If it swims, crawls or floats in the Channel, you can study it at Calshot, writes Janette Wolf
What springs to mind if someone says "field studies"? Fields certainly; pond-dipping probably; and a search for indigenous minibeasts maybe. But broaden the horizons a little and field studies don't have to stop suddenly when the land does. The sea is one of our richest environmental assets, and living on an island, we are surrounded by a ready-made resource.
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than at the Calshot Activities Centre near Southampton. Thanks to a handy freak of nature, the centre is located on a narrow spit of land that looks as though it is thumbing a lift from passing vessels on their way to France. It is a place made for mariners and an ideal vantage point from which to investigate what lies beneath the waves.
Chugging out to do just that, in one of the busiest marine thoroughfares of the British Isles, the Naiad drops her nets to trawl the depths. Dr Stuart Nundy, Calshot's field studies manager, casts an appraising eye over the stern. "The sea bed round here is mostly mud, but we have found wrecks, bricks, cannon balls and even a human femur," he says.
He waits for this bit of information to sink in but the small group of 14 to 16-year-olds from Cranbourne secondary school in Basingstoke, Hampshire, is obviously expecting nothing less than a slavering great white shark to be hauled over the gunwales. In the event, they have to settle for a catch of shrimp and a few hermit crabs.
Safely ensconced in temporary accommodation (buckets) the catch is transported back to base for further examination. Judging by the shrieks and screams, even the sponges have suddenly become mortally dangerous. Other students find their powers of observation challenged:
"No it isn't."
"Yes it is, it's not moving."
"It's just very frightened..."
Just imagine - a lifetime of watery silence then Cranbourne school in full throat. No wonder the crustaceans looked stunned. The entire catch was returned unharmed to the sea a while later.
Cranbourne pupils have been coming here for years. Sometimes up to 100 children at a time will be in residence. For John MacGregor, the group leader, the location's chief attraction is that it "presents science in a different context to the classroom. They have to find the information themselves rather than look for it in a book".
These trawling excursions form a regular part of Calshot's field studies courses. "We don't have set programmes, we tailor-make them," says Dr Nundy. Back at the centre, classrooms are tuned to various field investigations. The computer room is chock full of Acorns running customised programs on marine life. Information on outside temperature, wind speed and air pressure is constantly updated by a Weather Reporter package on one, while on another, information from Meteorsat, a satellite tracking weather patterns, is relayed by a satellite dish on the roof to produce an animated weather map.
"It is a good way to make use of ancient BBC computers because you can leave them on," says Dr Nundy.
Another room is stocked with a variety of microscopes, so students can study the microscopic lifeforms they dredge up in the nets. Children are often appalled when they realise the heaving mass of bodies they see on a slide is multiplied a thousand-fold in an average mouthful of seawater.
But there is more to Calshot than sea life. It is uniquely placed to capitalise on other natural assets: there are the unusual geological formations of the Isle of Purbeck, the outlying salt marshes and the New Forest are only five minutes away. It all provides "snapshots of the environmental experience" Dr Nundy explains.
There is even an old Tudor castle which the centre is incorporating into its study programme.
Damien Saunders, the senior instructor, has been gradually refining a new history field studies element which will include mastering the ancient rural crafts of coppicing and hurdle, broom and rope-making.
But perhaps what really marks Calshot out from other centres is the curious combination of sports it offers, which can run concurrently with field studies or form a separate programme. Many of these have, as you might expect, a nautical flavour: dinghy sailing, canoeing, windsurfing and the like. But two indoor ski slopes? A velodrome? An indoor climbing wall?
John MacGregor admits these activities "are the icing on the cake". He says: "It gives children an opportunity to do things many of them would not normally have."
In addition to field studies Calshot runs summer schools, action adventure days and courses which can lead to approved qualifications. Calshot Activities Centre, Calshot Spit, Fawley, Southampton, Hants SO45 1BR. Tel: 01703 892077. Web site: httpwww.hants.gov.ukcalshot