Pupils can experience the heyday of the steam train and study the formation of the landscape in a trip along the Severn Valley. Martin Whittaker reports
The Severn Valley Railway runs for 16 miles through some of England's finest countryside and has long been a magnet for tourists. Now schools can use a trip on the railway, not only to give children a glimpse of the age of steam, but for a journey along one of the country's finest geological trails. The line cuts through an area recently designated a European Geopark to conserve its rich geological heritage, stretching through four counties, from Bridgnorth to Gloucester. The Geopark aims to make the area's geology accessible to the public and to encourage educational visits.
The Severn Valley Railway has joined forces with Herefordshire and Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust to offer schools tailor-made trips along the valley. On the day I visited, 35 Year 8 pupils from the local Holy Trinity School boarded a vintage steam train at Kidderminster to take part in the Rock Fossil Roadshow - a practical workshop for key stages 2 and 3 on the valley's geological treasures.
After a half-hour journey, the steam train huffs its way into picturesque Arley Station, in a scene reminiscent of gentler times. The Victorian stationmaster's house has changed little since it was built, the station gardens are in full bloom and ducks patrol the platforms.
Pupils make their own fossils using plaster of Paris and latex moulds, and then move on for a talk about trilobites by Earth Heritage Trust director Professor Peter Oliver.
At another table, they track fossils from the pre-Cambrian era (4,600 million years ago) to the relatively recent Quaternary period (2.65 million years ago). They look at how and where fossils are found, how rocks are classified into groups, and examples of geology in the home, from slate roofs to granite floors.
The railway also offers a Severn Valley Geology Trail trip for KS34, where Earth Heritage Trust staff show pupils the physical features of the valley.
Within a few miles, the railway crosses a major geological junction, passing from sandstone created in hot dry desert 280 million years ago, to carboniferous rocks, 345 million years old, laid down in tropical swamps.
On this trip, pupils complete worksheets on the journey, there's a walk to look at exposed geological features, and each pupil receives a colour laminated leaflet detailing the landscape.
A comprehensive education programme is on offer, with a range of activities that include workshops recreating an evacuation train journey from the Blitz during the Second World War, and Wildlife Discovery Days. Also on offer is Railways Unwrapped, where volunteers do workshops in schools with railway models and artefacts: activities have included cooking on a shovel.
The package also takes in a trip on the railway.
Since broadening its education programme two years ago, the Severn Valley Railway has more than tripled the number of schools using it. This year, it has taken 350 school bookings. The education service is run by retired primary headteacher David Mee, who became involved with the railway as a volunteer during his teaching days.
"It's a train ride and much more," he says. "Apart from religious education, which I'm struggling with, I can't think of anything curriculum-wise you can't develop by doing something in the Severn Valley.
Clearly it hits geography very well - history, science, technology, art - there are all sorts of things you can build in if you've a mind to.
"And that's what we're about - we're trying to get the message over to teachers to just think laterally. There are so many opportunities on this 16-mile stretch of railway."
* For a school visit planning pack: Tel: 01299 403816
ON THE MAP
Severn Valley Railway The Railway Station, Bewdley, Worcestershire DY12 1BG Tel: 01299 403816 www.svr.co.uk