Re-enactment specialists can give primary pupils an authentic taste of the past, says Dinah Starkey
Kim Seddorn stands six foot two in his turned leather shoes. He weighs 18 stone (114 kilograms), including his mail shirt, sword and helmet. His beard is heroic and he has the kind of presence a newly qualified teacher would die for. When he enters the assembly hall the children don't know what's hit them.
Kim is a founder member of Regia Anglorum, a Dark Ages re-enactment society. He visits about 40 primary schools each year, driving a Volvo crammed with pots and drinking horns, costumes and war gear. Every artefact has been purpose-made and each is authentic in detail. Sometimes he comes as a Viking, sometimes as a Saxon, but whatever the role he is large, warlike and impressive, and all the more so because he is now in his 60s.
There's lots of hands-on work. Children get a chance to heft a sword, try out a set of Viking scales and blow the great war horn. There's no fighting under any circumstances - dangerous and inappropriate, he says firmly - but he sometimes demonstrates a shield wall with the help of a nervous adult volunteer. As he and his companion-in-arms, equipped with real-life shields and spears, advance on the audience, classes have been known to run away.
One thing children notice is how heavy everything is. A good mail shirt weighs two to three stone (12 to 18 kilos). The helmets and swords, cooking jars and leather tunics are all designed for adult use and made out of natural materials. There were no feather-light synthetics in the Dark Ages.
At the end of the session there's time to handle all the kit - just a fraction of Kim's huge collection - and to feel the roughness of leather and horn, cold iron and hand-turned wood. It's like touching the past and it gives children an insight which no amount of guided reading could achieve. When Kim visited Fitzmaurice Primary School in Bradford on Avon, teachers reckoned the children learned more in his half-day session than in a whole term of classroom work.
He charges a bit less than a supply teacher, but he is not in it to make a living so much as to share his passion for this dramatic period of history.
And the work has its own compensations. If he decides to buy a new helmet, he can always say to his wife: "Oh well, it's for my work in schools." Now where have we heard that one before?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, Sister Wisberga (aka Louisa Gidney) is giving children a rather less exalted view of the period. She calls her workshop Rent-a-peasant or Living History with Livestock, and the first thing to get across is the two fundamental aspects of life in the past: finding food and clothing.
Out comes a massive ox yoke and two young oxen are chosen from among the group of children to put their heads through the bows and draw the plough.
It's a good ice-breaker, she says. She and her companion (there's always another re-enactor riding shotgun) bring out peas and beans, a quern with grain for the children to grind and Saxon toys, which have novelty value for a generation reared on electronics.
The children handle fleeces ("Ugh, it smells!") and look at a range of tools as they try to imagine a time when there were no supermarkets and no plastic.
The aim is to provide an insight into everyday life in the countryside and, because peasant life remained more or less unchanged until the industrial revolution, the team also offers Tudor and Victorian workshops.
And for schools that can't lay hands on a really good Viking, there are still plenty of opportunities for role-play. Try this scenario:
* Get the children to research a typical Saxon village and draw a map showing the key areas - hall, church, mill ...
* Make the imaginary map of the village on the hall floor and ask each child to go to a favourite place.
* Arrange for someone from outside the class to burst in with the news that the Vikings are coming.
* Then gather together for a council to decide how to defend the village: Which is best, fight or flight? Has anyone fought against the Vikings before? Have they any information that might help?
This kind of task gets children involved in gathering and communicating information.
* Kim Seddorn works in the Bristol area and along the M4 corridor. Email: Kimseddorn@blueyonder.co.uk
* Louisa Gidney and her team are based in County Durham and visit schools within a 50 mile radius.
* Regia Anglorum is a nationwide organisation and will dispatch the nearest Viking or Saxon to schools across the UK. www.regia.org
* The Hoplites' association provides the same service for those studying Ancient Greece. You can ask for one hoplite or a whole band. They charge 35p per mile travelling expenses and a modest fee.
* For historical interpreters from other periods log on to the re-enactors website.