Character in the classroom and outside it

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building a den

building a den – not as easy as he thought.

Yesterday I headed to Bristol for a day’s training with the good folks from The Cambridge Schools Classics project and got caught up in a debate on what schools ‘ought’ to be teaching. An early morning train journey is the perfect opportunity for a trawl through the newspaper, Twitter and a number of online blogs for the latest opinions on the state of education. Yesterday’s hot topic was about the teaching of ‘character’.

As a parent and a teacher I cannot fail to raise an eyebrow at the ever-lengthening list of topics which schools are ‘supposed’ to be teaching. Who says? It’s a partnership after all – this business of educating our children. Ultimately the buck stops with parents. No parent can do the job alone and so extended family, friends, teachers at school, sports coaches, scout leaders, orchestra conductors, and any number of others who run the activities in which our children take part have their part to play.

This business of teaching ‘character lessons’ bothers me. Character, grit, determination, resilience – call it what you will – is an attitude of mind, an approach to life which develops over time as a result of exposure to situations which are less than straightforward. It starts at home the moment your toddler attempts to build a brick tower and it collapses. Doubtless having ‘grit’ makes children better learners. The ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and have another go is a recipe for a happy and successful life. I doubt it can be taught in a series of 40 minute lessons over several weeks on a Tuesday afternoon. Anyway I’m more interested in the science teacher explaining fractional distillation to my teenage son – because I can’t. I can do the motivational speech before Cross Country, the blister plasters and sympathy at the end and the encouragement to have another go, though I do rely on the PE teacher to organise the race in the first place.

We all have our part to play in providing children with opportunities to try something new or difficult, even “risky” and to support them through the business of trying and failing and trying again until they get better at it. And –  here’s the shocking truth – schools are engaged in the business of doing this right now on the rugby field, in the gym, in the drama studio or the art room, in the school garden, on field trips as well as in the classroom and the examination hall. If we want schools to play their part in teaching character then more time should be devoted to these opportunities, not less, as sport, the arts and the extra curricular programme is squeezed even further by the need to spend more time and divert more resources to  the traditional core subjects on which schools are judged by Ofsted and by those who scrutinise league tables.

finally got her hands on that rugby medal

finally got her hands on that rugby medal

 

Thinking on your feet

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picture from Dogo News

picture from Dogo News

I’m a black belt in thinking on my feet. Ask any of my friends and family. Some of my best lessons have been planned between the classroom door and the *blackboard/OHP/interactive whiteboard (*please delete as appropriate). It goes with the territory of teaching a subject like Classics or English, where a discussion or topic can head in a completely unexpected but profitable direction. Just don’t tell OFSTED. I’m not sure they would approve of this gung-ho approach.

I have no idea from where the idiom originates. Does anyone know? It could refer to the work of a barrister (or witness) who has to respond under pressure (and on their feet) to the business of the courtroom, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the possible benefits of thinking on your feet have been  under investigation in schools recently across the USA and Australia as well as in a Yorkshire school (Grove House, Bradford) and I, for one, am very interested in the results.

The story was reported here back in May here.

Allowing children to stand and even move around the classroom might give some teachers the heebie jeebies but I can see the advantages of being more active in the classroom, both in terms of combating the sedentary nature of modern living and being more engaged with the activities. Early on in my teaching career I was party to the implementation of just such an idea with a “bottom set year 7″. The lesson was  broken down into ten minute activities; the children moved around the classroom after each activity and stood up to complete most of them. It worked in that it resulted in a significant drop in disruptive behaviour and children were on task for more of the time.

The link between body posture and concentration is fairly well documented among occupational therapists including Sheilagh Blyth, who writes that “The human body has to work hard to either stand up or keep sat in one position. If we overuse our muscles perhaps by sitting in one place for too long we then can use excess energy. Thus causing us to lose concentration.” Shelagh is more in favour of allowing children ‘movement breaks’ to improve concentration.

