The chance of a better start

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Through a community project, pupils found that moving to Ryedale was far from traumatic for wartime evacuees. Elaine Williams reports

In Pickering's old railway station, where the steam trains start to huff their upland journey through the North Yorkshire moors to Grosmont and Goathland, there is an inscription: "To the people of Pickering, from the children of Middlesbrough, thanks for putting up with us in the war".

It was one of the first things Mike Benson noticed when he became curator of the Ryedale Folk Museum and started to explore the area. There was obviously a story behind this; history to be unearthed, children to be involved. A community to be brought together.

The Second World War history syllabus includes plenty of information about the Blitz and the struggle for survival in the cities, but far less is known about the war in the countryside. When children were evacuated from Middlesbrough by bus and train into the moors villages, what happened to them?

Benson set about finding out by putting out requests for evacuees to come forward with their stories and inveigling Pippa Dore, head of history at nearby Malton secondary school, to invest her time and pupils in the research. The result is a film: Ryedale: This Countryside at War, backed with pound;18,000 Heritage Lottery funding and support from BBC York. Full of colourful anecdotes and fascinating insights into life on the moors during the war, it features the Canadians who came to Wombleton aerodrome and spent much time courting local WAFs (women who served in the air force) and shovelling the "wet kind" of snow they had never experienced before;

Keith Walker, evacuated from Middlesbrough aged three, who had never seen a tree before; and Bob Pettit, evacuated at the age of six with 64 others and his Middlesbrough teachers, who remembers the thrill of being able to "go anywhere and do anything" and of playing cricket across the street in Gillamoor village using the water standpipe as the wicket.

For many of the evacuees, the move from Middlesbrough was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Norman Hadfield remembers arriving on the train aged eight and the anxiety of still not being placed with a family even though the sun was setting and he was very tired. But he also recalls not wanting to leave Farndale, and that without evacuation he would never have ended up in farming, which he loved. Bob Pettit says he had never seen anything but the street and the steelworks his house backed on to in Middlesbrough and had never drunk out of anything but a jam jar. The moors gave him freedom and the pleasure of using a cup.

The film shows these now elderly evacuees, who all remained in Ryedale rather than returning to Middlesbrough, being interviewed by Malton school's Year 9 pupils. Other pupils illustrate some of the stories with dramatic cameos filmed on the aerodrome, out on the moors and in Whitby, dressed up from the museum's costume store, using its artefacts as props.

In one sequence they have even trained a terrier to play cricket, to illustrate Keith Walker's memory of cricketing afternoons with his adoptive family with Ruby the terrier as the only fielder. Other pupils became involved in the production, filming and editing. Ampleforth College Swing Band plays on the soundtrack, the whole thing a collaborative project between state and independent school, museum and community.

Ryedale: This Countryside at War was a showcase exhibit when HRH Prince Andrew, Duke of York, visited the Ryedale Folk Museum last month (May). It is being followed by a pound;44,000 lottery-funded project between the museum, Malton secondary and Gillamoor and Rosedale primaries to make a film, Heather and Maple, about emigration from Whitby to Canada in the 19th century, linking it with the return of the Canadians during the war. The project will involve Malton's sixth-formers working with academics from Teesside university, county archivists and the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society on primary source material. Primary children will be involved in the filming.

This, says Mike Benson, is what museum work is all about: "Museums are not just keepers of artefacts, they should be taking their resources to people, making them work for the community. I'm not interested in 'doing' the Victorians; the Tudors; the Evacuees. It's about finding the history in the locality, making it live for young people. My education officers don't stay in the museum. They know where the kettle is in every local school."

Benson, a Middlesbrough steelworker until a year ago, educated himself to degree level through the Open University, followed by a part-time Masters in Museum Studies at Leicester university. Meanwhile, as a volunteer worker at Tom Leonard Mining Museum, he made a film with local schoolchildren called The Accident about the dangers of ironstone mining. During all this he was working night shifts. He says: "I didn't sleep much, but for me museum work was all about providing a love of learning for kids. I never had any of that when I was at school."

For Pippa Dore the Ryedale at War project has been a revelation. She says:

"I had always taught the wartime evacuation as a negative, about the trauma for evacuees of leaving home and family, of not being fed enough, of not being chosen by a family. But these stories brought out the positivity of Ryedale, about people for whom evacuation was the best time of their life, the chance for a better start. It brought home that what I was teaching was people's history, not stuff in books."

Mrs Dore also believes her pupils would remember far more from their active research than simply reading about evacuation from a text book. It was about deep learning gleaned from real experiences. Her pupils gained enormously from the relationship they built up with the elderly evacuees, their new filming skills and being involved in real work. She says: "We had to put in time at weekends, getting up early in the morning, finishing late at night, but they were just so excited. They discovered new abilities. New confidence. I started to look at them in a whole new light."

Pupils were trained in interviewing and production techniques by BBC York, which also lent a satellite bus to interview Chuck, a mechanic in the Canadian airforce who had been stationed at Wombleton, and Mary, the Scottish WAF he courted and married, by web cam in Canada.

Amy Jones, 14, who played Mary in the film says: "I'll never forget being filmed walking on the moors in stilettos and a skimpy dress in the cold and rain, but it's made me feel a lot more interested in Ryedale and where I live and its history." Fiona Marsden, 14, a camera person for the project says: "It made the whole thing much more real than reading about it in a book."

Ryedale: This Countryside at War DVD, pound;4 Teacher's Resource Pack: World War Two Evacuees - Life in the Countryside, pound;5.99 (available shortly).

Tel: 01751 417367 Email: enquiries@ryedalefolk museum.co.uk

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