The unstuffy stuff of Jeff the Roman

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Jessie Anderson watches a legionary from Hadrian's Wall at work. The sight of a Roman legionary in full armour astride Hadrian's Wall at Gilsland is guaranteed to stop the traffic which normally speeds through the little village on the border between Cumbria and Northumbria.

For the pupils at Gilsland C of E Primary School just opposite the Willowford Section, the Wall is something they tend to take for granted and not even to notice.

Then, as headteacher Richard West says, "you have to push". A push doesn't come much more effective than a real live Roman soldier on site. It's all part of "Jeff's Roman Experience" which gives his audiences an insight into the lives of the Roman soldiers on Hadrian's Wall, their weapons and their armour.

Over the past 10 years thousands of school children on visits to one of the Roman army museums on the Wall have enjoyed Jeff Barnett's informal, unstuffy talks on the Roman army and its weapons.

Early this year, after having been made redundant, he decided to "go solo" and now offers Jeff's Roman Experience to schools, youth organisations and anyone else who is interested. He's equally happy talking to a school class of 12 or, as recently happened, to a jamboree of 7,000 scouts.

He has built up a collection of accurate reproduction armour and weapons and will talk about the Wall and the Roman army wherever a group wants him to go. School classes can either come to meet him on the Wall or he will go to the school, either dressed in full legionary kit or taking along various suits of armour for the children to wear and weapons for them to handle.

At Gilsland, he held the attention of the whole school - 30 in all, ranging from 5 to 11-year-olds - for more than an hour. He's had plenty of experience in handling youngsters, and it shows. "This weapon is so horrible, I can't tell you about it - you'll have nightmares," he says.

"Oh yes, we love nightmares," they all shout. They gloat with bloodthirsty glee over the spear with the barbed end. "That would pull your insides out," says a gentle-looking little girl delightedly.

They consider the relative merits of the short and long swords, try on the chain mail and the steel armour. Jeff tells them that, as soldiers, they would have had to learn to do a 25-mile march wearing chain mail weighing 15 kilos and carrying 30 kilos on their shoulders.

"Could you swim 50 metres?" he asks. They all assure him they can. "Wearing that armour?" "You'd need a snorkel," observes the school wit. Soldiers were well cared for, he tells them. Their life expectancy was about 43 years; an ordinary citizen lived to about 35 and a Roman woman to about 28. "That wasn't fair, was it," he says. There is a predictable shout of "Yes, it was," from the boys.

The legionary's splendid helmet is much admired and they discuss and volunteer ideas for the various uses of the shields, with Jeff always eliciting opinions and suggestions before supplying information himself. As he buckles on the protective, metal-studded leather apron - "That's to protect his willy, " a lad earnestly informs his classmates."I might have put it more discreetly," says Jeff. But the girls all seem much more interested in seeing the sheathed dagger attached to its side.

Everyone volunteers to hold the massive swords, spears and javelins and then the chosen ones stand around looking slightly apprehensive. "You are all holding a weapon capable of being thrown. Your teachers are over there, " says Jeff. "Does anything cross your minds?" "Oh yes," they all shout. No wonder Jeff is popular.

His presentation is being enthusiastically received all over Cumbria and Northumbria as well as over the Border in Scotland. "The children loved him and he really inspired them," said one teacher. "He knew an awful lot of detail about the Wall and the Roman army."

Richard West said: "I think he's marvellous. I shall certainly have him again. " To visit schools in the Carlisle area or to talk to classes at the Wall Jeff charges 90p a head. For visits further afield he charges by the mile, for example, Pounds 60 for 25 miles, Pounds 75 for 50 miles.

Details from Jeff Barnett, Ina House, Gilsland, Northumbria. Tel: 016977 47502

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