Most teachers stand up to teach; those who want to close a deal on the telephone stand up to do so. Why not students at school? Certainly my experience of teaching children outdoors with the Our Flower Patch programme bears this out. An active student is a more engaged student, as far as I am concerned. Certainly it requires a different strategy for classroom management but teachers in some subjects manage this already – PE, Food Technology. Children and teachers are infinitely adaptable. Replacing the classroom furniture might be the most problematical aspect of the issue.

What do you think? Does anyone have any first hand experience of managing a standing room only classroom?

Back to School

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You may have the app, the qualifications and the experience but the road back to the classroom seems an uncertain one

In two weeks I return to proper classroom teaching after a break of fourteen years. Yes. Fourteen years of working from home, writing teaching resources, running workshops, tutoring students and caring for my children. I’m easing myself in by covering some classes in Latin and Classics for a few weeks for a teacher who’s away. It wasn’t part of the plan but I’m rather enjoying the prospect. Maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Stepping back from the ‘chalkface for such a long time has given me time to reflect on the reasons I became a teacher in the first place and the contribution I can make now, free from the stress and pressure which many teachers face every day. And free from all the management responsibilities around which I fitted my teaching timetable all those years ago. Interestingly, my friends who have given up teaching and escaped to other professions and those who never went away, think I’m bonkers.

Apparently “around 10,000 ex-teachers return to the profession each year, bringing with them valuable skills and experience”. I wanted to find out how they get on. The press and social media are full of stories of why teachers are leaving the profession in droves, yet, apart from a story about a recruitment agency (in Rochdale, I think) actively encouraging experienced teachers back into the classroom to fill vacancies I could find precious little from anyone willingly stepping back into the classroom. A thread on the TES website from someone wanting to return was a study in doom, telling the poor prospective returner that her knowledge was probably out of date, her child protection knowledge was certainly inadequate and she’d be lucky to get even a supply teaching contract. Very encouraging! And all this when some schools are desperately short of enthusiastic, experienced teachers.

It’s not much of an incentive to return. What are schools and individuals afraid of? Maybe teaching is akin to running a marathon when you’ve been a coach potato since you stopped playing hockey, aged 14. Clearly you have to be mad or very determined to do it. I am probably both. Tick.

I may not have stood in front of a class of teenagers for a few years but I haven’t forgotten how to do that. Teaching is about engaging with people, working in partnership towards a common goal. I do that every day. (What’s more, as well as the energy and enthusiasm that many of my colleagues who have remained on the treadmill don’t seem to have and a first class knowledge of my subject, I am now the mother of three teens/pre teens. My battle armour and tactics are in place, if indeed I need to do battle. Tick.

The other aspect that seems to trouble people is that my own children and husband will have to do more around the house (is this bad?) or I’ll never have a tidy house again and my social life will go into a downward vortex. Tick.

Maybe I should start blogging about my return to the classroom to redress the balance. Of course there will be terrible days. That’s life; but I think that the road back in, though it may not be paved with gold is not altogether bad.

Watch this space.

Io Saturnalia! Partying just like the Romans.

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ready to party Roman style

ready to party Roman style

Io Saturnalia!

This is the traditional greeting for Romans at this time of year, (the Io pronounced Yo!) When it comes to partying, noone does it quite like the Romans. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival honouring the god of agriculture Saturn, held on the 17th of December and continuing through to the winter solstice. In fact it’s still popular in Deva (Chester.) 

Saturnalia was celebrated with a public ceremony followed by private celebrations in the home, where the traditional roles were switched. A Lord of Misrule was chosen; masters waited upon their slaves (although the slaves had prepared the food, beforehand). Everyone got to wear colourful clothes and the red pilleus, or freedman’s hat; gambling was allowed and normal business was suspended during the holiday period. Elaborate feasts and banquets were held; candles were lit and it wasn’t unusual to exchange small gifts such as wax candles, oil lamps, small earthenware figures, small writing tablets, cups,spoons, items of clothing or food. Citizens decked their halls with green boughs, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”

Thinking about the school Christmas dinner tradition this week, where everyone wears a hat and colourful clothes, teachers serve dinner to their students, the hall is decorated with greenery, ornaments hang from the tree and music plays, it’s not that far removed from Saturnalia.

