The day the Celts came to life

14th November 2003 at 00:00
As 'Celtic Chris' shows how stories and artefacts can transport pupils back to the Iron Age, Chris Fautley joins an enchanted circle

When I arrive at Oakfield Junior School in Fetcham, Surrey, ribbons of drizzle hang in the air. A blast from an animal horn leads me to the patch of woodland that is the school conservation area. There I find Chris Park, also known as Celtic Chris, dressed in linen shirt and trousers, and woven woollen tunic coloured with natural dyes. Pupils encircle him - some barefoot - sitting on animal skins. Chris is demonstrating the Iron Age way of life to Years 4 and 5. You may know him from the BBC series Surviving the Iron Age, where volunteers attempted to live in Iron Age conditions.

He has brought sufficient object-handling artefacts for each child to have their own, transforming even the most basic object into an exercise of the senses. An hour flies by. One pupil is holding a carved stick. What does it smell like? What does it feel like?

"Look closely. What can you see?"

"Carvings."

They are, Chris explains, ogham - Celtic carvings. Only druid seers knew their secret arcane mysteries, he tells his captivated audience.

"If you think you have a musical instrument, stand up!" Chris shouts. A handful of instrumentalists brandishing bone and wooden horns collectively produce a cacophonous din. Chris, meanwhile, skilfully plays a horn-pipe made from cow's horn, elder and reed. Next up are those with leather items, such as shoes and bags. One is of special interest. "Smell the inside of the bag," Chris tells its owner. "It's got soap in it." A toffee-coloured tablet is exhibited for all to see. It will keep us healthy, stop us getting rashes and disease, he explains, adding that it is made from animal fat - also used for lamps and cooking.

To preface this activity, Chris has explored the senses through role-play.

The group split into four: earth, water, fire and air. Earth, he explains, must consider where wood will come from to build a roundhouse; water, from where the water will come; fire, how they will light a fire; and air, how to circulate in the house without smoking everybody out.

"People really learn when they learn with their senses," he says. "They are also learning about being sensitive themselves, and to all environments."

If Chris's object-handling sessions are exceptional, his storytelling defies superlatives: "Once, there was a woman of power, and her name was Ceredwen..." he begins, hauntingly. We are spellbound. Notes from his flute drift through the air; children step forward to act as the characters.

Nobody notices occasional raindrops dripping from the canopy above.

"The tales that I tell are not necessarily Iron Age stories," Chris explains. "They are examples of Iron Age entertainment. Some of them have come from Welsh mythology, some from Irish mythology." Each lasts around 10 minutes; after two tales, we are almost running into lunch hour.

The storytelling also appealed to deputy head Kate Norfolk and teacher Janet Lawrence. "Watching the children focused so intently, and listening, and then getting involved..." Janet Lawrence is impressed.

Chris is no mere re-enactor - to call him that would be a grave injustice.

"I guess I'm a nature educator," he observes. "I hope to give children an empathy with what the Iron Age lifestyle was like."

Drawing to a close, he leaves us with this thought: "Use your words wisely," he intones, explaining that just one word can kill; just one word can heal. I, meanwhile, struggle to find one word to describe the morning:

"outstanding" will have to suffice.

A day with Celtic Chris costs from pound;200 plus expenses. Tel: 01494 482605 or 0781 6591151Email: celticchris@angelfire.com

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