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Get up and go with the flow

The Thames is brimming with educational opportunities. Ann Hills cruises around to see what's on offer.

The Thames is the longest river in England. It rises in the Cotswold hills and meanders through Oxford, Reading and London before finding its way into the North Sea in a broad sweep of estuary between Essex and Kent.

It is also the country's most important river, historically and economically. For centuries, cargo from all over the world has landed on its docks. It was forded by the Romans; painted by Canaletto, and inspired no end of poets.

Today, tangible aspects of the Thames - from the quality of its water to its wildlife, from artefacts found on the shore to new uses for old warehouses, are filtering into the curriculum. This is thanks to an abundance of educational centres and museums along its banks, from downstream of the City to rural upper reaches. And as the Millennium Exhibition is set to become a reality beside the Thames at Greenwich, focus on the river as an educational resource will swell.

The Thames Explorer Trust has published A Guide to Education and The Thames, which introduces areas for potential study, based on the river where prehistoric people settled on the banks, and which today has to be protected as an ecological corridor with a network of tributaries.

The trust was set up in 1990 to promote awareness of the Thames, and to increase access to the river. Its guide has sections on ideas for Thames studies, introductions to the foreshore, boat trips, residential visits and educational materials. It also suggests other linked organisations and places to visit, from obvious sources of information such as the National Maritime Museum and the Museum of Reading - to the lesser known Thames Police Museum and projects including the River Thames Boat Project at Richmond, with its 85ft Dutch barge.

The guide has been prepared by an exceptional enthusiast, Alison Taylor, who is the trust education officer. Mrs Taylor, a qualified teacher, lives appropriately on a 75-foot former Humber River barge, which used to transport coal. Thanks to the London borough of Hounslow, a new single-storey building by the river - The Pier House - has become the trust's homebase, providing a full programme of teacher training and the publication of educational materials.

Alison Taylor's determination to introduce children to the river - "Did you know that 80 per cent of London's water comes from The Thames?" - has led to the trust developing as an educational, information and resource centre, with a consultancy arm used by boroughs which are keen to develop educational resources.

The Pier House - the first study centre relating to the Thames - has a large classroom with exhibitions, and additional space where small vessels such as dinghies and coracles can be restored and constructed. "We see ourselves as a regional resource for the Thames Basin, but our name is spreading. We even had a query from Japan," says Alison, whose own field trips on the waterfront tease out children's attitudes to the river. What do they think of the river at low tide for example; do they appreciate the wildlife, and what about noise on this highway?

Trips from the field study centre can include excursions from Hampton to Hammersmith, visits to a boat builder's yard in Richmond, and to nearby organisations. Not far away is the Crane Park Project, which centres on the River Crane, a tributary of the Thames. A short drive away is Kew Bridge Steam Museum, which tells the story of 2,000 years of London's water supply, in a Victorian pumping station with the world's largest collection of steam-powered water supply pumping engines (including the oldest workable waterworks beam engine designed by James Watt in 1820).

The Thames Explorer Trust's wide database of contacts has spawned the Thames Education Network, which links organisations interested in the educational potential of the river and which has members from Oxford in the west, to Havering in the east - providing a kind of linear "national park" to explore the waterway. This network can be used by teachers to discover facilities from education packs to accommodation.

A major flood alleviation scheme - less well known than the Thames Barrier - is underway down the river for Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton. It is run by the new, statutory Environment Agency in the wake of a public inquiry which underlined that preventive measures are essential to prevent the kind of flood levels suffered in 1947, which would devastate roads, railways and services, damage about 5,500 properties, affect 12,500 people and cost an estimated Pounds 40 million.

Colin Martin, the scheme's project manager, says it "provides an excellent educational opportunity. Not only does it bring together a wide range of different subject areas, such as hydrology, engineering, ecology, planning issues, archaeology and landscape, but it also provides a 'real life' study programme". He says visits can be made to see evidence relating to the public inquiry, plans and maps to illustrate the new, 11.8 km channel which will carry excess water, and treatment of the river itself - from dredging to raising the banks. Educational packs, including a CD-Rom are being prepared.

Next year a Pounds 5 million River and Rowing Museum will open at Henley-on-Thames, in a building inspired by boathouses. Funds have been acquired through an amalgamation between the Rowing Museum Foundation, working with other charities and Henley Town Council. The town's place in the history of rowing will be highlighted in exhibits on trade, sport and recreation. Boats and oars will be on show along with more archaeological exhibits. In 1998, an interactive science centre called Water Works will open, joined by an ecology gallery, which is being developed with the Natural History Museum. Themes relevant to schools, particularly for key stage 2, will relate to the natural environment and Victorian lifestyles.

Downstream, beyond the City of London, you can board the Pride of Lee, a canal boat which seats 36 as it travels along Limehouse Cut through Limehouse basin and into the Regent's Canal to arrive at the Ragged School Museum. This is run by the Three Mills Environmental Education Centre within the Lower Lea Project. This centre includes the House Mill - the largest surviving tide mill in Europe, which is being restored, and a second tide mill.

The Canal Museum Trust, which runs the London Canal Museum, introduces children to life on a narrowboat, canal art and the story of the cargo porterage on London's canals, which link up with the Thames at Brentford (Grand Union) and at Limehouse. The museum is in a former warehouse built in the 1850s for Carlo Gatti, the ice cream manufacturer, and illustrates how vast quantities of ice were shipped from Norway to the heart of Victorian London, to be stored in cavernous ice wells. This term, The Thames is a major theme, with an exhibition on Pomp and Pleasure: the River Thames in London (until November 25).

Still in London, the Pumphouse Educational Museum in Lavender Road, Rotherhithe, has study programmes linked to the national curriculum: for example, history projects could look at the development of the Surrey Commercial Docks, and science could focus on water pollution testing. The Pumphouse was constructed by the Port of London Authority in 1929 to help maintain the water level in the Surrey Commercial Docks. Access can also be arranged to the foreshore, which has yielded a fine collection of London dockers' tools found on the waterfront between Tower Bridge and Rotherhithe Peninsula dating from the Roman era.

The dead also figure in talks given by PC Keith Gotch, who is curator of the small museum covering the history of the river police, based in Wapping police station. While PC Gotch finds that bodies "tend to grip the imagination of junior pupils", that is just the start in introducing the work of the river police - the oldest uniformed police service in the world. Much of the work centres around water safety, but the history of the force, illustrated with paintings and photos, can now be used as a topic within the national curriculum.

* The Thames Explorer Trust: Alison Taylor, 0181 742 0057 * Kew Bridge Steam Museum: 0181 568 4757 * The Environment Agency: Colin Martin, 01628 777533 or fax 773845 * For information on the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, contact Emily Leach on 01491 410909 * The Lower Lea Project: Pam Travers, 0181 983 1121 * The Pumphouse Educational Museum:Caroline Marais, 0171 231 2976 * PC Keith Gotch and the River Police Museum: 0171 275 4421 * The Canal Museum Trust: 0171 713 0836

Did you know...

* The Thames is 215 miles long.

* It rises in a Gloucestershire meadow.

* It becomes tidal about 350 feet above sea level, below Teddington, 60 miles from Southend.

* By the Sixties the Thames was so polluted the only things that could live in it were eels. But anti-pollution measures have proved successful. By the Eighties 100 species of fish have been caught in its waters.

* The Thames Valley has been inhabited for about 400,000 years.

* The Thames is crossed by 214 bridges and 17 public tunnels.

* It has 45 locks.

* More than 11 million people live in the Thames region.

* One-hundred-and-twenty-four treatment works along its banks carry away the sewage.

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