Still venerable after all these years

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
The sheltered community of a 7th-century monk has been faithfully recreated in Northumbria, with plenty to teach children today, as Michael Duffy discovers.

Miracles are an everyday occurrence at Bede's World in Jarrow, Tyne and Wear. Here, on a site where monks once followed a simple monastic life, normally rumbustious children sit in wide-eyed silence, enthralled by the words of a historian who lived more than 13 centuries ago. Bede was 12 years old when he began a life of devotion and as long as he lived, six times a day for fifty years, he laid aside his books and quill and went to pray in the same church. Even during the plague when only the Abbot and "one small boy" were fit to do so.

Container docks and the oil depots of industrial Tyneside can be seen in the distance from this extraordinary sheltered 50-acre site. An ancient church and monastic site, a stunning museum, even a Saxon village and farm are all presented in a way which vividly brings to life the Golden Age of Saxon Northumbria and the learning of the scholar monk who lived here and recorded it.

Eight-year-olds are robed, cowled and girdled as Bede himself would have been. They cross the monastery courtyard and file into the Saxon chancel of St Paul's Church. There, they kneel while Alison Small, from the museum's excellent education team, tells them about the monks who built it. She shows them the tiny Saxon windows, still with their Saxon glass, and the dedication stone with the inscription, still legible, that records its date - 685 AD. Bede saw it laid.

But the tour of the ancient church is only a small part of the day. In the new hands-on museum, the children can identify the differences and similarities between this world of the past and their world today. They learn how the monastery was built, all the tasks and activities that it generated, what people wore and what games they played. Even 1,400 years ago, this was a busy trading river and, in times of war and raiding, it was dangerous too.

The museum is strong on artefacts, and there are replicas for childen to handle, or draw. As you would expect in a museum that celebrates the life of the writer of the very first history of England, there is an important emphasis on the written word. How did the monks make their ink? What did they write with and what did they write? There are illustrations, puzzles and answers, and some stunningly beautiful gospel and psalter pages.

But if that was monastic life, how did ordinary people live? To answer that, the children can visit Bede's World's intriguing Anglo-Saxon farm. Here, on 11 sheltered acres of once-derelict industrial land, a medieval village has been created. The animals are all of ancient breeds - geese, huge pigs, surprisingly tiny sheep and cattle, reassuringly friendly behind their hazel hurdle fences.

The crops are those that Bede himself would have known: herbs and pulses, flax, old strains of wheat, all sown and harvested by hand. Again, this is more than history: as the farm staff willingly tell you, there are lessons for us today in these rediscovered crops.

What a group from Stanhope junior school in South Shields appeared enjoy most, though, were the Saxon buildings, modelled on actual excavations in the area and made with authentic tools and materials. In the oak-framed Saxon hall, for instance, they tried spinning or weaving, and milling, and kneading dough by the open fire. Outside, they used the pole-and-treadle lathe. Being Anglo-Saxon, they discovered, is hard work and it's much more skilful than it looks.

The farm is authentically muddy too, so on winter and bad weather afternoons there are always class-based activities to supplement the morning's discoveries - Anglo-Saxon number puzzles and writing with quills.

Bede's World Church Bank, Jarrow, Tyne amp; Wear NE32 3DY. Tel: 0191 489 2106; web: school visits with a tutor-guide cost pound;4.35 per pupil (free to schools in South Tyneside) and the visit lasts from 10am to 3pm. Picnic and classroom facilities are available and there are teachers' guides and links for key stages 1 to 3.

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