Castle Explorers

By the time you read this, the children in Form 1 will have enjoyed a day at Tamworth Castle and will no doubt have spent hours regaling their families and friends with exciting tales of their adventures. Last week, however, was all about the preparation. As befitting a castle, Mrs Burnett and Mrs Field wanted their classes to plan the visit with military precision. I thought it would be interesting to eavesdrop on Mrs Burnett’s lesson to find out what they did.

I have to admit that, when I went to teach in Form 1 a few years ago, I was completely underwhelmed by the prospect of a visit to Tamworth Castle. Why not Warwick or Windsor or even Caernarfon? How wrong I was! Tamworth Castle remains one of the most rewarding places I have ever taken children. Tamworth may seem like an uninspiring place these days, but over a thousand years ago it lay at the heart of the Kingdom of Mercia. The castle was Offa’s stronghold but fell into dilapidation after a series of Viking raids. When the Normans conquered England in the late eleventh century, they recognised the strategic value of the site overlooking the River Tame and built a motte and bailey castle, from which developed the structure we can see today.

The teachers organised the visit at the very beginning of Form 1’s topic on castles, an ideal way to enthuse the children and to kickstart their learning. To start with, Mrs Burnett wanted to check the children’s prior knowledge about castles, and about Tamworth Castle in particular. Mollie immediately said she had already been there and had completed a dragon trail with her friend. She was only three at the time, I’m told, so it must have been a memorable experience for her. Lots of other children knew facts about castles, derived from visits to other historical sites and exposure to the theme in stories and on television. Bethany said that castles have big doors that can go up when the bad guy comes along. They have water below into which the bad guy will hopefully fall. Nico knew some technical terms and explained that Bethany must be thinking of a drawbridge and a moat.

When you go on a trip, it’s always a good idea to have some notion of what you’re going to see before you set off. Accordingly, Mrs Burnett asked the children whether they had any questions they would like to ask about Tamworth Castle. Of course, they had loads. Aarian and Louis were intrigued by how and why the castle was built in the first place. Lena suggested that a queen might have lived there and, if this was the case, Finlay wondered whether they might have raised the flag when she was in residence. Charlie-Bleu, looking at the picture of the castle on the classroom whiteboard, was puzzled why it glowed in the evening. Mmmm, Charlie-Bleu, I’m not sure that has much to do with early medieval technology!

Working in pairs, the children then had the chance to deliberate and to write down four questions that they would like to research using the iPads. Mrs Burnett demonstrated how to navigate the castle website so that the children could record their answers.

More specifically, Mrs Burnett outlined the activities that the children would be undertaking at the castle which, to my mind, is where the real strength of the visit lies. In the first workshop, Mrs Burnett explained, the children would be expected to help the servant prepare the table for the lady of the castle, finding the objects that people used for dining in the past and exploring the materials from which they were made.

For the second workshop, the children would be dressing a knight ready for battle, looking at medieval weapons and feeling the extraordinary weight of the armour. This provoked a debate about the types of weapons they would see. Sebastian was anticipating bows and arrows. Aaran speculated that they might see shields and Bethany thought the knight would probably need a sword. Little did they know then, but one lucky child always gets to wear the knight’s helmet, and everyone gets to participate in a bill drill, marching fiercely in lines armed with a bill hook. Parents, fear not, the drill weapons are made of foam, and the experience is always tremendous fun.

As the lesson drew to a close, the children excitedly told Mrs Burnett about what they had discovered. Eva found out that the castle is 900 years old, and Lena said that it has as many as fifteen rooms. Aaran told Mrs Burnett that, in medieval times, they had feasts in the great hall. Indeed they did, and they still do, as that is where the children eat their lunch, always a highlight on any school trip.

The castle explorers didn’t have the best weather last Friday, but I understand from Mrs Burnett that they still had a great time and learnt a huge amount. Don’t forget to have a look at the photographs of their exciting adventures online via the school website or social media.