Glorious mud

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Kevin Berry discovers that you need 'worms and things' to make soil when he spends a wet day in West Yorkshire with a group of infants

I spend the morning in a wringing wet wood, with rain dripping down inside my specs; the afternoon paddling in a stream, kicking mud and picking up huge stones to see what is living underneath. I am gloriously wet. Am I enjoying myself? You betcha.

Bracken Hall Environmental Centre has never had a visit cancelled because of rain. No, it does not always rain in West Yorkshire but my visit did coincide with the wettest June day since Noah's Flood. Janet Fotherby's class of bubbling six and seven-year-olds from Nessfield Primary School, in nearby Keighley, arrive fully prepared in wellies and wet weather clothes. The muddy paths and dark puddles must look very tempting.

Bracken Hall is on the edge of moorland at Baildon, a rather posh suburb of Bradford. It was a private home and Mari Friend, the owner, opened part of it as an environmental centre. Schools and brownie and scout groups visited, word spread and the place really took off. When Mari Friend moved South with her husband the local authority stepped in to administer and provide qualified staffing.

There are three huge display rooms in the building and an education room at the back with equipment to examine specimens. The displays include wall boards, warmers, formicariums, observation beehives, rock displays, tanks crammed with pond life, "what-eats-what" games, mammal and bird displays with buttons to press to hear the sounds of creatures shrieking and warbling.

Around the Hall is a garden designed to attract wildlife and there are rabbits, chicks and guinea-pigs living in attractive enclosures.

Immediately outside Bracken Hall is a wood which is being carefully nurtured, a tumbling stream in a lovely setting and, not too far away, a meadow that qualifies as a sight of special scientific interest. You can stand outside the Hall and get a panoramic view of the Aire Valley and see how the vegetation changes as the valley slopes down to the River Aire. Many upper school visits include an investigation of the valley slope, stopping every five paces to examine vegetation and soil. In the water they look for signs of pollution, carrying out nitrate and turbidity tests.

The children from Keighley are split into two groups and are taken down into the woods, one group on a woodland walk and the other dipping nets in the stream. Catherine Rosenbloom runs the centre and she has a staff of mainly part-timers, most of them university student placements, who have a countryside skill. They have a detailed knowledge of the immediate area, so detailed that you would expect them to know each bird by sight and each worm by name.

Catherine is a countryside interpretive officer. She has an amazing variety of trails to suit any requirements and any age groups. Some are based on secret places, some on woodland structure, scavengers, smells, colours. Visiting school groups can make smelly cocktails from vegetation, some play intriguing environment games with blindfolds. Some children are given a small area, a mini park marked by string, and asked to find a small creature for it. They then have to provide everything that the small creature would need to survive in the park and give other children a guided tour.

Catherine asks the woodland group to look for and collect five different colours. A handful of children are allowed to poke their fingers into a foxglove to collect pollen samples.

We move on to a clearing and look at the soil. Catherine produces a special tool, an auger, which Thomas Johnson, standing next to me, says looks "like a giant screwdriver". Catherine twists it into the soil and then pulls it out, soil crammed into its curls, and the children can clearly see changes in colour.

"Soil is nature's recycling machine," she explains. "Now, we know what makes soil, so I want you to try making some soil yourself - but we'll not use any tiny creatures please!" Thomas Johnson's handful of newly created "soil" looks quite impressive.

"Not really", he says, but there is no disappointment. "You see it takes years and years and years to make proper soil. You need worms and things."

We have fun but the other group have been in the stream and someone has caught a brown trout - yes, it is put back.

Our turn in the stream comes after lunch when we are guided by Geoff Morrison. "Face downstream," Geoff says. "Hold the net in front of your feet and kick. Then any minibeasts in the mud will get washed into the net. Take your net and wash it in the trays and you can look at the minibeasts." It is Nicholas Ellesmore's first time looking in a stream and picking up rocks. He looks in his net with the hope of thrilling discovery and sees caddis fly nymphs wriggling about.

"Ooh! They're going too fast for me," he says. "They're fooling about."

When we have to go back to the bus, Geoff Morrison stops us before crossing the road.

"Have you all had a good time?" "Yes," we chorus.

"Are you all wet?" he shouts.

Yes, we are, but after a day like this, being wet seems to be an added pleasure.

Bracken Hall, Baildon, Bradford, West Yorkshire. Book groups, tel: 01274 584140. Admission free. Disabled access.

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