In February's Going Places this year, I reported on preparations for the ultimate school field trip . . . "Brilliant!" and "Absolutely wonderful!" is the verdict of two of the eight teenagers who have been on the adventure of a lifetime.
Against all the odds, and in an amazing team effort, they and their school raised nearly Pounds 30,000; they journeyed over 10,000km to the top of the world; and they made history.
At 18.34 Greenwich Mean Time on Wednesday April 1, in a temperature of -30C, the Polar Watch team of teachers Kevin Hayter and Ann Diver, and eight Year 9 and l0 students from Robertsbridge Community College in East Sussex became the first British school party to reach the Magnetic North Pole. And for good measure, 14-year-olds John and William Rigby claimed their own piece of the limelight in being the first twins in the world ever to set foot there.
It was the outstanding feature of an expedition to the Canadian Arctic which saw 28 aircraft take-offs and landings, a trip 400m below ground to a zinc and lead mine, an Inuit feast at their Resolute Bay base camp, skidoo riding, iceberg climbing and sleeping in an igloo.
Add this to the projects researched by each student, and the seven days spent in the Arctic Circle seemed barely adequate.
"When we got there, so many people wanted to do so many things for us, " says music teacher Kevin Hayter. "We probably needed more time to sit down and collate what we had learned." But with accommodation at their Arctic lodge costing more than Pounds 1,000 a night, more time was a luxury they could ill afford.
The traditional Inuit feast with delicacies such as raw whale, seal and walrus is one meal none of them is likely to forget. Whale skin, says John Rigby, tastes "weird and rubbery". The occasion typified their hosts' enthusiastic hospitality, a point not lost on the students. John describes getting to know the young Inuit as one of the highlights of the trip, and the warmth of the welcome was extended even further when the four girls in the group were invited to spend a night in the homes of Inuit girls whom they had befriended.
"The Inuit children were delighted that Western children their own age should come up there," says Kevin Hayter. Little surprise, then, that the whole team now have Arctic penfriends who they hope will be able to pay a return visit to Britain. Kevin, though, cautions against over-optimism, explaining that if the ambition is to become a reality the Inuit will be relying almost entirely on grant aid.
While the students were in the Arctic Circle, Royal Marines Sergeant Sean Chapple and Corporal Alan Chambers were hoping to be well on the way to being the first Britons to walk to the Pole entirely unaided. In Robertsbridge, the college had been appointed as host school for the Marines' Keeping Track Internet project, enabling schools to monitor their progress. Sadly that expedition failed after just a few days, the batteries in the Marines' communications equipment falling victim to the extreme cold.
Thus when the Polar Watch team arrived in Resolute, Sean Chapple was unexpectedly there to greet them. "It was good to have Sean there to talk to the students of the conditions he had encountered," says Kevin Hayter, adding that the Marine went on to spend much of his time with them. That included keeping watch when they took it in turns to spend the night in an igloo built with the help of an Inuit elder.
"The experience of a lifetime," is how John cheerfully describes bedding down in a sleeping bag at -10C. (When the girls' turn came to sleep, the temperature had dropped to -20C.) Despite the curtailment of the Marines' expedition, more than 2,000 web site hits and e-mail from as far afield as South America and Australia kept the Keeping Track team busy. "One of the most popular questions," says Kevin Hayter, "was how do you go to the toilet when it's so many degree below freezing?" (The answer is you don't want to go at all. ) The Polar Watch team stayed in touch with the college and parents via e-mail and by downloading pictures taken on a digital camera. Team member Mark Cotton also sent high frequency radio messages to the college as well as communicating by radio with other expeditions out on the ice.
Fifteen-year-old Abby Davey, whose ambition is to pursue a career in meteorology, found herself at the cutting edge of technology at Resolute's weather station. With the help of the resident meteorologist, she was able to release ozone balloons. "She was watching figures come in on computer via satellite systems," says Kevin Hayter, adding that Abby will be following up her research by logging on to the station's web site.
Guy Beeching, at 13 years old the team's youngest member, studied traditional and modern Inuit medicine. In the true spirit of scientific research he even tried an old Inuit sore throat cure - husky urine mixed with snow. "Not very nice," he says.
Kevin Hayter compares the benefits of the expedition to dropping a pebble in water. "You never know how far the ripples are going to spread," he says. "I can see how the children have changed." He then explains that it had such a profound effect on one of the girls that she now wishes to work overseas with wildlife. "She's realised just how big this planet is," says Kevin Hayter. "It's really opened her eyes."
And one student who has particularly impressed him as learning something in great depth is 15-year-old Frances Johnson. "She really has gone wholehearted into her project on the Franklin Expedition," he says, suggesting that she probably knows more about it than almost anybody else in Europe. Frances, together with Sean Chapple and the headteacher from Resolute's school flew to Beechey Island, where a short memorial service was held at the grave of William Braine, a Royal Marine who died on the ill-fated l9th-century expedition.
It is hoped the rest of the school will also benefit from the students' research. A batch of documentation on the Polaris lead and zinc mine, of which they had a VIP tour, has already been handed to the geography department. And the team is becoming well versed in giving lectures and talks.
The best part for the two teachers? "Knowing we achieved our goals, and a lot more," says Kevin Hayter, adding that in supervising eight enthusiastic teenagers in such harsh conditions, they couldn't let their concentration wander for a second: one carelessly dropped glove and frost-bite sets in within 40 seconds.
It comes as little surprise that he already has the next trip - same place, different activities - worked out, although he does not relish the prospect of more fund-raising.
He says that anybody can go to the magnetic North Pole. But it takes somebody with the right qualities to actually do it - as eight exceptionally lucky teenagers will gratefully acknowledge.
The Polar Watch team are happy to share their experiences with other schools.Robertsbridge Community College, Knelle Road, Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 SEA. Tel: 01580 880360. Fax: 01580 882120. www.membersaol.compolarwatchindex.htm e-mail: polar watch LESS THAN F"MillenniumTextNews-Roman"RF"ZapfDingbats2"
l A feature on Kevin Hayter's special brand of music teaching will appear in Subject of the Week - Music the Arts on October 23 THE ARCTIC EIGHT AND WHAT THEY STUDIED
L to R, back row first:
* William Rigby, 14: Pollution in the Arctic * Guy Beeching, 13: Medicine and health * John Rigby, 14: Polar expeditions * Abby Davey, 15: Meteorology * Frances Johnson, 15: The Franklin expedition * Gina English, 14: Arctic wildlife * Claire Wilson, 15: Inuit culture * Mark Cotton, 14: Communications