Holding a Saturnalia party is a great way to round off the term with students studying Latin.  I have often helped local primary schools round off their topic work on the Romans at this time of year by teaching them a bit of Latin, making some Roman food and pilleus hats and recreating a carnival procession with singing. Obviously, we all dressed up and had a thoroughly good time.

I would urge all homeschoolers and primary teachers to do the same. Partying just like the Romans is a great way to reinforce learning. Preparations for the party involve research into Roman costume and hairstyles, worship of gods and goddesses, slavery, festivals, food, the role of women… And the sites and smells of Saturnalia will stay with your students long after the ink has dried on the page of their workbooks.

Io Saturnalia!

Tradition

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One of My Flower Patch wreaths on our front door .

One of My Flower Patch wreaths on our front door

On Advent Sunday, the fittest member of the family climbs up into the loft to retrieve the Advent calendars (we use the same ones every year), the Christmas CDs and DVDs and the decorations. The Christmas cake (made during the October Half Term) is fed with more brandy; the kitchen table candle changes from cream to red; the John Rutter Christmas CD is on repeat play in the kitchen and we prepare for the first of our December film nights curled up together on the sofa in front of a log fire. Christmas, like all festivals is a time for tradition, for doing things together as a family which ‘lend a certain magic, spirit and texture to our everyday lives’.

If tradition was a rock band, I’d be its number one fan. We have rituals and traditions in our house for all sorts of times of the year, not just Christmas. Traditions are important. They provide a sense of identity, strengthen bonds with family and friends, connect generations, teach values, offer comfort and security, pass on cultural and religious heritage, add to the rhythm and seasonality of life and create lasting memories. In other words, they’re uber-good for our health and wellbeing.

Some Christmas traditions are pretty universal. Most people decorate a Christmas tree, although this is a relatively ‘new’ tradition, not becoming popular in the UK until the early nineteenth century, whereas others are more personal. Most of us maintain some of the traditions from our own childhoods but some are new introductions which come about after we have our own children. And even these change as they get older. For years we did the whole ‘Stir up Sunday’ thing like a friend of ours who remembers the making of the Christmas pudding to an old family recipe. Everyone in the family from youngest to oldest had a stir, a taste and made a wish. The huge mixture was divided between a range of bowls for members of the family to take away. However, guess what? None of the five of us actually like Christmas pudding so we very quietly stopped this tradition. Now we have a homemade chocolate roulade (my recipe), which is made on Christmas Eve, whilst we listen to the Carol service from King’s College, Cambridge. What’s more, it has reduced the potential stress of how to steam it on the top of our hob, when there are so many other foods to cook on Christmas Day. We transferred the stirring ritual to the Christmas cake instead.  I like the idea of providing my children with a memory box of traditions, some of which have been in the family for generations, from which they can evolve their own when they have their own families.

I asked some friends about their Christmas traditions and rituals. Many Christmas traditions concern the preparing and eating of special foods. The making of the Christmas pudding, the recipe for Christmas cake, the journey with Dad to the butchers on Christmas Eve to collect the turkey, satsumas in stockings and making mince pies with mum whilst listening to special songs.

Others are to do with decorating the house – the ritual of choosing and bringing home the tree, making the wreath for the front door, putting up stockings and making or buying one new tree ornament every year for each of your children so that they have a beautiful collection for their own tree when they leave home.(I love this idea!)

Still more are about the giving of gifts, the sending of cards and the writing of letters. We have friends who remember having to book a Christmas Day telephone call to relatives overseas in September. Others phone friends in Australia, after returning from the midnight communion service on Christmas Eve. The whole ritual of giving out the gifts struck a chord with many too – when it happens, who does it and whether or not they wear a special hat to do it.

