Barge in and buy a waterway

21st September 2001 at 01:00
A museum in Gloucester offers children the chance to trade in the canals, docks and narrow boats of our industrial past. Christina Zaba reports

'One minute I had pound;775, the next I'd lost pound;241," says Liz, standing at a touchscreen positioned between artfully lit display boards, pulleys and bales of old rope.

"You're better than me. I only got 99p," says Ian. "Question is, what would it have been worth in 1880?" They wouldn't normally think about it, but this Year 7 group from Marlwood school in South Gloucestershire are deep in the drama of buying and selling shares in canals 200 years ago. At the National Waterways Museum in Gloucester, it's just one way in to understanding the amazing innovation and untracked excitement of those times, when huge fortunes could be made, and lost, with one investment.

"The touchscreens are a good idea," says their DT teacher, Chris Price. "They work better than a guided tour, because students can be self-directed. They come in flying around, and then suddenly they stop and notice and get involved."

A diminutive girl catches his eye. "Sir, can you please come and look at this?" she asks. She's part of a group focusing on a complicated simulation of canal-building. "We're trying to get the boat through, but we can't cut all that bank away, can we? It'll have to be a tunnel."

The vast, echoing rooms with their industrial staircases, spotlights, startling reconstructions and archaic machinery easily accommodate a whole year group - and still leave plenty of space for discovery.

Hands-on experience is what the museum is about. But there's more to it than that, education officer Patsy Williams is quick to point out. "The education programme is based on our collection," she says. "But what's also important is where we actually are - in the old warehouses of the docks themselves. So above we have the upper levels of the museum, which tell the story of the canals and the building of Britain's inland waterways, and a gallery where we explore boat construction and the history of boat engines. Below we have a historic boat collection moored in the water, which you can board from the quayside or from floating pontoons, and working dockside machinery dating back to the Industrial Revolution."

They were tough times, and a far cry from the modern workshop rooms for schools, the comfortable cafe and the gift shop, all nicely integrated with the docks' solid industrial architecture.

Crossing the cobbled courtyards between the display areas, you catch a sense of what it must have been like here a hundred years ago, when men worked night and day operating the cranes and chutes. Today it's quieter, as the Marlwood Year 7s, on their pre-booked trip along the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal in the Museum's 1936 Dunkirk boat Queen Boadicea II, observe the principles of canal construction in action - and enjoy the ride.

Meanwhile, a different group is crowding into the tiny living quarters of an 1898 horse-drawn narrow boat moored at the quayside, to listen to an account of Victorian life on the boat from the museum's education assistant, Sue Hoskins. These Year 2 pupils from Gracefield school in Bristol are all dressed in period costume provided by the museum.

They are interested in the lives of the barge children of long ago. "If I'd lived here, I'd have liked to take care of the horse," declares 6-year-old Marnie.

"Did people actually live in this boat?" asks Ben, mystified as he looks round the living space with its neat cupboards, coal stove in a corner and fold-away table. "Where did they sleep? On the floor?" "Our education programme goes further than just the idea of water and transport, though obviously it starts there," explains Patsy Willams. "We run curriculum weeks in science, maths and history, and cover the Victorians, the Tudors, Britain since the 1930s, the Vikings and the Egyptians. Our re-enactors are very popular - Bjorn Styrbjornsson, our Viking from Regia Anglorum, and our First World War veteran, Colonel Trotte. For each curriculum week we have special events, teachers' resources and hands-on workshops. For some events we link up with the other museums at the docks, the Museum of Advertising and Packaging and the Soldiers of Gloucestershire. We cater for pupils with mental and physical disabilities too. We're always very busy."

In the schools' activity room a small group of Year 2 pupils are trying their hand at traditional barge art - Roses and Castles. "This is what I wanted," says teacher Denise Carter, "dressing up, going on the boat, craft work. Today begins six weeks of work for us." The atmosphere is purposeful, the room well-resourced. It's a moment of sunshine and calm.

"We're going to stick these roses on our model barges," says Marnie, colouring intently. "I'm enjoying myself here. I wish I could live here. Not on a boat, though. In a house."

ContactThe National Waterways Museum at Gloucester, Llanthony Warehouse Gloucester Docks, Gloucester GL1 2EH.Tel: 01452 318054 Web: pound;2.50 to pound;2.75 per pupil, river trips pound;1 extra. Curriculum-linked events autumn 2001 (pound;3.75 per pupil): KS2. 8 - 12 Oct 'Making a Book', KS2. 15 - 19 Oct 'The Tudors', KS2. 5 - 9 Nov 'Museumaths', Reception to Year 8. 19 - 23 Nov 'The Return of the Vikings', KS2. Similar attractionsIronbridge Gorge Museum, Telford. Tel: 01952 432166. Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne. Tel: 0161 343 2878 London Canal Museum. Tel: 020 7713 0836. The Canal Museum Towcester. Tel: 01604 862229

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