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Mine of information

For their first geography field trip, pupils from Swarland primary went underground. Estelle Maxwell watched them search for ore.

Working conditions at Killhope lead mine in rural Weardale could not have been worse when the large group of primary pupils arrived. With many of them aged only seven, this was their first geography field trip from Swarland Primary School. It was the start of May and the weather was filthy - sleeting, freezing, and windy, snow was still lying on the caps of the Pennines - but the children didn't care. Bent double over the washing rake, shrouded in outsized fluorescent waterproofs and wellingtons, the small figures searched eagerly for lead ore or galena (lead sulphide).

Earlier, pupils from the Northumberland primary had learned of the harsh social conditions in which "washer boys" aged as young as eight lived, of the grinding poverty of families employed by the region's thriving mine owners. For several hours they stepped back in time to experience first hand what it was like to mine lead ore, going into pitch black mine shafts, wading ankle-deep through water, visiting the living quarters of miners and the mine office - and dressing up in period clothes.

"It's surprising how much fun these kids can have with water and ore," said tour guide Shelagh Fawcett as she watched the pupils scouring the icy water to grade rocks which were smashed into pieces by classmates wielding buckers or flat hammers before going into the "hotching tob", or sieve, where another group of eager hands searched for fragments of the mineral.

The best was yet to come with a visit inside one of the tiny mine shafts where water ran down the stone walls. As they waded ankle-deep through water, wielding small torches, they whispered excitedly and made the occasional ghost sound as the tour guide explained how, hundreds of years ago, miners worked using tallow candles.

On her instruction they turned off their lights and were plunged into total darkness inside a cavernous area, their voices permeating the blackness: "Miss, I can't see me hand in front of me face" and "Ooohh, it's scary".

For many of these children it was the first time away from home. Eight-year-old Lindsay Rudderford, flushed with pride as she showed her "finds" - a cluster of quartz, galena and other minerals which she had located in the River Allen the day before. "I am going to start a mineral collection when I get home," she said.

Taking a large group of primary pupils on a field trip can be a major undertaking for any school, but with several years experience under his belt, headteacher Dean Jackson was convinced it was worth all the effort - despite some minor troubles such as home sickness.

Almost half of the 42 children were just seven and phone calls home were banned. This might seem harsh but the staff had learned through experience that children were even more upset when they talked to their mothers. "But last night some managed to ring home after asking the students who are with us if they could speak to their mothers," said Mr Jackson. "Other than that, we've had no problems."

A glance at the timetable of events on the five-day trip soon explained why this was so. The itinerary was crammed with activities from 10am until 7pm, with pupils involved in surveys, map reading, tracking a river, visiting a waterfall, learning about geology, orienteering and visiting several lead mines in the area surrounding Deneholme, one of two residential outdoor centres owned by Northumber-land County Council.

They rose at 7.30am and took part in daily duties including cleaning rooms and making packed lunches, before piling into the centre's two mini-buses to travel to the latest destination.

Mr Jackson explained how he planned the week-long trip at the start of September and informed parents immediately so they could start to pay towards the cost in weekly instalments if they wished. He said: "I tell the staff at the centre what I would like to do and they tell me if it is appropriate. " All the work is national curriculum based, entailing geography and history and drawing on religious and social education.

"Our children will still be using this trip in their work over the next two years. It is a brilliant teaching tool; it is not a holiday," he said. "A couple of weeks before we go, the staff involved meet all the parents and fully inform them of our plans."

Ensuring the pupils are safe is a high priority and pupil-adult ratios are high, with six children to every adult. On this trip there were two parents, two trainee teachers, the head and a member of his teaching staff, as well as two staff members from the centre - both former teachers.

Mr Jackson said his day began early and finished at midnight after a final patrol around the grounds. But despite the wear and tear on the teachers and their helpers there was no doubt the adults enjoyed the experience as much as the children. "Finding volunteers to come with us has never been a problem, " he said.

The cost of the five day trip was Pounds 56. This included all food and the use of two mini-buses. Deneholme centre also provided all the bedding, rucksacks, waterproofs, boots, maps and compasses, and specialist equipment. It also has computers with a range of field study programs. An additional Pounds 9 was charged to cover the cost of insurance, travel and admission costs to the Killhope mine centre.

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