Take to the hills
Shropshire is one of England's underestimated treasures. Sandwiched between the West Midlands and the Welsh border, most people know it only as the backdrop to their car journey as they speed up the A5 into Wales.
A good starting point for any trip to the county is the Secret Hills discovery centre in Craven Arms. Opened two years ago, the centre combines a really good exhibition with a meadow that can be used as an outdoor classroom or a place to let off steam. It's also one of the very few educational attractions that boasts a roof that needs mowing.
The secret hills in question are the Stiperstones, Wenlock Edge, the Wrekin and the Long Mynd. These are the "blue remembered hills" inA E Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Not as famous as the Lake District or Snowdonia, but worth a visit none the less. The walking is challenging without being dangerous and there are a host of other things to do if the weather turns unpleasant.
The discovery centre attempts an overview of the geology, history and literature of the county. There's a mammoth exhibit with a lifesize model and opportunities for children to discover what mammoth fur felt like.
The well-preserved mammoth remains, a female and two young, were found in a Shropshire quarry a few years ago. Archaeologists reckon that the trio had slipped into a glacial mud hole and become trapped.
Children have to be dragged away from the mammoths, but the task is made slightly easier by the virtual balloon ride that follows. From the vantage point of a real wicker basket they are treated to an aviator's eye view of Shropshire, complete with slipping and swaying as the "balloon" rises and falls.
The reality is a film projection on to the floor below, combined with some gentle movement of the basket. Alton Towers it may not be, but the group I was with loved it and recognised some of the places they had been to earlier in the week.
Outside the centre, the River Onny wends its way through the meadows. There's a small ox-bow lake to be investigated and lots of opportunities for pond dipping. Three waymarked walks begin at the centre.
School groups visiting the centre should book ahead and discuss the options available with the Secret Hills education officer Laura Harvey. There's a full teachers' pack with activities and follow-ups, including a prepared risk assessment for the visit. Laura will lead activities such as natural sculpture work in the Onny meadows or a changing landscape focus using Ordnance Survey maps from 1840 and 1960.
Most of the work is aimed at key stage 2, and there's lots of it. One teacher said the teacher's pack offered "so much to do that making a choice was a real problem".
The centre recommends groups of less than 20 for the exhibition and teachers should allow two to three hours to gain the full benefit from the exhibition and Onny meadows.
One possibility for groups staying in the area is to combine Secret Hills with a trip to Stokesay Castle, a fortified medieval manor house dating from the 15th century. Stokesay is just a quarter of an hour's walk away from Secret Hills and offers a taste of the past alongside an opportunity to compare building styles with the modern discovery centre.
Several Shropshire youth hostels can accommodate school groups. Tel: 01727 855215 www.yha.org.uk The Bridges Youth Hostel (Tel: 01588 650656) and Stoke's Barn (Tel: 07952 727293) offer self-catering accommodation Email: email@example.com
Entry pound;2.50 per child with free places for adults. Activities led by the centre's education officer cost extra. Contact Laura Harvey, 01588 676000 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marion Mills teaches at the Blewbury Church of England Primary School in Oxfordshire.
I took 42 Year 5 and 6 pupils to the Secret Hills centre in June. The children made full use of the centre, with a tour of the exhibition, a workshop where they made natural sculptures, and worksheets on the poets and writers of Shropshire.
We spent a week in Shropshire, and visited the centre on the last day. We went out into the water meadows to make the sculptures and they used natural materials: grasses, mud, reeds and twigs. The children enjoyed doing this, but they were disappointed when they had to leave their sculptures behind.
A big group would overwhelm it so we split into two groups. The exhibition was very good. They loved the balloon ride and even the older ones enjoyed the mammoths. They liked the hands-on nature of the displays.
If we went again I would go to the Secret Hills centre first as it's an excellent introduction to the area.