No escape

26th September 2003 at 01:00
A Second World War POW camp is a great place to stimulate children's interest in history. Kevin Berry finds ten schools queuing up to be confined

Eden Camp, the prisoner of war theme museum in North Yorkshire, has the wholehearted approval of Angeulina Ouchakov, a pupil at Morley Victoria primary school, Leeds.

"It tells you what it was really like in the war," she says "and it's much better than books."

Her classmates agree. They are impressed with the authentic sounds and smells in the exhibits and the many moving models and figures. Gripping stuff.

When it opened in 1942, Eden Camp was home to 250 Italian prisoners of war and by the time it closed in 1948, there were well over 1,000 inmates, mainly Germans and Italians. Since then, the site has had various uses until the mid-1980s when it was about to be turned into a storage depot by a haulage contractor. But one fine summer's day in 1986, three elderly Italians turned up and asked if they could look around. They were former prisoners, and, although they've never been back, they sowed the seed of an idea. Today Eden camp is an award-winning attraction that earned its owner and creator, Stan Johnson, an MBE. "I created the camp for future generations to see the hardship people went through for us," he says.

And for local schools, it is a must-see site. On the day I visited, there were ten schools there. Pupils from Utkinton St Paul's primary school in Cheshire have dressed up as war-time evacuees. They, and their teachers, are getting almost as much attention as the exhibits, and they have clearly taken a great deal of trouble with their clothing.

One of their groups emerges from Hut 5 where the Blitz is explained and re-created. A wide-eyed Joseph Wardle says, "There were flashing lights and rubble all over. Not very nice if it happens to your house."

The site has 35 of the original Nissan huts - the long shelters that served all kinds of purposes during war-time. They have all been restored and each contains a display on some aspect of the Second World War. New exhibits are planned, looking at the Great War and significant post-1945 conflicts.

Outside there are restored aeroplanes, tanks and all sorts of military vehicles. I hear the seemingly innocent stammer of a light aircraft engine.

But it isn't an aircraft: it's a recording of a V1 rocket. And standing in front of a real V1 rocket makes the sound effect seem even more chilling.

As in the days of war, the camp is surrounded by barbed wire and brooding watchtowers are on every corner.

Even on a busy day during the summer term, Eden Camp does not look or feel crowded. Visitors are advised to allow up to four hours in the museum, but seeing absolutely everything is impossible. Being selective is the key and, given the subject matter of this museum, there are some realistic exhibits that you may want to avoid if you're visiting with younger or particularly sensitive pupils.

That said, there is comic relief to be had at the camp's music hall and there is some broad humour elsewhere - on opening one of the privy doors, I was shouted at by a war-time character already in the cubicle!

Some Year 9 students from Queen Elizabeth's grammar school in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, were intrigued by the displays. They assured me that although they find books useful, the wide-ranging exhibits at the museum opened their eyes to some aspects of the Second World War that they knew nothing about.

"The civilian casualties in China, for instance", says Matthew Thompson.

"There were 20 million. That was a surprise. I didn't know anything about that".

Charlotte Hornsby says "I didn't realise that civilians had to be so careful with food, using every part of the meat and then saving the bones to make soup." Two silver-haired ladies stopped to listen and smiled knowingly. For them, the exhibits are a reminder of a defining period in their lives.

As for the three Italian POWs, they have never been back but a tremendous fuss is assured if they ever do. Some Germans prisoners have returned to Eden and said that the place really lived up to its name: the guards were kind and the locals were friendly.

Eden Camp is situated 18 miles north-east of York, just off the A64 and is open every day from 10am to 5pm. It is fully accessible to the disabled and visually impaired. Admission costs pound;1.50 per child with one free adult for each group of 10 children. Tel: 01653 697777;

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