At Wyld Court visitors can soak up the real sights, sounds and smells of rain forest, says Frances Farrer
One of the best teaching tools for environmental studies must be a tropical rain forest on your doorstep. There are not many of these. Schools in the Midlands and south, however, are lucky to have easy access to Wyld Court, near Newbury in Berkshire, where three huge glass houses provide three rain forest climates: Lowland Tropical, Amazonica and Cloud forest.
The glass houses contain the most extraordinary and exotic plants you have ever imagined: water plants that look like bananas, huge drooping flowers at tree height with upside-down stamens, plants that look like a heating element within a leaf pointing upwards, and dense, jungle trees with leaves the shape of spears.
The leaves of the Victoria amazonica water lily, the largest in the world, are the size of tea trays. Echoing every gardener, curator Barry Findon says: "You should see them in a month's time, they'll be four times the size." This means they will be eight feet across.
The plant colours throughout the glass houses are not only unfamiliar but oddly juxtaposed: luminous greens, orange flashes, exotic pinks, red stripes. All the atmospheres are peculiarly intense and hot and damp. The temperatures range from 10C to 21C.
There are animals, especially monkeys, and big pink fish that leap out and bite your backside if you defy the notice and sit on the edge of their tank. The animals are there either for their symbiotic contributions to the plants, usually in pollination, or because they are endangered. There are insects, bats, and tree frogs, as well as fish and turtles.
"The rain forest has been evolving for 70 million years," says Mr Findon, "and has reached the point where sometimes only one animal species propagates one particular plant. If that animal becomes extinct, so does the plant."
The breeding programmes at Wyld Court are expected to contribute to the world's re-stocking of several animals, among them three endangered species of tamarin monkeys. "We've bred the tamarins for the past few years," says Mr Findon. "Their method of pollinating flowers is to bite the seed pods, releasing the seeds."
He emphasises that the primary purpose of Wyld Court is conservation. He is in constant contact with a network of botanic gardens throughout the world, exchanging plants, ideas, and research information.
There are daily educational tours or visits can be tailored. Two teachers as well as Mr Findon are on the guiding team. A Year 5 group from Palmer Junior School of Wokingham visited recently with acting head Mrs Brookbank. They are comparing the Amazon basin with the Thames and its immediate environment, and Mrs Brookbank sees the visit as the completion of the topic, which was studied for six weeks before the visit. This made the trip a particularly fruitful one, since the children's questions were much more focused.
"Twice previously other classes in the school have made visits to Wyld Court," she said, "and they've been very successful. We like the structure. My class has seen a couple of BBC videos and a Channel 4 programme, but I want them to experience the temperatures, see the leaves, and investigate the questions for themselves. They're very good at finding things out."
Ten-year-old Thomas enjoyed "the silly animals", especially the monkeys with their "sticking-up hair". The monkeys have particular appeal. A thank-you letter from a Berkshire seven-year-old said they were "the thing that caught my heart".
Mrs Brookbank's class will spend the rest of the summer term completing the environmental comparison using observations made at Wyld Court for much of their evidence.
Older pupils can approach the rain forests environments from a variety of angles guided by Barry Findon. He talks of the fact that 80 per cent of the world's medicine comes from rain forest plants, of the interchange of information between Wyld Court and similar establishments at home and abroad, of the wider scientific significance of rain forest conservation."This is without a doubt inextricably linked with factors that affect the entire world environment."
Wyld Court Rain Forest, Hampstead Norreys, near Newbury, Berkshire RG16 0TN. Tel: 0l635 200221