested in Victorian England, others in engineering," Ivan Haywood says.

Pupils can also gain an insight into important issues of the era, such as health, education, work and class - a theme that runs through all three ships, from the officers' pewter dining sets and sailors' wooden jugs on the Mary Rose to the opera-going officers' china and glassware on Warrior.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty that schools face is in choosing what to focus on. All the attractions will tailor their service to meet a school's needs and teachers are urged to make preliminary visits to get the most out of a day trip.

Meanwhile, back on land, educational initiatives have ranged from artists' workshops where pupils create paper sculptures and 16th-century jewellery from recycled materials to concerts where children take part with their own instruments. There are also training programmes for key stage 2 teachers planning visits to the dockyard. The topics range from Victorian technology and the Warrior to making papier mache figureheads. For the general national vocational qualification in leisure and tourism, Flagship Portsmouth supplies resources and ideas for teachers.

For schools too far away to make a day trip, the Mary Rose offers an outreach pack, which has been sent for trial to 10 local education authorities. This has replicas of artefacts, such as a sundial, coins and wooden spoons, found on the vessel. It also contains a manual and book What Happened Here? Tudor Warship by Elizabeth Newbery. As for the future, the site is always updating and expanding its exhibitions. The latest celebrations are planned for the 200th anniversary of the battle of Cape St Vincent on February 17 1797, which made Nelson a national hero and a Rear-Admiral.

The historic dockyard has much to be happy about and on the day I visited, it had more reason to be flushed with pride. It had just won the National Public Loo Award.

For bookings and inquiries, contact the education services, Porter's Lodge, Building 17, College Road, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, PO1 3LJ. Tel: 01705 839766 or e-mail:

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