A sense of place

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First and foremost, a headmistress is a teacher with a passion for her subject and an overwhelming desire to spark a similar enthusiasm in her pupils. At heart, I am a Geographer and when given the opportunity to accompany a school geography trip I leap at the chance.

Last week I joined the Upper Sixth Geographers on a field trip to Belfast. A city deeply segregated and devastated by the decline in the ship yards in the 1980s, it has undergone a significant transformation brought about by the peace talks.  The end of the troubles encouraged large amounts of foreign investment to flow into Belfast revitalising the area with new industries, housing and employment opportunities. The girls’ brief was to look at the regeneration of Belfast, particularly the docks, to see whether the investment had resulted in positive change for the people of Belfast.

The girls were struck by the new industries, particularly the award winning Titanic Museum (which I would highly recommend), but they were also very much aware of the religious divide that still defined the city. Religious enclaves were clearly marked by flags that hung on every lamp post, the murals drew people’s attention to the enclave’s particular interpretation of the past and a no man’s land still existed between the two communities, marked by gates on either side. The girls, like me, were taken back by the patriotic demarcation which felt threatening and menacing and wondered how long it would be before the flags were taken down and the communities began to co-exist. Revitalisation was happening in Belfast but communities were still divided.

Field trips, I believe, open up the mind to worlds unfamiliar to your own. Seeing and being present in a natural landscape can give you a sense of awe and wonder at its creation, which the Giant’s Causeway seen in the morning certainly did. It also helps to understand the processes that give shape to the world in which we live. The trip to Belfast certainly introduced girls to a world that was unfamiliar to them and gave them, I hope, a greater understanding of how the use of space can provoke conflict. We all agreed the 12 hours spent in Belfast was worth it; I have not stopped thinking about the trip, I am sure the girls are the same. 

Learning in the field

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This week I had the pleasure of joining Year 7 on a Geography field trip. It was a local tour of Bedford to look at the effect geology has had on the relief and land use. For me, still relatively new to Bedford, I found it fascinating.

We began in Stewartby, a village effectively created by the London Brick Company to house the inhabitants who worked in their brick factories. It is Bedford’s equivalent to Bourneville, Birmingham, a model village built from scratch by the Victorians to look after its workers. If it were not for its geology of Oxford clay, Stewartby would not exist. Although the brickworks have now closed, as the high sulphur dioxide emissions from its chimneys were too expensive to reduce, the past of Stewartby is still very much evident as is its future with the successful regeneration and revitalisation of the surrounding landscape.

From clay to the Greensand hill ridge of Ampthill we saw again how the geology influenced land use. These infertile sandy soils, whilst poor for farmland, were ideal for deer parks and deer hunting and were often frequented by royalty. Henry VIII was particularly fond of Ampthill, so much so that he used the castle to imprison his first wife Katherine! The Greensand of Ampthill has now become home to the popular Center Parcs which opens next year and the girls were asked to consider its impact.

Our field trip ended on the chalk where we looked at the spring line settlements that formed at the junction of the clay and chalk. Unfortunately a violent hailstorm followed by a heavy downpour brought an end to the day’s proceedings and as we returned to the coach drenched and slightly battered I was reminded of Charlie Brown’s retort to Snoopy that “Geography trips caused rain”!

All too often, circumstances force Heads away from teaching, rendering them far removed from the classroom. I personally believe that Heads should continue to teach and I loved the opportunity to be out in the field once again teaching Geography. The vibrancy and fizzing energy of our school is in the class room and in the very special learning experience the girls enjoy and engage in here. If you are not able to teach you lose touch with what makes each generation want to learn and, so, with the lifeblood of learning. The girls I taught on the wind blasted chalk escarpment last week were a joy. They were keen, engaged and motivated and, like me, found learning more about their local geography – and of course the importance of wearing wet weather kit throughout a fieldtrip – an inspiration.