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Living history

The hopes and fears of common folk through the ages will come to life next week, writes Angela Youngman.

The calm tranquillity of Norwich Cathedral's cloisters will be shattered when the cathedral holds its first schools' Living History Week from May 21 to 24. Thousands of schoolchildren will take part in hands-on activities,with costumed actors turning the clock back as they tell the story of some of the momentous events that have taken place in the building.

Three key periods have been chosen to link into the national curriculum - medieval, Tudor and civil war. Each focuses on a key year in the cathedral's history. Pupils will spend two days looking at events in 1273. The previous year, simmering discontent between townsfolk and priory had flared into violent conflict, causing severe damage to parts of the cathedral. So in 1273 the King came to settle the dispute, which led to heavy fines for the townspeople. Another day is spent in 1549, when the cathedral was the scene of Kett's Rebellion, and more than 10,000 people gathered on a nearby heath to protest against enclosures, sending a petition to the King. The final day returns to Norwich in 1644, when the cathedral was threatened by the arrival of Cromwell's forces. Windows were smashed and images destroyed, and the bishop fled the city. There were even suggestions that the cathedral should be dismantled and its stones used to build a poorhouse in Great Yarmouth. It was a time of religious disputes and high taxes as city trade was disrupted.

On each day, costumed actors from Hands on The Past, a living history group that specialises in curriculum-linked presentations to schools, will try to bring the fears, worries, lives and skills of ordinary people vividly to life, with themed activities and stories focused on the key events. For example, children visiting Norwich 1644 will meet Parliamentarian soldiers using the cathedral to muster, while a Puritan woman preparing medicines will talk about the forming of the Maiden Troop - a company of men funded by the maidens of Norwich who were worried about possible assaults on their virtue by Cromwell's soldiers. And in Medieval Norwich, characters will be mainly concerned about the impact of fines on their lives and the relationship between priory and town.

From the moment children arrive, they will be swept into activities. Divided into groups, they will move between actors stationed around the cloisters, listen to their stories and hear their concerns. Some pupils may be recruited as soldiers or monks, tr on period clothing, learn a medieval dance or make a candle.

Others will learn about Tudor medicines and cosmetics, such as cures for poor complexion - which will then be tested on their teachers. They can learn domestic skills, prepare a petition to the King, listen to music, or use a quill pen to write a letter asking Mr Cromwell for money. Others will practise weapons skills. Hands on the Past believes in involving children quickly. "Children learn by doing things - it makes it more meaningful," says Mandy London, Hands on the Past co-ordinator.

"Over the years that we have been doing these types of activities, the response has been very positive. Children can recall long after the event things like how to load a musket and fire it, because they have done it.

"Children have to feel a part of what's happening, they like to be involved in a story. The setting is important - it helps give the atmosphere."

The setting could not be more inspiring. Norwich Cathedral possesses England's largest monastic cloisters, and it is also celebrating the 900th anniversary of its consecration. Since its foundation as a Benedictine priory, education has always been central to its activities.

Today the cathedral is a thriving educational resource with more than 12,000 pupils visiting a year to participate in workshops, tours, role-plays and special events. The structure of the building illuminates the journey through history while emphasising its role as a Christian place of worship.

"I thought cathedrals were boring, but they're fun," says Peter, a Year 5 pupil, following a class visit.

This "wow" factor is exactly what Saul Penfold, the cathedral's education officer, wants to achieve. "Cathedrals are often seen as inaccessible, irrelevant or boring.

"But the 'wow' uttered by most children as they enter can be used to build a stimulating and thought-provoking visit. We want all children to feel that there is something here for them. Our Living History Week is designed to bring the past to life in a way that is accessible and entertaining.

"With the emphasis on participation, we hope the stories and events that will be recreated will not only enable the children to discover for themselves but also to have fun - a perfect combination for learning," he says.

Saul Penfold, tel: 01603 620864. Mandy London, tel: 01508 492487. Email enquiries@, or see Hands on the Past is hosting an event for the public at Norwich Cathedral on Saturday, May 26

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