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Saturday, 02 August 2014

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Thanks Mr Gove, but we are already a part of our history

In history classes all over Britain pupils hear about the Jacobite rebellion, how Bonnie Prince Charlie stood before crowds and claimed the English throne for his father.

Linda Hodgson photo
Linda Hodgson

Only in Carlisle can the teacher tell them that it happened where they sit and eat their chips.

Cumbria is dripping with history. From Carlisle Castle to Cockermouth’s newly unearthed mediaeval mill, and from Hadrian’s Wall to Whitehaven harbour, there’s no getting away from it. Over the past 2,000 years it’s been the scene for many a historic event.

Our heritage and our spectacular landscape are the two main factors that draw tourists and their money to this county. Now Michael Gove believes that heritage should be used to draw more youngsters towards the study of history.

The education secretary’s latest idea is to encourage schools in cities such as Carlisle to take a “home town approach” – firing children’s imagination by showing them how the history they learn in the classroom can also be found in the buildings and landmarks they see every day.

The minister has promised English Heritage £2.7 million to recruit local heritage experts to work with schools on promoting their local history.

But to many teachers and museum managers it’s nothing new. Linda Hodgson, head of history at Carlisle’s Trinity School, says all the topics they study in history are already promoted through their local connections. It is the ideal way of bringing them alive for young people.

“If you’ve got something on your doorstep, that can switch on a lightbulb with some pupils.” she explains.

So when they study the Jacobite rebellion Ms Hodgson likes to point out that Bonnie Prince Charlie made his famous proclamation at the cross in the Market Square.

“It means a lot more when you tell them: ‘You know – the place where you sit and eat chips.’

“Or when we talk about Woodrow Wilson, I can say: ‘Walk along Lowther Street, look to your left and you’ll see his grandfather’s church.’

“I don’t think there’s a single area in history that doesn’t have something local we can tap into.”

The Jacobite rebellion is a subject for year eight. The year sevens study the Normans, and the decision of William Rufus to build Carlisle Castle.

Studying the Industrial Revolution means looking at Carlisle railway station and Shaddon Mill as examples of the transformations it brought. And the story of medicine through time takes in the spread of cholera in the city from dung heaps in The Lanes.

Family history, and looking up names on the school’s war memorials, ties in with study of the two World Wars. “We were looking up some of the soldiers and one girl suddenly said: ‘He lived in my house!’” Ms Hodgson recalls.

“It’s easy if you’ve got it all on your doorstep. We are very lucky in that way.”

Pupils who spoke to The Cumberland News showed great enthusiasm for history, particularly for 20th century history and the two world wars. And they are all aware of how much of it Carlisle has.

“People think Carlisle is quite an inconspicuous area but a lot went on here,” argues 14-year-old Ruth Cox.

“There are layers and layers of history in Carlisle,” adds Dale Callaghan, 18.

Todd Elliott, 14, moved to Carlisle two months ago from Maryport and says: “We had the Romans and the captain of the Titanic there. Here there’s a lot more.”

And 17-year-old Kate Riley adds: “It’s quite useful. When you hear about something in a lesson, and you’ve walked past it, it makes it exciting.”

Mr Gove’s idea is nothing new for the trainee teachers at the University of Cumbria either. Local history forms part of the “history specialist theme” which 60 trainees at Carlisle’s Fusehill Street campus are currently following.

They organised an educational visit to Carlisle Castle for two classes of five-year-olds from Stanwix Primary School.

Third year student Ellie Taylor says: “When we took the local children to the castle they benefited so much from seeing what their local area has to offer. Carlisle has a brilliant history.”

The benefits are also pointed out by those who work at historic buildings and centres. For the past nine centuries the most dominant of them has been Carlisle Castle.

This century it is getting between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors per year, with a good mix of tourists and locals, and Max Loth-Hill of the castle says a large proportion of the visitors are children from both primary and secondary schools.

