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If you can't beet them

Gilded domes and beetroot soup were what struck pupils from the Wirral who visited Russia. Adi Bloom reports

For most people it is the gold-domed churches, the faded grandeur of the architecture and the magnificence of the Hermitage museum that sum up Russia's premier tourist city.

For Jack Warburton, 10, it was a bowl of borscht, beetroot soup.

With 11 of his classmates from Townfield primary, in the Wirral, Jack spent a week in St Petersburg earlier this month, visiting schools and homes, and sampling traditional Russian food.

"It was orange," he said. "I thought it would taste like tomatoes, but it didn't. We are lucky to have chips and regular English food at home."

The trip, during half-term, came after an extended correspondence with pupils at St Petersburg's school number 325.

The Townfield link was set up by Michael Hughes, a Year 3-4 teacher, who had previously spent five years teaching English in St Petersburg. He deliberately chose school 325 as a partner, because of its ordinariness.

"Some of the children were struck by how few resources there were," he said.

"The classrooms were quite bare, even when they'd been newly decorated. I wanted pupils to have a true picture of life in a Russian school."

Chatting in Russian and English, the two sets of children toured St Petersburg's squares, palaces and churches.

Kate Lee, Townfield's headteacher, said: "We were hit by the amount of gold on the domes and spires. It's different to the Wirral."

But English pupils were less overwhelmed by some of the traditional Russian food served up for them. Many reacted with dismay when presented with borscht, accompanied by the heavy soured cream, smetana.

Mrs Lee advised them to sit back and think of international relations:

"They reacted with trepidation to the food. But I said smile, and say thank you. Now some of them have actually started requesting borscht."

The pupils were accompanied by four teachers, the chair and vice-chair of governors and a local-authority inspector.

The aim is to continue the link. Townfield pupils will illustrate English-language versions of traditional Russian folk-tales. These will be published, using funding from the British Council, and distributed to all schools in the Wirral and St Petersburg. In this way, Mr Hughes hopes the two communities will continue to learn from one another.

"Our children didn't realise how difficult life is for some Russians, or how fortunate they are," he said. "And the Russian impression of English people was largely based on Victorian stereotypes of stiff upper lips.

"They didn't expect our children to be so warm and open. Not only will this trip broaden our perspectives, it will also broaden theirs."



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