Life on the edge
"This is my classroom and it is very different from those you're used to,"
says Kent Wildlife Trust community education officer Charles Matthews.
It opens his welcome to a group of Year 3 pupils from West Minster First School, Sheerness, who are setting out to explore Reculver Country Park, near Herne Bay. Over the next four hours they will encounter a mix of geography, history and science in a landscape transformed by 2,000 years of tidal erosion and continuous occupation.
"This is our third school trip to Reculver," explains Year 3 teacher Lindsay Hasell. "It is an extraordinary place, rich in history and with one of the few stretches of easily accessible unprotected coastline in Kent, ideal for studying beach scenery."
A major part of the success of visits here lies in the skilled guidance on offer from Charles - a geographer and geologist with more than 30 years of teaching experience behind him, practised in the control of small children, firing their imaginations one moment, micro-managing their shoelaces the next.
He begins his tour by asking the group to look out to sea and imagine the 4th-century coastline, when the First Cohort of Baetasians were here, guarding the approaches to the now silted-up Wantsum Channel that separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. "1,600 years ago the land before us went out about two kilometres farther than it does today," he explains.
The idea of a coastal retreat underlies everything at Reculver. As the group heads towards the ruins of St Mary's church, its preserved towers and west wall standing like a gigantic H on raised ground, they are asked to inspect a succession of coastal defences.
At the church, the group's attention is directed to the surviving walls, where a number of different materials have been used in the construction.
As well as flint, and local and imported dressed sandstones, Charles points out the bits of red Roman tile that have been used. "It is proof that there's nothing new about recycling," he says, inviting children to feel the tower's varied textures.
Then it's off to the now open-air church interior. The group sits at the altar end and the focus shifts to imagining the building as it would have been in Norman times, serving a community identified in the Doomsday Book as having 30 ploughs and 20 pigs. It is a chance to consider church design and its eastern alignment. Next, pausing only to investigate if the area's highly active moles have thrown up anything interesting with their digging, we walk to inspect the eastern edge of the Roman fort of Regulbium. The route back to our starting point and lunch takes us past the surviving 4.5 metre high ramparts.
Sandwiches are eaten in front of the mural on one of the Kent Wildlife Trust's study centre's exterior walls. It depicts the chronology of the area and provides a good means of consolidating what's been learnt so far.
Next stop is the area of beach 200 metres to the west, where Charles explains that everyone must become non-squeamish scientists, delving into rock pools, exchanging their instinctive "ughs" for fascination.
In just 40 minutes of beachcombing, the children amass an extraordinary quantity of flora and fauna. They are well drilled by Charles not to dislodge anything and to replace rocks with the utmost care.
As the children head off to the Trust shop doing a roaring trade in model Roman soldiers and replica coins, he says: "I am not a fan of pens and worksheets here. The important thing is to help children observe what's happening from minute to minute and to build their powers of imagination."
On the map
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