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Inside a steam kettle on wheels

Chris Fautley sees four and five-year-olds board a train to taste history. One way of building a head of steam for history in four- and five-year-olds could be to take a reception class to Tenterden and enjoy a day on the Kent East Sussex Steam Railway.

When teacher Heather Gibbons recently took two classes from Snodland Church of England Primary School, near Maidstone, she was expecting lots of fun - dressing up in authentic Victorian costume and a 14-mile trip on a steam train ensured that. But she came away convinced of the visit's educational value in giving her charges a taste of what lay ahead.

"When they eventually return to the subject in depth, they will already have had a taster. It's one of those things they will not forget."

The railway offers a variety of educational and study packages relevant to the national curriculum, foremost among which is a Victorian "experience day". It's an imaginative way of looking at the Victorians in history and includes not only a ride on a period steam train, but also a look at the impact of railways on Victorian life and a Victorian classroom lesson in the town museum.

The railway's commercial manager, Graham Hukins, says: "Victorian Times in key stage 2 focuses on how industry changed people's lives; railways were one of the most fundamental and long-lasting changes.

"We own a vintage collection of carriages, and it seems only right to use them in the most historically accurate context possible so that we can recreate railway scenes of a century ago. We will happily tailor packages to cover all ages, from sixth form down to pre-school."

The railway invites children to wear Victorian costume for the Experience Days and two recpetion classes from Snodland school - teachers included - threw themselves into it with style.

The Victorian classroom lesson was an obvious hit with the children. They run through the alphabet and there is still time for some Victorian-style drawing. Then it's back to the station for a quick guided tour.

With groups of such young children, pitching it at just the right level is never easy. With the best will in the world, some of it will have been above the heads of these children.

After all, how do you explain the workings of a steam locomotive to a four-year-old? The guide had it pretty well summed up by referring to it as as "a big kettle on wheels".

Nobody could disagree with that, while occasional reference to Thomas the Tank Engine ensured interest was maintained.

The highlight of the day was the 14-mile ride on the immaculately restored Victorian train, recreating at a stroke just how it must have been to make a journey by train in the l9th Century.

Railway education officer Gerald Siviour is responsible for putting together the "experience days". An author of several railway books, he has worked both as a teacher and teacher trainer. "We're trying to stimulate the interest of the young," he says. "We're a moving museum."

Heather Gibbons says: "For Pounds 4, it's excellent value. I would recommend it. The staff are very friendly here - a relaxed approach, but it's well organised. They know what they're doing" A preview video of educational facilities is available for hire from the railway, and a teacher familiarisation day is arranged each year.

The Kent East Sussex Railway, Tenterden Town Station, Tenterden, Kent. TN3O 6HE. Tel: 01580 765155

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