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Hooked on the good life

Countryside Live, a mobile country fair for schools, gives children the chance to get close to nature. Bernard Adams reports

When Countryside Live, a country fair for schools, came to east London, the sheep were the stars. Four times in a long day in September last year, a New Zealander and a cast of nine comically different sheep showed 200 children and their teachers how to make learning come alive and how to have fun learning.

The fair was held on the show-ground behind the Lee Valley ice centre - a huge field ringed with marquees, with a central arena where ferrets raced, a falcon swooped and sheep dogs worked their magic on geese. This was the first time the fair had been held in east London, but the location tied in all the resources of the Lee Valley Regional Park. Off-site visits were offered to a riding centre, a nature reserve with bird hides and Walthamstow marshes. There was also a chance to fish in the River Lee.

The fair was packed by 10.30am and among the crowds were 59 nine to 11-year-olds from St Saviour's Primary School in nearby Walthamstow. They began by learning to handle big fishing rods and cast a line, first on dry land and later on the river. They visited Custer the donkey in his open pen and were amazed to discover that this sturdy fellow - as tall as most of them - was only one year old. They were even more surprised to find out that the extremely portly saddleback pigs next door were still babies of six months.

After a mucky morning: handwashing. Liquid dispensers were supplied all over the showfield and there were also plenty of portable toilets.

By the time St Saviour's got to the sheep show, it was on its third run.

Imagine a wide, shallow stage with two sheep-sized openings in the back wall and an audience seated on bales of straw. With his Antipodean patter hyping up the crowd, Richard Savoury calls for the first member of his cast. Nobby, a very, very woolly Norfolk Horn, comes in, clambers up the steps and stands on the podium. Richard explains how Norfolk became rich from the wool trade in the Middle Ages and what large quantities of wool this breed can produce.

Enter stage left: Suzie the Southdown, a breed which we learn provides very sweet, tender meat. This message causes audible emotion among the audience.

On bounds Sam the Suffolk, and proceeds to eat from Nobby the Norfolk's food container. He's followed by Belinda the blue-faced Leicester, who can produce three or four lambs a year; Dougal the Scottish Blackface who has fearsome circular hornsI and so it goes on, each sheep taking its place on a broad step with the name of its breed clearly printed below.

This live-wool fashion show is only Act 1. After all nine sheep have done a delightful "I'm hungry" dance, they leave the stage and Act 2 begins.

Richard stops talking and starts shearing. Wearing strange woolly shoes, he brandishes first a huge, crude pair of scissors, then opts for a giant version of a barber's electric clippers. He leans the sheep over on its side and within five minutes has turned a shaggy mess into a luxurious fleece. The sheep now looks so vulnerable and small that the audience for the first time goes quiet.

But it doesn't stop there. Our ringmaster explains how the fleece becomes a jumper or a scarf, how the lanolin in the wool, which protects the sheep from the rain, has to be washed out from the fleece, how microscopic hooks help the strands of wool to weave together. Yes, we Londoners had a good day out at the Countryside Live.

For details of all Countryside Foundation for Education events: Tel: 01422 885566email:

For details of other events at Lee Valley Park, contact the Information Service Tel: 01992 702200 or visit: www.leevalleypark.

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