Stroke of good fortune

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Messing about on the riverI Jerome Monaham joins pupils at a rowing museum.

The 45 Year 4 pupils from the Priory School in Slough are sitting enthralled as museum tutor Maddy Farmer tells them about unearthed Thames-side stone coffins and dead abbots clasping keys - the very keys she is holding in her hands. She's introducing them to the world of museums and their capacity to tell the history of the artefacts they house. It's a tribute to her compelling style that the children are not distracted.

Suspended behind them is the 58 ft (17.68 metre) eight in which the British team won the 2000 Sidney Olympics, and beside it a giant statue of triple-gold oarsman Matthew Pinsent. A single window running the length of the hall provides a spectacular view of the Thames and its adjoining marsh meadows.

They are just back from an hour-long boat journey, an optional extra arranged by the museum. Despite squally weather, it had been a success - the children enjoying the beauty of Henley and the south Oxfordshire hills beyond. Many report how relaxing they found it watching the unfolding scene and spying into the riverside homes surrounded by their manicured lawns.

An alternative to the boat trips that many schools take advantage of is a riverside walk up to Marsh Lock and its weir.

Back on dry land, group one heads to the Thames Gallery. They learn about the history of the Thames from the Stone Age to the Millennium Dome and find out about the river's course from its source near Kemble to the Thames Barrier.

Everywhere there are riverine allusions - mini-Thames models in steel decorate the cabinets and the same flowing motif can be found on floors. To the trickling sounds of water, the children quickly become absorbed by their worksheets. Some sketch the recovered Bronze Age skulls and weapons once thrown in the Thames to propitiate its gods. Others take down the measurements of the Saxon oak log boat or record the invasive arrival of the predatorless Chinese mitten-crab to the river's higher reaches. A favourite activity emerges: pressing the buttons in the "cistern" exhibit that shows the water daily used by households.

Lunch done and we swap over with group two. An afternoon of experiments follows. In the museum's schoolroom, a selection of geography and science activities have been laid out.

There's a 4.5 - metre cloth map of the Thames basin to label with famous sites and geographical vocabulary. The mysterious contents of a discovery box need categorising according to the kind of river activity each object represents.

Best of all, there are tons of opportunities to get busy with watering cans as part of a selection of tasks demonstrating the differences between permeable and impermeable strata and the erosive power of rivers.

There are courses available for Year 1 pupils through to GCSE. ASA2 courses are being developed for art and design, and geography (flooding).

Courses currently on offer include "Paint me a River", a key stage 3 citizenship course and GCSE marketing and museum days. There's also an exhibition (until June 8): "Romans - they came, they conquered, they settled."

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