Greatly chuffed

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Steam, the museum of the Great Western Railway, Kemble Drive, Swindon, Wiltshire SN2 2TA Tel: 01793 466637.

Frances Farrer joins pupils at Swindon's Steam museum on a Second World War reconstruction day

From air-raid shelters to gravy-browning stockings, the dangers and deprivations of the Second World War are vividly recreated in the We'll Meet Again reconstruction days at Steam, the museum of the Great Western Railway.

The days encourage pupils from key stages 1 to 3 to dress in period costume and discover what it feels like to be evacuated to the countryside on a crowded train, or be stuck in an air-raid shelter, or work in a munitions factory. They also hear first-hand accounts of wartime life from those who lived through it. The museum offers "something you can't achieve in a classroom", says Steam's education manager Tim Bryan.

In the evacuation workshop, pupils from St Francis school in Pewsey, Wiltshire, sit on the floor (the seats were removed) of a blacked out GWR train and learn about the journey that many city children would have made.

Once on the platform, pupils line up to be chosen by host families. Clean fingernails are essential for a child to serve in the Post Office, and a smart appearance for shop work. For authenticity, wartime posters read "Is your journey really necessary?" and "Tittle-tattle lost the battle".

At the air-raid shelter the pupils learn about keeping safe, and the importance of tea (a War Department poster proclaims: "When in doubt, brew up"). There's a rendition of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" before the minute's blackout begins.

The cramped conditions are probably a bit too realistic and the tape-recorded bombs bother some pupils. Luckily, Arthur the air-raid warden provides a distraction.

One parent-helper thought it was "a good idea for children to have the actual experience," but wondered if some simulations were too scary for the more sensitive pupils.

Then it's time to meet those who lived through the real thing. Former railwaymen Fred Jennings, Alan Philpott and Peter Pragnell recount some of the quirkier sides of life in wartime, including the practice of painting white stripes on cows to make them visible in blackouts. Pupils find out how people survived without preservatives, plastic bags or containers, and how to revive stale bread.

The Women and Home Front sessions provide the most interactive period of the day. Presenter Ann Ockenden plays a war worker with terrific brio, and soon gets pupils to take part.

The increase in the female workforce, from 8,000 to 80,000, between 1941 and 1944, and the role of the GWR workshops are included in this session.

Girls learn how to use gravy browning to make it look as though they are wearing stockings (not to forget the painted seam).

This is the second year of the wartime theme days, and they are still being modified. Plans for next year include shorter, two-hour discovery sessions.

These will offer single elements from the current full-day programme.

Swindon is on the London to Bristol railway line and was for nearly 150 years a centre for the building of locomotives. The museum celebrates the work of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the lives of ordinary men and women who built, worked and travelled on the railway. It contains the Bristolian locomotive, brass badges from the Great Western and the Iron Duke locomotives. There are also coats of arms for St George and Bristol.

Admission: pupils pound;5.25; adults free in the ratio 1:5 at KS1; 1:10 at KS2; 1:15 at KS3. Additional adults pound;5.95

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