“We already do a lot of educational work, especially on the Border Reivers,” he explains. “There is the Ballad of Kinmount Willie, the licking stones in the dungeon where prisoners are supposed to have licked the walls for moisture, fantastic examples of 500-year-old graffiti and all sorts of stories that children love – the more blood and gore the better!”

A new exhibition is due to open there on April 1 and Mr Loth-Hill adds: “It is designed to be child-friendly.”

The Rum Story in Whitehaven gets 10,000 visitors a year and duty manager Wendy Black says: “We’ve always worked with schools, but we’ve seen a marked boost in the number of school visits recently.

“We’ve had lots of schoolchildren, particularly primary schoolchildren, come through our doors this year and last.”

Because it’s not just rum. “There are a lot of areas of the curriculum that we touch on – piracy, the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution.

“We do harbour tours that tell the story of the harbour – how it was once the third largest port in Britain, and what used to be imported and exported through it. And there’s the story of John Paul Jones and the American War of Independence.”

Mr Gove has long complained that children too often get a disjointed picture of British history. They may study different periods of the past but do not get a general overview of how they fit together. But are they as ill-informed as he thinks?

Carol Donnelly doesn’t believe so. She runs tour guide firm Open Book Tours and finds there is still plenty of knowledge about our past among children and adults alike.

“I think local schools are doing a pretty good job,” she says, “One of the first questions we ask on the castle tours is: ‘Who’s heard of 1066?’ All the children know about it. Only visitors from overseas don’t – just as we won’t know intimately the dates in their countries’ histories.”

Tullie House, just across the road from the castle, also hosts many school groups.

Learning and access manager Jules Wooding says: “I’m often really surprised by how much they know. A lot of children have quite a lot of knowledge, and do have a good overview.”

Pupils may know about history, and the local area might be a good place to teach it, but are people generally interested in it any more? After all, it was all a long time ago.

Tullie House’s marketing manager Michelle Wiggins is convinced they are. The museum and gallery receives a quarter of a million visitors every year and last year 54 per cent were from Cumbria.

“The Roman Frontier Gallery opened last June and it’s had 30,000 visitors alone,” she says. “It’s been very busy – we are very pleased.”

Mrs Donnelly also finds that interest and enthusiasm is growing.

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I find it very exciting how interested people are nowadays. It’s definitely increasing.

“There are lots of history books coming out and almost every town and village has a local history society. You wouldn’t have these if people weren’t interested in history.”

Interest isn’t confined to tourists. “In the high season we get a mix of visitors and local people coming on the tours.”

She identifies three elements of Carlisle’s past as of particular interest. “There’s the industrial heritage and Carlisle’s history as a railway centre, which our parents or grandparents may remember.

“There’s also the Reivers. For people who have moved into Cumbria it’s a whole new area for them, often something they’ve never heard of before.

“But you can’t live in an area like this and not be interested in the Romans. That’s the main topic.”

There are many opportunities for getting up close and personal with the Romans in Cumbria, and one is at Senhouse Roman Museum in Maryport. Curator Jane Laskey sees no lack of interest in history, or ignorance among visitors.

“Last June and July we had twice as many visitors to the museum as we would normally expect,” she reports.

“Children come with their schools and then come back with their families, and quite often they already have a certain amount of knowledge, which is really good. We are not having to start from scratch with them.”

Like Mrs Donnelly she believes it is getting more and not less popular.

“With the number of good TV programmes out there at the moment, such as Time Team or Digging For Britain, it is much more in the public eye than it was.

“The person in the street knows a lot more about history, and more people are interested now than 10 or 20 years ago. People see it as something to do in their leisure time, not just as part of formal education.”

TV historians such as Simon Schama, David Starkey and Neil Oliver do history a great service by making it exciting, she adds.

“They are not just academics – they are storytellers.”

Throughout March learning groups can visit Carlisle Castle for free. It is one of 22 historic sites which will be closed to the general public on Mondays and Fridays and opened exclusively for schools, colleges, Scout and WEA groups.

Groups wishing to visit should book at least 14 days in advance by going to www.english-heritage.org.uk/education or calling 0870 333 0606.

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