Border raiders and ancient Celts

21st September 2001 at 01:00
The Upland Kingdom Discovery Centre takes pupils back into the Dark Ages, inside the largest grass covered building in Europe. Jessie Anderson reports

Every week during the school term hundreds of children from all over the country take a walk back in time to the Dark Ages. They become Picts, Celts, Saxons or part of the ancient royal household of King Urien. Moving on, they can join the lawless Border Reivers, or adopt the person of the Lakeland poet, William Wordsworth.

The Rheged Experience condenses 2,000 years of Cumbrian history into a half-day school visit. Rheged is the name of the Upland Kingdom Discovery Centre near Penrith in Cumbria. It was also the name of the Celtic kingdom in the Dark Ages that extended from present-day Strathclyde to Lancashire.

The modern Rheged is a pound;15 million development in an old limestone quarry. From the nearby road it looks like another Cumbrian hillside. Rheged has been roofed over with turf to blend into the landscape, making it the largest grass-covered building in Europe.

Heidi Hocking, the centre's enthusiastic education officer, meets each school group on arrival. She is a trained teacher who specialised in English and drama. Heidi begins by telling them something of the original limestone quarry, and showing them the restored lime kiln.

I joined a group of 42 youngsters from Years 5 and 6 of Burton Morewood School, Kendal, who had opted for a drama workshop during their visit. This is not obligatory. Schools may choose instead the craft workshop in which the children can make their own Celtic talisman. There's also a speaking and listening workshop.

But the drama workshop proved great fun. "A nice mix of listening and doing," commented headteacher Sue Woodburn. The children became instant Celts with the aid of face paint. They gathered inside the shelter of an ancient "stone" (polystyrene) circle, obviously caught up in the atmosphere Heidi created. They listened intently for the sounds of the hillside 1,500 years ago, warmed their hands at the fire in the centre of the circle and drank from the heavy wooden bowl as it passed around. When they were told that the dreaded Picts were planning an attack, they mimed the various emotions they would need as they prepared for battle.

The central event of each visit is the film show, or rather two shows - a short film on life in Cumbria today and the "giant film experience" tracing the history of Rheged from the Dark Ages.

The story line is woven loosely around the character of Luke, an American lad who comes to Cumbria in search of his roots. Heidi gave a brief summary of events and each child received the name badge of a character in the film. They had a good deal of fun identifying not only themselves but each other, and particularly the "baddies" such as the Picts and the Reivers. (Oddly, most of the teachers turned out to be Reivers.) Almost without exception the children chose the main film, "The Lost Kingdom" as their favourite event of the day, although they also enjoyed the role play.

"I liked pretending to be someone from the Dark Ages," said one young Celt. Another boy particularly enjoyed the face make-up. Others singled out the fun of walking round the stone circle, as the circle got tighter to keep out the devil.

Some of the more extrovert would have liked "more role play - with props". But this seemed to be the only criticism.

Contact Heidi Hocking at Rheged, The Upland Kingdom Discovery Centre, Redhills, Penrith, Cumbria CA11 0DQ Tel: 01768 860016 Email: Website: www.rheged.comCost pound;4 each including a workshop, pound;3 without. One adult free with every 10 children. Heidi is very willing to tailor the activities to suit individual interests and ages and there are comprehensive resource packs free with advance bookings. The pack for key stages 1 and 2 covers nine National Curriculum subjects. There are three secondary school packs and a GNVQVCC pack for students studying subjects such as leisure and recreation Similar attractions North of England Lead Mining Museum, Durham. Tel: 01388 537 505 Web: Scar caves at Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales National Park Tel: 015242 41244 Web:

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