The hell of Godstone village

Nicolas Barnard

Nicolas Barnard reports on why some Surrey residents wish an award-winning resource pack had never been written.

Angela Goad peered out of her window on to Godstone's pretty village green and saw a class of children wandering around with clipboards. How sweet, she thought.

Over the months, more pupils appeared on day trips, investigating the common, looking at the historic Surrey village's buildings and visiting the church, scribbling answers to their questions as they went.

Numbers began to creep up. Sometimes the doughty district councillor saw two coaches arrive on the same day, sometimes three. Then this summer, when the weather improved, things started to get out of hand.

Half a dozen coaches turned up most days - 14 on one June morning, delivering close to 700 pupils to a village with no coach park, no shelter from rain, only one set of public toilets, and elderly residents who like children, but . . . not quite so many.

And some children, frankly, were out of control. In the sheltered flats of the converted alms house by the church, residents watched horrified as children peered through their windows or played hopscotch on the conveniently laid-out square of cremation plaques in the graveyard next door.

"The village was awash with children wherever you looked. You couldn't walk in the street that day," she said.

Why had Godstone become such an attraction? Parish council clerk Pat Rodgers uncovered the answer: Discover Godstone, an award-winning resource pack complete with historic and recent photographs designed to help primary schools to teach history and geography. Every teacher in driving distance was apparently taking the title literally.

As Sue Kennedy, leading a group of south London infants across the green last week, put it: "It's an excellent pack. But there's not a lot of point in doing it unless you have the visit. There's such excitement when the children see what they've seen in the photos."

But the deluge has driven to distraction a parish council more used to dealing with drainage problems on the football pitch.

Mrs Rodgers, herself a school bursar, has spent hours tracking down the publisher (appropriately, Wildgoose Publications), and writing to schools, coach firms, education authorities, the Department for Education and Employment - anyone who could help.

"Something has to be done for the sake of the residents," she said. "We are proud of our village. All we would like is a bit of respect for the people who live here."

She says schools are more than welcome, but it would help if they rang first. After all, the children can't get much out of it if they are competing with each other to see everything.

Some schools arrange to use the Scout hut as a base. A sign there invites donations - out of 44 schools, only one has given anything.

"Sometimes, I think they think this is a museum," said Joan Marsden, warden of the alms house and its chapel, recalling one group of pupils who were shocked to see an elderly resident actually move when they peered through his window. "Not all of them misbehave, but some of them go a little wild."

Others complain they have to fight their way through crowds of children to the fish and chip van. Hordes of pupils perch on a steep bank by a busy road waiting to use the toilets. Some residents say they are frightened to leave their houses.

Graham Saunders, vice-chairman of the parish council, spends much of his time running after coaches to tell drivers where to park. He also worries about the toilets - now cleaned twice a day - and the play equipment, paid for by mothers and toddlers' jumble sales.

"It gets a real bashing. I don't think it's going to last long, and we can't afford to replace it," he said.

Michael Brownen, partner in Leicester-based Wildgoose, said he had expected the pack to do well. "But we were surprised by the amount of people who hire a coach and actually visit Godstone. It caught the imagination of the teachers to such an extent - that's what totally amazed us.

"To be honest, there's a lot of school work you can do, but there's not a lot of attraction for kids there."

Godstone was chosen because Mr Brownen used to live in neighbouring Oxted. Writer Sharon Wetton also lived nearby. Its history and convenient location just off the M25 made it ideal for a national curriculum which requires every primary school to study a contrasting locality.

The problem appears unique to Godstone. It arouses sympathy at the DFEE, but there is little it can do. A curriculum spokesman said: "It's very much a one-off.

"Godstone is an attractive village and I imagine people are pretty miserable having large numbers of schoolchildren walking around looking at the geography and history. It must be rather tiresome."

The village is even more interesting than pupils may realise. It was the first place in Britain to manufacture gunpowder - something that helped Henry V win at Agincourt. Crystal Palace FC has just bought a training ground there. And unlike almost everywhere else, it still has a Tory MP.

Godstone is rising to the challenge. Angela Goad has added a new task to her role as churchwarden: making sure the gravestones are secure "in case one falls on one of the children and the school claims damages".

An apologetic Wildgoose (pack sales to date: 3,000 and rising) now includes a note urging schools to contact the council before visiting. But the coaches keep on coming.

It could make an interesting national curriculum topic. Investigate how many coachloads of children it takes to really, really, annoy a village. How long does it take 600 pupils to queue for just six toilets? How many bags of rubbish can a school outing create in a morning?

Perhaps someone should write a teaching pack ...

School trips really are welcome in Godstone, but please ring the parish clerk, Pat Rodgers, first on 01883 743182

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Nicolas Barnard

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