News of strange goings-on from the Kent and Sussex border: two polar bears were seen at Tunbridge Wells station, and a team of husky dogs with sledge were sighted in a snowless Bedgebury Forest.
The dogs and sledge were real enough, even if the "bears" were two students from a local college raising funds for the ultimate field trip.
Robertsbridge Community College is the smallest secondary school in East Sussex, with 500 students. At the end of March, eight from Year 9 and Year l0, including one who freely admits to hating the cold, will set off on Polarwatch - a 10-day expedition to the Canadian Arctic. It will climax in a flight from their base camp to the magnetic North Pole, where they will be the first British school party to set foot. And Year l0 pupils John and William Rigby will stake their own claim to history as the first-ever twins to go there.
The group will be led by music teacher Kevin Hayter and his wife Ann Diver, past masters of six trips to the Arctic. Base camp will be at the hamlet of Resolute, 300 miles from the Pole. "We know the area well enough, and enough people at the camp," says Ann, "so we thought it would be a first if we could do it. Everybody there was more than willing to help."
So how do you tell your headteacher you want to take a group of students to the North Pole? "I unrolled my North Pole map," says Kevin, "and said, 'I think it would be educationally beneficial to take the first-ever group of British children to the North Pole.' His jaw hit the ground."
The year of preparation and fund-raising has seen more than 500 letters written, sponsorships, a parent auctioning her car, those polar bears, and pupils gaining first-hand experience of working with huskies - even if the sledge was on wheels. They need to raise pound;30,000, including almost pound;7,000 for the special clothing required in the -35 temperatures. Each student is committed to raising at least pound;500 in sponsorship as well as a parental contribution of pound;500 which, Kevin Hayter points out, is little more than paying for a week in Switzerland. Even so, he admits that fund-raising is his biggest worry. However, he is emphatic it is not simply an expedition for the privileged few. "Everybody had the opportunity to apply," he stresses. "Those selected haven't been chosen because they're the best students or because they come from wealthy families."
Each student will research a specialist project. They include communications, the search for the North West Passage, polar expeditions, pollution, Inuit medicine and healthcare, Inuit culture, Arctic wildlife and meteorology. Some already had an interest in their subject: Year l0 student Abby Davey will look at meteorology, in which she wishes to pursue a career. She hopes to release ozone balloons from Resolute's weather station.
The people of Resolute are already playing a part. Weather station staff have written to Abby, and staff from the nursing station have written to another student about traditional Inuit medicine. The principal at the settlement's school, (50 pupils, all ages), has offered to help in any way he can.
Other highlights will be husky sledge rides and building and sleeping in igloos, though Kevin dismisses the theory that igloos are warm and cosy as an "absolute fallacy."
Resolute serves as base camp for all polar expeditions originating in Canada. Thus the Polarwatch team will be sharing the lodge with some of the world's foremost scientists and explorers.
"You can learn a tremendous amount just by listening," Kevin enthuses, although he hopes they may be able to question them as well.
There are enormous curriculum-link benefits for the whole college. "I don't want to force this on anybody," says Kevin, "but there is potential there for everybody. New ideas are thrown up left, right and centre and children are coming up to me all the time asking questions." Already there is a three page list of links to history, geography, science, information technology, design technology, English, modern languages, physical education, art, maths and music. Local primary schools are involved too by taking part in a competition to devise science experiments to be conducted in the Arctic.
At the same time as the college expedition two Royal Marines will be attempting to become the first Britons to reach the Pole by walking across the ice from Canada entirely unaided. Their base camp will also be at Resolute. Fittingly, the college has been chosen as host school for their "Keeping Track" Internet project, which will enable schools throughout the country to track their progress. The Web site will be maintained by students who will have live satellite and high frequency radio links to Resolute, and from there to the marines on the ice. The marines are targeting 45,000 schools and colleges with an educational CD-Rom, all of whom will be invited to submit questions via the Internet site.
There could be thousands and they will all be routed through Robertsbridge, but Kevin is confident they will be able to handle them. "Our technology teacher has devised a system where you won't even have to send an e-mail," he explains.
"Once you get the Web site up it invites you to log your question straightaway and download it to us. It will then be sent electronically to the marines."
As for his own expedition, he is astonished that absolutely nobody has questioned the safety aspects. He modestly shuns any suggestion that there could be no a greater vote of confidence. "I think most parents realise I am very particular about these things. It was important they realised I had already taken my own son."
His proteges are more forthright. "He's made a tremendous impact here," says one. And it's only with tongue half in cheek that, for his next project, Kevin says he rather likes the idea of a trip into space.
An update on the outcome of the Polarwatch expedition will appear in September's Going Places.
"Keeping Track": http:membersaol.compolarwatchindex.htm Robertsbridge Community College: Tel: 01580 880360. Fax: 01580 882120.
e-mail: polar firstname.lastname@example.org