It's the first summer of the new century, and we're off to the coast. But before we load the minibus with sunblock and beachwear, someone should check that we've packed the essentials. We'll need maps, and plenty of them. Then there are compasses, plastic wallets and any number of clipboards and instruction sheets and pieces of paper to write on. Most important is the camera - and a camera's no good without film. If there's an inch of space left, then take a towel by all means.
For this is no seaside excursion. It's Coastline 2000 - a project that entrusts pupils of all ages with the task of gathering valuable information about our island home. Imagine how long it would take to inspect every inch of accessible coast in England and Wales, as well as parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland - to photograph it at 200-metre intervals and to record detailed observations about its general condition.
Starting in June, Coastline 2000 aims to get the job done in three months flat, simply by dividing the map into grid squares and inviting schools and colleges to survey one square each. It also aims, somewhere along the way, to inspire the geographers of tomorrow.
It's a principle that was tried and tested four years ago, when Land Use UK gave thousands of schoolchildren the job of finding out exactly what we do with the country we live in. That project was organised by the Geographical Association, and it is the GA, in partnership with the National Trust and Ordnance Survey, that has launched this latest initiative.
Mo Morron, chairman of the Coastline 2000 steering committee, is headteacher of Harthill county primary school in Cheshire, and she took 40 children aged four to 11 to the Dee Estuary to test the action packs that will go out to schools that register an interest in January.
"The children found it exciting," she says. "Although we are only 35 miles inland, some of them had never been to the seaside before. Others had been on planes to various places but didn't know their own coastline."
The coachdriver was so fascinated by what they were doing that he insisted on spending the day with them. And for Ms Morron, it's that notion of tomorrow's citizens leading the way that lies at the heart of this project. "It empowers them to know that what they are doing is part of an officially recognised national survey," she says. "It raises the stakes. You're saying to young people, 'We care about about what you think. We're taking notice of what you tell us. And we know that, if we give you right equipment and the opportunity to go to these places, you will produce work of quality.' " Along with the photographs, children will be expected to research and record the ownership of land along their designated stretch of coast and the uses to which it is put, to spot evidence of pollution and to report on accessibility.
They will also be asked to give their opinions on the places they visit - to say what appeals to them and interests them, what they dislike or find surprising, and what changes they would like to see over the next 20 years.
The information and children's comments about the coast will then be recorded on a CD-Rom and made publicly available, says Ms Morron. "The National Trust and Ordnance Survey are interested because this will be up-to-date information gathered all at the same time, and a large number of universities have also expressed an interest in the data."
Although much of the surveying will be carried out by schools and colleges in coastal areas - the fieldwork has been tailored to fit into a single day-trip - the target zone includes river estuaries as far as the tidal limit. And for those further from the coast, a different kind of survey has been devised. This will encourage children to investigate their connections with the sea by way of rivers and streams and establish for the first time which parts of the coast are visited by people living in different areas and what transport is available.
"We're trying to involve all pupils in this, from infants to students in higher education," says Mo Morron. "The millennium is a wonderful opportunity to gain children's views and visions, and wherever we are in the UK it's important for young people to have that sense of ownership of the coast and that responsibility for it as an island nation."
* STUDENTS MAKE NOTES ON THE MARGIN
It was pretty good," says Tim, but with the sort of emphasis that suggests it was actually very good indeed.
Tim was one of 16 year 9 geography students from Heartsease high school in Norwich who spent a day at the end of the summer term surveying a five-kilometre stretch of the north Norfolk coast as a pilot run for Coastline 2000.
"I was surprised how amazingly they took to it," says geography teacher Kirsten Remer. "It really captured their imaginations. Some of them don't get to places like that much, and when you take them out and they're allowed to explore, they really enjoy it. And that shines through in their work."
Mentally multiply the huge stack of photographs, the completed questionnaires and intricately annotated maps that came back with them and you begin to grasp the quantity of data that the project will harvest when it gets under way nationally.
Ms Remer allocated specific roles to individuals - photographer, map detailer, land use recorder and so on - and each received a job description. Everyone was also asked to express a view on the coastline.
But among the insights into dangerous paths and ill-considered sea defences one or two conundrums lie in store for future analysts. What did the children like most? "The grass," wrote one. But a classmate had an entirely different perspective. What did he dislike most? "The grass."