Entering Southwell Minster for the first time, a visitor is somewhat bemused to hear the instruction "Lie on your back in the nave". Moving on to the reputably peaceful Chapter House, she is startled by periodic blasts from a whistle. But the presence of some 450 primary children, all busily engaged in many and varied activities in every corner of the Minster, gives the game away that something unusual is happening at Southwell.
These children are pilgrims, from 70 schools in the Diocese of Southwell, which more or less occupies the county of Nottingham. Over a 10-day period 4,500 pupils are spending a full day here.
"We are on a journey, travelling to see all that God was in the past, is now and shall be," they chant as they process into the nave, awed by the size and atmosphere of the building. Seated on hassocks, they follow the words and movements of Nick Harding, a freelance Christian worker who, for today, plays a part more reminiscent of a zany troubadour than the experienced teacher and worship leader he is in reality.
"We are on a pilgrimage of discovery," he tells the children. "We will realise things we never understood before. We will discover things we never knew before." As a lot of the children have not been to Southwell Minster previously, and a fair proportion have not visited a church before, the sounds, the light, the vastness of the interior and the architecture are all new experiences to many of them.
So are the symbols of Christian faith, the altars, candles, representations of Christ, the font, the organ, the pulpit. All have their purpose and special settings, and one of the aims of the day is to give the children an understanding of why they are important in the Christian faith and how they fit into the pattern of worship.
Split into groups of 15, each with its own identifiable shield and pilgrim leader, the children spend the day moving at 15-minute intervals around the 28 different activities. These include learning about the various copes and making a woven cross; joining in a drama workship; an explanation of baptism at the font before making a paper dove or stained glass pictures; learning about the Roman mural found beneath the Minster's paving, and some good old craft work, making huge models of a boat, or a donkey, out of recycled materials.
The Reverend Paul Morris, diocesan adviser in evangelism, and the Reverend John Smith, chief inspector of schools for the diocese of Southwell, are the masterminds behind "Time Travelling", the project which culminates in the pilgrimage to the Minster.
"We wanted to launch a project that would embrace the Minster's connection with pilgrimage and at the same time be useful to primary teachers who want to teach RE across the curriculum," says Paul Morris.
The project is partnered by Nottingham County Council's education department.
John Smith, with the help of Paul Morris and advice from teachers, has brought his experience of visiting schools and knowledge of education to bear on the production of a Time Travelling classroom book for key stage 2. "I find that often teachers are not prepared or equipped to teach RE at key stage 2, " says John Smith. "They are hungry for material that will help them so our aim was to embed RE across the curriculum showing teachers how they could incorporate the theme of pilgrimage into English, mathematics, RE, art, music, dance, drama, science, geography and history, as well as collective worship in school. "
The 10-day re-organisation of Minster routine and the bringing in of more than 300 "station" leaders, many of them retired teachers, and general helpers is a major logistical feat. Their knowledge of the given subject and their ability to express their enthusiasm for the building or artefact is sometimes accompanied by an understated but powerful communication of their faith in God.
"There is so much I have never seen or heard before and I can see by the children's faces that they are really interested," says Julie Johnstone, a teacher with a group of Year 6 pupils from Ernehale School who have been listening intently to a crystal clear explanation of the way bread and wine are used in the Communion Service. "Do you know what this is? No, it's not a goblet, although it could be. Here it's called a challis. In my church we are dead common and we call it a 'cup', but it's the same thing really," says a spirited and likeable man, who intersperses his chat with natural asides above his love for his Lord.
The Provost of Southwell, The Very Reverend David Leaning, is delighted with the success of Time Travelling. "It's wonderful to see so many children discovering what is really their Minster," he says, as the music for Time Travelling resounds through the building and the groups of children make their way to another place of pilgrimage.
o Further details about the Time Travelling project can be obtained from Reverend Paul Morris, 39 Davies Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 5JE. Tel: 0115 9811311. Classroom book Pounds 15.50; audio cassette Pounds 5.50; book and cassette Pounds 20 plus Pounds 4 pp.