The modern day Christmas has evolved from centuries of tradition. Some elements have their origins in the pre-Christian pagan festival of Yule, celebrated around the winter solstice. The traditional yule log was ceremoniously brought in and burnt all through the winter festival. Decorating the house with evergreen boughs hails from here too, although in the fifteenth century the church adopted the tradition, recognising that evergreen boughs and red berries could symbolise the gift of a child from an ever-loving god, whose blood was to be shed on our behalf. The traditionally round Christmas door wreath symbolises the love of God which has no beginning and no end. The Roman festival of Saturnalia (beginning around December 17th) gives us the idea of exchanging gifts and the wearing of special hats (now made of paper). Christmas Carols, I believe, have their origins in the January wassailing ceremonies which took place in rural communities to awaken the spirits of the orchards to bless the trees and give a good harvest in the year to come.

The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has continually evolved over the years. In the middle ages it was more raucous and community based. In the nineteenth century it became a more peaceful family and child-centred festival. Much of the modern day ‘traditional’ Christmas is the invention of Charles Dickens and the Victorians. The shift from a church and community based celebration to a family-centred one with seasonal food, Christmas trees, Christmas cards, lights, tree decorations and a seasonal spirit of generosity only dates back a hundred and seventy years or so. In fact, even up to the 1950s families with modest means celebrated with a joint of beef on Christmas Day and a stocking with an apple, an orange and a few sweets for the children.

Traditions are important but they can change. Whether you are decorating your home with evergreens, lighting candles, trimming the tree in red, green and gold and looking forward to a family day of seasonal food made to traditional recipes, or having a barbeque on the beach with a few friends, it’s good to store up some special memories and establish some traditions for your own family.

I’d love to hear what you do.

 

Half Term hijinks

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a visit to St Pancras

a visit to St Pancras

We’ve had a busy few weeks. I finally managed to plant all the daffodil and allium bulbs I ordered back in the summer; we finished painting the front door and the children’s bedrooms; two school residentials to the Brecon Beacons and the Lake District have been undertaken; large batches of Christmas chutney have been made; I ran an Autumn themed workshop for the National Trust and we managed to fit in an exciting trip to London.

Sarah and I went up on the train for a girly jaunt around my old Bloomsbury and Euston haunts (including bumping into my old PGCE lecturer at the Institute of Education), a visit to the British library, which Sarah has wanted to do for ages and a stay in a hotel complete with posh bubble bath, facemasks and telly in bed! The boys used the car and stayed with the in-laws and visited the poppy installation at the Tower of London.

Spectacular_poppies_Tower_of_London_

We did meet up on Wednesday though – for the main reason for our London trip. The services of the youngest member of the family were required by Radio 4 Extra for a recording of Junior Just a Minute with Nicholas Parsons, Josie Lawrence and Jenny Eclair who were charming and hilarious in equal measure.

Now the children are back at school, Ian is once more trekking round the country, the Christmas cake is in the oven and I am back at work writing materials for the Abington Park Outdoor Classroom Project and Our Flower Patch.

I’ll be writing about the former soon on this blog. In the meantime you can read a bit about Our Flower Patch here in an interview we gave to Michelle Chapman. Incidentally we have a giveaway on the Our Flower Patch blog this week. All you have to do to win the best book I have come across on growing cut flowers at home (Louise Curley’s The Cut Flower Patch) is to leave a comment and subscribe to the blog. Simple!

Poem of the month: #October

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picture by Neil Smith on  RSPB website

picture by Neil Smith on RSPB website

I love this time of year. That bittersweet time as you say goodbye to one golden season and move onto the next, which is greyer in hue. The seasons do seem to come round faster every year as one gets older.
I was looking at Yeats’s October poem recently in preparation for teaching a class. It’s the first one on which  I tried out my tentative literary criticism skills back in the mid eighties when I started my A levels, when shoulder pads and hair were big and my knees actually worked quite well. It’s wasted on the young (this poem, not my knees!) but anyone of my vintage will find it speaks to them.
Incidentally,as we were speaking about literary criticism,  if you are an A level or GCSE student (or the parent of one)  in the Bath/West Wilts area, who needs some tuition in English Literature or Latin, from Christmas I will have some spaces for individual or group slots. Contact me by email cally@countrygate.co.uk

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Education, education, education….

