In 1976 I saw a TV play about school trip. It was about a group of kids from Liverpool, Mrs Kay’s Progress Class (for ‘if you’re backward like’) and their visit to Conway Castle. It featured a young Alun Armstrong who played the authoritarian Deputy Head Mr. Briggs. Every school has one: or at least they used to. They have probably been replaced by a computer and CCTV behind the bike sheds now. Anyway, Briggsy lets his hair down during the second half of the trip and they all finish up having a good time
The denouement has Briggsy that evening back at school, alone, exposing Mrs Kay’s roll of film thus destroying all the snaps of the trip.
The play was ‘Our Day Out’ by Willy Russell.
Fast forward two years. It is summer 1978.
The mini buses draw up and park one behind the other on the field. The doors smash open, and a seemingly un-ending stream of children emerge and begin to run like crazy, in no particular direction, shouting, screaming, pushing and shoving.
These were the ‘Guests’ we had been waiting for. ‘We’ being Sixth Form students at Wyndham School in Egremont, West Cumbria. And the ‘Guests’ being year Six from St. Georges Primary School, Hulme in Manchester.
The staff from the two schools shook hands and introduced themselves, then made their way up to a marquee for a cup of tea. Meanwhile, we were left to greet the kids and keep them from going down to the farm, or up the Head, where there are steep drops to the sea.
Two comments by children that afternoon dispelled any doubt, should any have remained that they were deprived and marginalised young people. One was ‘What’s that?’ as the girl in question pointed at a cow, which was slowly lolloping down to the farm for milking. The other was the confusion caused by tide. ‘Where’s the water gone? It was there about an hour ago.’ So many of them had not seen the sea before.
I had better explain. Wyndham, the school in which I did my Sixth Form was a co-ed comprehensive on the edge of the West Lakes. An enlightened establishment, among other things it put up with us removing all the furniture out of the Head of Sixth Form’s office and turning it into a pretty convincing opium smoking den, while on another occasion we just left it bare, save for a motorcycle wheeled in from the car park. We had a master key you see, which was actually cast in the metalwork room from one borrowed off a teacher. The school lay in the shadow of the Calder Hall and Windscale Nuclear plants, and its catchment area was, because of the number of scientists living in it was dubbed ‘the Brainiest part of Britain’
Every year Its Sixth Form ran a Summer Camp for ‘underprivileged children’ from Hulme on St. Bees Head in one of the fields to the west of Cottam’s Corner.
It was the brainchild if memory serves correct, of teacher John Warbrick.
At first the kids were very wary of us, but they soon settled give or take the odd bout of homesickness. Once they realised that we weren’t there as Teachers, we soon became friends.
Our duties were to prepare the site: put up the marquee, dig the latrines, and pitch the ‘Icelandics’ (large tents the children would be using.) Then in teams cook, wash up, arrange activities … generally make sure that they had as good a time as possible. I remember we organised football matches, rugby matches, took them for a day on the beach, a morning at the farm, played wide games with them, sang campfire songs, took them up Eskdale on the miniture railway from Ravenglass, which culminated in a jump by the bravest/stupidest from Trough House Bridge into the icy waters of The River Esk.
But perhaps the memory that sticks with me most is the day out in Keswick. A coach was arranged to pick us up and take us over there. Well, it would be fair to say that the good shop keepers of Keswick weren’t best prepared for our party, which numbered some – quick fingered characters (‘They call me the ‘Thief of Hulme’) said one, proudly. With their wares freely displayed in small, crowded shops it was an Aladdin’s Cave for our charges and in scenes reminiscent of Russell’s play the kids collected pocketfuls of sweets, souvenirs for home and touchingly, presents for us. Although what you were supposed to do with an ‘I Love Keswick’ gonk troubled me for some time.
I recall the grand turn out of pockets on the coach back to the campsite, and was astonished at what some of them had managed to get away with. Needless to say they were the hauled over the coals for it, (if a little unconvincingly) by their teachers; The general consensus of opinion being was that the tradespeople of Keswick had presented just too much temptation (and inflated prices)for our young Mancs.
At the end of the week, there were tearful farewells as some of the children pleaded to stay. And then they were gone. And we were left to contemplate in our total exhaustion the magical week we had just passed.
There were promises to keep in touch, which, apart from a visit I made the following year to St. Georges, came to nought. Not surprisingly.
So why the long-winded epic?
Well it’s just that the camp and indeed the play before it proved to be two cracks in my cast iron resolve never to be a teacher or to work with young people. Within 6 years I was well into the ‘Chalk and Talk ‘routine and (almost) loving every bit of it.
As Mrs Kay Says: ‘You can’t go all the way to the seaside and not go down to the beach’
Those kids will be forty five or so now. I wonder if they ever remember?
© Andy Daly 2014