Going conkers

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Land once devastated by coal mining and left derelict is turning into a wildlife wonderland. Gillian Blatherwick gets touchy feely

In one of the most thinly wooded areas of Britain, the National Forest is beginning to replace the scarred landscape of the old Midlands coal fields. Thirty million trees will eventually be planted on the 200 square miles site covering parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire. Mixed woodland will cover a third, agriculture a third, and towns and villages the rest.

Four million trees have already been planted. Derelict land has been replaced by wildlife and rustling leaves in 120 acres of woodland, grassland and wetland. Here you can touch the deep-ridged bark of the black poplar and wander beneath a canopy of glossy green.

In the heart of the emerging Leicestershire forest, at the site of the deep Rawdon colliery at Moira, lies Conkers, a pound;16 million discovery centre. The education team, led by manager Helen Fenby, offers a variety of curriculum-linked activities for key stage 1 to key stage 4.

Science, geography, design, mathematics and other subjects provide activities that include forest-inspired art, sculpture trails and wildlife trails. Schools that choose to lead their own visits are given suggestions for activities. They can focus on patterns and shapes in nature, for instance, or senses, or maps.

The interactive exhibits in the discovery hall range from energy sources, recycling and water conservation to the variety of British woodland species, habitats and food chains.

"'The exhibits are wicked!" said nine-year-old Hasit of Rushey Mead primary school, Leicester. The Rushey Mead pupils were given free rein in the exhibition hall. One member of staff hovered around the entrance to catch strays near the meeting point under a model tree.

Outside, the newly planted labyrinth excited the children. They had recently heard the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Now they were allowed to play happily inside a real maze.

The discovery trail took Rushey Mead through parkland on established pathways, generally suitable for wheelchair access, and in and out of the assault course activities designed for adults and teenagers.

The waterside adventure playground was extremely popular. Karishma, a Year 3 pupil, said: "I like the thing you sit on and someone pushes you because it feels like you're flying!" The group took the galleried walk through the woods. Here different species of trees and plants are labelled, and treasure hunt clues are secreted away. They came upon a family of ducklings nestling close to their mother, tame enough for the children to get a close look.

Conkers is on two sites and this can cause hiccups. Rushey Mead's schedule had the group leave their lunch at one site but picnic at the other.

But these are minor problems, easily overcome. Conker's motto is "Please touch the exhibits", and they mean it.

Contact Conkers, Rawdon Road, Moira, Swadlincote, Derbyshire DE12 6GA.

Education manager. Tel: 01283 213731 Email: education@visitconkers.com Web: www.visitconkers.com Open daily, 10am-5pm, later in summer.

Admission for schools: pound;2.50 children, pound;4.95 adults, 1 adult free for 5 children. Indoor or outdoor one-hour ranger-led activities pound;20 or pound;30 for a class up to 35 pupils, including most materials.

Free pre-visits for teachers, teacher workshops and in-service training days.

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