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education

I’m off to the Guildhall in Bath to take part in a debate on the Future of Teaching as part of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival and I can’t wait.

Today my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of the latest initiative to drive up standards. There’s another pronouncement from Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of OFSTED that children are losing valuable teaching time because the problems of low level disruptive behaviour in school is not being sorted out by Headteachers and teachers.We also hear that from 2016 a new GCSE in Cookery will be offered to help promote healthy eating amongst a generation who are reportedly going to cost the NHS billions in healthcare for obesity related illness.This comes hot on the heels of reports on the numbers of children leaving reception classes who are deemed unable to function in full time school, complaints from universities that students entering first year courses are ill-equipped for the rigour of degree study and changes to GCSE courses from 2017, which will mean that it will be much more difficult to gain a top grade.

Underlying all these initiatives and reported failings, do I detect a feeling that the future wellbeing of British society depends almost entirely on the teaching profession and that they are seen to be falling short? Certainly teachers have their part to play but I’m not sure that a profession who has little control over the quality of the raw material they have to work with (children) can be held responsible for all deficiencies. Don’t we all have a responsibility for educating the next generation?

My children had plenty to say on the subject at breakfast. I suppose it’s not surprising that they have views on something of which they have direct experience and in which they have a vested interest. What shone through from the discussion round our kitchen table, in between mouthfuls of toast, was a feeling that education is best carried out in partnership – where children, parents and teachers work together.

Lets take cooking as an example, seeing as it is in the news.

My middle child has cookery lessons in school for about an hour a week for part of the school year. Currently he is learning about foods which give energy, how they can be used as part of a balanced diet and how to make an array of biscuits and snack bars.

At home recently he has learnt to make omelettes, scrambled eggs, yorkshire pudding, pizza, pancakes, macaroni cheese and an array of salads. He can lay a table, load and unload a dishwasher and make a grocery shopping list.

As a result of watching The Great British Bake Off he can recognise what an over proved muffin looks like and what he could do to make a better one. (I ought to let him loose with a bag of flour at the weekend).

Teachers do not have time to take on the entire job of making him into a passable cook, who can fend for himself in a healthy way. That’s our job too. To borrow a phrase from Sir Michael Wilshaw….”it’s not rocket science.”

Whatever the ‘future of teaching’ is, I hope it allows an opportunity for parents and teachers to work together to educate the children in their care, where teachers feel valued and respected, where children feel engaged and parents feel involved.

 

The remembrance of things past

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the past viewed at The Ashmolean

the Roman past viewed at The Ashmolean

I’ve been using lavender furniture polish for the first time in decades. It’s startling how the aroma it leaves around the house can recall so keenly all the Sundays of my youth spent sitting in the choir stalls of a rural Pembrokeshire church. Is this true of everyone or am I peculiar in remembering events best on the strength of what they smelt like? (See below).

Perhaps it’s natural for a woman of my age, whose children are fast growing into young adults to think back a little more than she was wont to do. Or perhaps it comes as a result of returning to the study of Latin – and more specifically the Cambridge Latin Course (Chanel no. 5)- which was one of the highlights of my school Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with double hockey (muscle rub) and spiced apple crumble (cinammon and cloves). As you see, all my memories are carefully intertwined with the odours surrounding them.

My return to the Cambridge Latin Course comes as a result of funding from the DfE which is there to encourage non specialist teachers to train to make Latin available to state school pupils. Universities love a student who has studied Latin apparently, especially those hoping to study Law, Medicine, Languages, Ancient History and English Literature. And with a dwindling number of specialists able to teach Latin, it makes sense to find more creative ways to make it available. My recent six day course at Oxford University was one of these. It wasn’t a PGCE course in six days  (This was what the visiting lady from the DfE suggested!!!?) but a week’s intensive study for those who were already qualified and experienced teachers with some knowledge of Latin.

I started teaching a fast track GCSE course last week in a Wednesday twilight session for A level students. (I’m not one to hand around as you know.) We’re using the Cambridge Latin Course but (as ever) I’m tweaking it to make it a truly worthwhile experience and giving value for money by using it to hone A level study skills and to make links between Latin studies and that of their other A level subjects. There’s space for a few more students on Wednesdays in my kitchen (which will smell of freshly brewed coffee and cake of some description). Email me for details if you or someone you know might be interested.

