Mary Cruickshank visits a study centre sited on unspoilt farmland where primary pupils follow the trail of rural life past and present.
Environmental change is a real issue for the pupils of Littlemore county primary school in Weymouth. The planned Dorchester relief road threatens the woods where they build their dens and play safely on their own, but they know it will also bring jobs and development to the area.
Maintaining a balanced inquiry, they've interviewed a local councillor and a member of the Friends of the Earth. While no consensus has been reached, they've become well-informed and aware of the debate.
But the children are not only concerned with changes to their immediate locality. They're lucky enough to be within reach of a beautiful and fascinating area where they can see how other settlements have evolved and begin to understand what the countryside looked like before the post-war agricultural revolution.
The Lower Kingcombe estate in west Dorset was described as "the farm that time forgot" when it came up for sale eight years ago. The village was almost derelict, but the surrounding area, spared from pesticides, herbicides and modern farming methods, was recognised as an outstanding example of the kind of landscape that has now almost vanished from the south of England. The small pastures, thick hedgerows and flower-rich meadows have become a haven for wildlife: in one field alone more than 150 plant species have been recorded.
Following a national appeal, Kingcombe was bought by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, which now manages it as an organic farm and nature reserve. The derelict drover's cottage and farm buildings on the banks of the River Hooke have been converted into an environmental studies centre with accommodation for up to 20 visitors and a full programme of courses and activities for children and adults.
Kingcombe is an ideal place for primary geography fieldwork, particularly at key stage 2, says Mike Hillary, the geography adviser for Dorset, because all the major themes are so strikingly in evidence. It's about the right size for a local study and, even for rural schools, offers an area of contrast. The river is safe and easily accessible, so the children can measure its depth and speed of flow without harm to themselves or the river bank. River dipping is popular with the Littlemore pupils, who also make cross-sections of the river and monitor the water for pollution.
Wherever they look, they see signs of settlement change, from the ruined cottages and earthworks of a once prosperous farming community to the renovated buildings that now house the centre. They explore the green lanes that linked villages before the days of relief roads and imagine what it was like to live in Kingcombe 100 years ago.
They hear about the last family to live there and the simple technologies that kept the fields drained and the hedges and ditches under control until the 1930s when the land became neglected and a community of around 70 dwindled to just four.
There are weather records at the centre which schools can use to compare with their own and see how site conditions affect the results. There are opportunities for map work, field sketching, drama and role play. Above all, the children are using all their senses to explore a unique environment. "It's invaluable to get out and look at real things," says Mike Hillary, "particularly to counteract the almost cartoon view of natural features children get from textbooks."
The centre publishes a booklet of fieldwork activities at key stages 1 and 2 based on the River and Settlement, which raises questions teachers and their classes can discuss both before and after a visit. A pack of photographs of the area, captioned to highlight teaching themes, is also available. There will be an Inset day next spring sponsored by the National Rivers Authority, which is also contributing to the construction of a pond to extend freshwater studies.
Ian Dyke, a teacher from Littlemore school, has taken two groups to the centre. "It's a lovely setting, the accommodation is superb, and the organisation is very good," he says. The children experience at first hand what's involved in managing a conservation area, think about why it matters and begin to see the planning decisions that affect their home area in a much wider historical and geographical context.
As with all fieldwork, pre-visits are strongly recommended. The director of the Centre, Nigel Spring, a former science and environmental studies teacher, helps schools get the most out of their visits by discussing their particular interests beforehand and working with teachers during the visit. Holidays for partially sighted-children and others with special needs have been run with help from Yeovil College students.
The small size of the centre helps to ensure that it won't become a victim of its own popularity. Arrangements can be made for larger groups to stay at other residential centres in the area and make day visits to Kingcombe.
The Kingcombe Centre's work with children runs alongside a programme of adult courses ranging from ecology and landscape history to organic gardening and herbal medicine. There are weekends for bird, flower and butterfly enthusiasts, artists, musicians and dancers. There are also opportunities to help on the reserve so that visitors not only enjoy and study an inspiring area, but become actively involved in safeguarding its future.
* The Kingcombe Centre, Toller Porcorum, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 OEQ. Tel: 01300 320684