Wind charm

6th June 2003 at 01:00
A 17th-century mill in Hertfordshire offers the perfect setting for a field trip, says Frances Farrer

Pitstone Windmill

Open to schools by prior arrangement from Easter to September. 60p per child. Contact Brian Pitman Tel: 01296 661357

There is something marvellously appropriate about a field visit that takes place in the middle of a field. Access to Pitstone Windmill is on foot and it takes a group of Year 4 pupils from North Primary School in Southall, west London, 20 minutes from the nearest car park.

As they make the trek, they get a long view of the Ickenham Way, a Bronze Age route from Norfolk to Dorset. As they walk, they are full of conjecture, demonstrating some very urban assumptions along the way. "Why are we going round instead of across?" they wondered, and of the young growing crop, they enquire: "Is that grass?"

The group were on a 48-hour trip and had stayed the previous night in Ivinghoe youth hostel. For many of them, it was their first night away from home.

Pitstone windmill, built in 1627, is believed to be the oldest surviving post mill in the country. Being a post mill means that the top part, or wooden body, can be turned so that the sails face the wind. It was restored by local people between 1963 and 1977, and is run jointly by Berkshire volunteers and the National Trust. It is close to the village of Ivinghoe, which is near Tring.

Ex-headteacher Brian Pitman leads visiting school groups and in explaining the mill workings he actively encourages the children to touch things. The heavy gear is all safely locked and only the parts which he demonstrates are practical.

On fine days, work begins outside. Pupils were first asked to look carefully at the mill, and to find shapes in its construction. They see rectangles, squares, a cone and lots of triangles in the mill and its sails.

The clothing of the sail frames in canvas, the movement of the sails, and the relevance of wind power and speed to the milling process were clearly explained during the visit.

Inside the mill, the group is somewhat confined but hugely curious. The lower floor reveals the mechanisms for collecting grain in sacks ready to be hoisted up and taken away. The way in which corn was ground and the people who did the work are aspects of the story and there is also the economics of harvesting, milling and selling. Higher up in the wooden part of the mill, the mechanisms were considered again. Brian Pitman points out the strength and quality of the structure which is still in working order after four and a half centuries.

By the end of the visit, the children know that windmills weren't made out of plastic or metal as they had initially believed, and they have an understanding of how the windmill turns, how it can stand upright and how many beams it has.

In the comments book they wrote one-word appraisals, such as "wicked", and one adult observed: "Great to see a masterpiece still on show to the world."

Ivinghoe itself has plenty of attractions and while one half of the North Primary group were at the windmill, the rest were visiting the local church. Ivinghoe has many Bronze Age associations and above it is a beacon which the group had climbed on the previous day.

Brian Pitman believes the greatest value of these visits is "learning to live with others", and says the social aspect of taking children out of school is "part of my philosophy".

The cost of transport for the visit by North Primary was subsidised by the Country Trust, an organisation set up 25 years ago to enable city children to visit country places.

The Country Trust can arrange trips in 30 counties in England. Further information from Jane Stanford, tel: 01728 604818

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