And if you’re interested in lavender furniture polish, here’s how…..

Homemade lavender furniture polish recipe

I had some beeswax leftover from making calendula salve over the summer and grated that into some olive oil from my cupboard. 2 parts olive oil to 1 part grated beeswax or thereabouts. Fill a jug with olive oil up to 200 mls and grate enough beeswax into it to bring the measure up to 300 mls.

Place the mixture into an old saucepan and melt very slowly… the work of minutes. Add about 12 drops of lavender.Take it off the heat and stir gently. Leave to cool for a few minutes, stir again then pour it straight into a shallow wide mouthed jar.

And that’s it! Smells great, no nasty chemicals, useful and inexpensive. Packaged nicely it would make a great addition to a Christmas hamper for a friend or a present for a teacher.

 

Five go on a Dorset adventure

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Inspiration

Inspiration

 

With just two more days left of the school holidays and last week’s washout of a Bank Holiday renamed ‘Monopoly Monday’, yesterday we decided to go on an adventure in Dorset. Our destination was Corfe Castle. My three have devoured most of Enid Blyton’s books over the years, as their parents did before them, and so a trek to Dorset’s iconic medieval castle, inspiration for Kirrin Castle was on the bucket list of things to do before they all reach secondary school.

20140901_150837I’d like to say that we packed a picnic in a wicker basket with homemade ginger beer taken from the larder and the sandwiches were wrapped in brown paper and string. However, as we’ve done that before and this was a day off for Mum as well as the rest of the family we took the wicker basket to a well known supermarket deli and chose our own salad selections, boiled eggs, pork pies and cakes.

On arrival the car was parked at the National Trust visitor’s centre, (an airy space with comfy sofas, good coffee, ice creams and clean toilets) and we set off with our picnic in true Famous Five style along a path, through several kissing gates, across a railway line and along a farmer’s field to our chosen picnic spot. To add to the atmosphere a steam train puffed along the track right on cue. We waved to the passengers and they waved back.

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Our picnic consumed, we retraced our steps to the visitor centre and set off towards the castle. Even in flipflops the steep climb was easy as the path was wide and well made, climbing slowly, skimming the edge of the river in places and providing enchanting glimpses of the walls as we headed higher. Dotted along the way of this ‘Wildlife Walk’ were interpretation boards with fascinating facts about the wildlife around the castle.

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The castle itself has a full programme of seasonal events for families throughout the year, including Christmas, and plenty to keep children interested including giant outdoor games and the Castle Quest, complete with dressing up clothes.

20140901_134042Sadly mine regard themselves as too old for this and eschewed the chance to put on very authentic looking helmets and engage in sword play. For us it was enough to explore the romantic castle ruins and marvel at the way the walls are still standing despite major subsidence due to attack by gunpowder during the Civil War.

20140901_134645We spotted arrow loops and murder holes, took in the breathtaking views

20140901_132432and checked out the wildplants that grow there. Before we left the castle we inspected the Mason’s Lodge, a traditional timber building in the Outer Bailey used to teach traditional skills and crafts. We wouldn’t have minded rolling up our sleeves and taking part in some daubing. Maybe next time or in another place?

20140901_135458An explore of the village outside the castle revealed plenty of opportunity to replenish lost energy…..

20140901_135946…and the diminutive Ginger Pop Shop, dedicated to all things Enid Blyton, complete with Wishing Chair outside, minus wings today, and with no pixie, making it perfectly safe to accommodate two happy children.

20140901_141112The village itself is pretty, with a parish church, with a medieval tower, shops, cafes with enormous cakes and a common worth exploring.

Taking the playful route back to the car to burn off those ice cream and cream tea calories we headed off.

20140901_145622It was well worth the two hour car journey from Bradford on Avon. No downpours, no phones or computers. A good family day out and a great way to round off the summer holidays.

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