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Written on location

Visiting an ancient site? A creative approach can help children to capture the spirit of the place, says Brian Moses

Where do you find the spirit of a castle? Well, not always in the standard worksheet that has words to tick and boxes to fill. All too often, children whizz round trying to complete the sheet as quickly as possible and never pause to really consider the atmosphere of a place or how it affects them.

Location writing is a powerful and stimulating approach to educational visits, allowing children to make and develop written responses to their environment. Outdoor activities, where children can make a record of how a place makes them feel through real observation, can bring the sort of insights to prose and poetry that are not always possible to obtain in the classroom.

Ideas for writing

On arrival, explain to children how people in ancient times often believed that each place was protected by its own spirit. As they tour the building, ask them to imagine what the castle spirit might look like, where it might dwell, and the places it wanders through. Collect words and phrases from observation of the castle so that when the figure is created, it will be obvious that it belongs to the castle.

I found the spirit of the castle

Between the prison walls,

His body was old and crooked,

His bones were brittle and cold.

What clothes does it wear? How does it move? What does it do?

Marching stiffly with a face of granite.

Wearing his faded uniform of black, gold and red.

Hearing the waves crash against the wall,

Fighting a battle against the wind.

What are the spirit's hopes and fears? This may help with the ending to the


His cold lonely face

Begs for company

For fear he would be alone for eternity.

When their work is finished, ask children to swap with each other and then try to draw their partner's castle spirit from the written details.

It is often said of historic buildings that we would know everything about them if their walls could talk. If your visit involves a guided tour, suggest that the guide avoids giving too many names and dates, concentrating instead on stories and anecdotes that will help to bring the place to life.

At Hammerwood House in Sussex, visitors are always impressed by the exploits of children who once lived there, and particularly how they would climb out of their nursery window and make their way across the roof, then drop pebbles through the kitchen skylight into bowls of food below. Extra points were scored if the pebbles reached the dining room and were discovered by the diners! Detail like this helps to make children's writing sparkle.

If these walls could talkthey would complainof the children running up and down the hall.

They would gossipabout the maid who works in the kitchen.

They would jokeabout the new born baby.

They would grumbleabout the harp and its loud music.

They would laughabout the stones in the porridge.

They would confessthat everything in the house they love(except for the harp.) Compose letters. These can be from prisoners in castles or soldiers stationed there. Castle Cornet on Guernsey was occupied by German soldiers during the Second World War. Some of the troops carved the names of loved ones on the gun emplacements that were added to the castle. Letters home can help children to empathise a little with people from the past.

My Darling Urzal, I am writing to feel warm with your love. It is very dull here and the wind is whipping my face as I write this. In the summer the weather here is lovely and we sunbathe on sentry duty and play cards when we're off duty. In the winter it is a different story. Storms sweep in across the sea and Guernsey seems to attract them!

For a cross-curricular activity, try linking poetry with maths. While children look round an ancient monument, ask them to note down as many different shapes as they can and to indicate where they spotted them. Then develop a list poem beginning with the phrase "If I were a shapeI".

The following piece was written about Michelham Priory near Eastbourne.

If I were a shape at Michelham Priory I'd be an irregular flagstone walked upon by a thousand monks.

I'd be an arch, wide and proud, holding up more than my own weight.

I'd be a sphere, a sour but juicy crab-apple ready to fall from a tree I If the weather isn't all that you'd hoped for, use it to your advantage. Notice how the wind or the rain affect the place that you're visiting. Ask children to make notes and use these as the basis for their writing. These ideas come from first-hand observation: The curtains opened, the wind swifted in.

It was alive, it was whispering and calling.

It was breathing, nobody could understand what it was saying.

It roared like a lion shifting its mane.

Rain made the paths slushy like stones in a stew.

It made thousands of concentric circles on the glistening lake.

Consider what the castle seeshearsfeels today and compare it with the past. The real magic of ancient monuments is that they form a link between past and present. The present is here and now but, all around, clues signal what happened centuries ago. Children can collect ideas and list them in two columns - nowthen - to be used in writing a comparison: This castle once heard the thunder of firing cannons but now hears the ringing of mobile phones.

This castle once saw I Younger children will enjoy a countdown poem, although in this instance I prefer to set it out in reverse. Again, set them off looking and matching numbers to objects: One shiny golden brightly coloured clock, Two multi-coloured flags waving in the wind.

Three black empty archways, Four dangerous musket steps ready for battle and so on up to ten, and an extra line - Thousands of stones all holding up this castle.

A final point: remember that the visit will result in first drafts. There will be much rewriting and polishing of ideas to be attended to back in the classroom. Written work should be read aloud and shared with a partner. Remind children that they shouldn't be afraid to criticise positively. Their writing will be all the better for this and for having shared their experiences first hand.

Some of the lines quoted in this piece came from young writers at Melrose School, Guernsey, High Hurstwood CE School and Hamsey SchoolSee The Project on buildings, page 19

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