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Follow the gunpowder

Today, Bonfire Night may just be an excuse to unleash fireworks into the sky, but 400 years ago there was an ulterior motive behind Guy Fawkes's plans. Jenny Coates reports

There is no easy way for children to understand the recent bombings in London. But there can be no doubt that terrorism is now a familiar subject - and one of great significance across the curriculum.

And terrorist bombings are not a new phenomenon. This year marks the 400th anniversary of a conspiracy familiar to everyone: the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators failed to destroy the Houses of Parliament. But our government vowed to remember what they had learned from that narrow escape, and during its anniversary year, some interesting reminders are taking place across the country.

The Tower of London, where the conspirators were interrogated, tortured and finally put to death, is leading the Gunpowder 400 season. Their Gunpowder Treason, open until the end of June next year, is one of the liveliest attractions for children.

At the top of the White Tower, visitors follow a series of video presentations. The story of the ill-fated conspirators is told on film, among displays of headlines such as "Apocalypse!" and "King and Parliament Wiped Out!".

Presenting these distant historical events in a modern context gives them new significance. The slogans question what would have happened if the plot had succeeded - and what would happen if Parliament was destroyed today.

Among bonfire piles and giant gallows, televisions show firework celebrations. Quotes from 17th-century MPs scroll across the screens as satellite news updates. Visitors are challenged to compare the terrorism in history with the atrocities we are experiencing now.

For younger children, the best part of the exhibition at the Tower is perhaps the costumed performers. Four times a day, on the south lawn, a company called Past Pleasures re-enacts scenes from the gunpowder plot in full garb. Young viewers stand transfixed, watching medieval criminals conspire in front of them. Children can ask questions of the characters and talk to them after the re-enactment.

"Younger children really get involved," says Huw Moore, a researcher and performer for the company. "It's a great way to pass on the history without boring them."

"We have an educational consultant on the team, making sure our content is compatible with the history curriculum," says Mark Wallis, company director and founder. "Our presentations are a bit spontaneous - they aren't scripted. We respond to the audience."

Mark stresses that the re-enactments are not plays; they are a "live interpretation" of a period in history, bringing details of the gunpowder plot to life rather than retelling the story. I visited just after the London bombings in July - and the narration was adapted to draw parallels.

Children's questions, too, directed the flow of the dialogue.

As part of a day exploring all the Tower's attractions, or a day following the Gunpowder 400 exhibitions around London, Gunpowder Treason is compelling viewing for all ages. The Houses of Parliament, as the target of the gunpowder plot, has a small exhibition of its own in Westminster Hall.

Parliament and Treason, open until October 5, shows information panels on how the plot was arranged, and how Guy Fawkes was caught. The exhibition includes plans of the building, pointing out the site beneath your feet where much of the action took place. It also displays original artefacts, such as the lamp that Fawkes is believed to have carried. Entrance to Parliament and Treason is free and offers an education pack for teachers.

However, it only takes half an hour to explore, and is perhaps worth a detour into Westminster only as part of a visit to London's other gunpowder exhibitions, or a tour of Parliament.

Shakespeare's Globe, on the South Bank, is hosting an exhibition in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police. He who Whispers: Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot offers visitors the chance to investigate the plot as a reopened criminal case, complete with suspect profiles and an "evidence room" full of ancient documents.

The Globe's exhibition relies heavily on written information and has little to interest younger children. But for more serious students of medieval history, this exhibition provides perhaps the most detailed exploration of the politics and characters involved in the plot. And for those studying the 16th and 17th century, tours of the fascinating reconstructed theatre at The Globe are a good insight into medieval London.

The National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery and many other institutions are paying tribute to the Gunpowder Plot this year, and with The Tower of London as a central activity, Gunpowder 400 is more than a day trip.

With new terrorist plots emerging in our capital even now, understanding the conspiracies of the past has perhaps never been more significant.

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