|Claudia Myatt's new cover|
for A Ravelled Flag
I knew it was going to be a successful outing as soon as I got the teacher's response to the weather forecast. It was mid-October and we'd planned to take her class of ten-year olds exploring alongside the River Stour in Suffolk. I'd warned her already that they might get wet feet by the end of the day but now I needed to tell her that we were also likely to encounter rain and strong winds. Not a hurricane, you understand, but gusts that might reach 40mph and possible heavy showers.She'll cancel, I thought to myself gloomily.
I was part of the way through a project for the Essex Book Festival, working with schools in the Tendring Hundred area of Essex. My job was to talk about the stories in my Strong Winds series, then encourage the children to write adventures of their own. Each school wanted something slightly different. The headteacher of this school (herself a sailing enthusiast) suggested that the Y6 class teacher and I take the children out for the day. The school is on the Essex side of the River Stour, the location for A Ravelled Flag. I like to write about imaginary events in real places and hoped that the children would feel the same. We'd looked at the maps in The Salt-Stained Book and A Ravelled Flag and decided to explore the Suffolk side of the river so they could see for
The wind was from the north-north-west so I knew we'd be under the lee of the land for most of the day. All the same I felt pessimistic as I messaged the class teacher with the forecast. Teachers. Responsibility. Risk Assessments. Parents. Health & Safety. She'd cry off, I was sure of it.
“Children have been told to bring appropriate clothes for rain” she emailed back immediately. “It only forecasts showers so I'm sure we'll be fine.” I discovered later that she'd been up early that morning texting all the parents individually to ensure that every children came to school with waterproofs, wellies and a change of footwear. If not duffers …?
From that moment, fortune favoured us. We met at Shotley, on the tip of the peninsula where the River Orwell meets the River Stour – a key location for the first two stories. There's a marina with lock gates and a 24 hour control tower. I arrived first and asked the duty lock-master if I could bring the children inside.
“Of course. Would they like to work the lock?”
Would they?! The lock-master explained that the bad weather and projected high tides meant that he was already on flood alert but still he found time to explain what he was doing to all fifteen of the children and he ensured that each of them had the chance to open or shut a sluice.
“Have you any interesting yachts in at the moment?” I asked. (We'd been identifying flags at the marina entrance.)
“There's the Nokomis – she's from Minneapolis.”
The children and I looked at each other.
“Nokomis? But … that's the name of the Granny in your story!”
“Are they sensible children?” the lock-master asked the teacher. She looked hard at her class who looked silently back at her, sensibleness radiating from every pore. “If they're sensible, you could take them down on the pontoons and have a look at her. Here's a map.”
We found Nokomis – small, neat and seaworthy, flying a weathered US ensign – and tried to imagine how far she'd sailed.
Then we noticed a crane lifting a fishing vessel out of the water to have a section of net cleared from its propeller.
“You can bring the children on board if you like,” said the skipper, “Once she's back in the water again.”
Surely now the teacher would go into negative melt-down about permissions and life jackets and possibly even hygiene?
“We'd like to do that," she said at once. "Whereabouts will you be?”
“Alongside that waiting pontoon over there.”
|Boarding the fishing boat|
I began to admire this teacher's style. I went with the children while she placed herself and her teaching assistant unobtrusively either side of the steps where we climbed on board. All day I noticed how she kept them safe without any fuss, watched without nagging. The youngsters were thus completely free to look around, ask questions, pick things up (or not) and crowd into the wheel house where the skipper showed them the engine controls and navigation instruments and told us what he would be looking for when he was out catching our suppers at sea. This was an ordinary chap, a professional in his field, explaining his job. Not in the classroom, not via a video but there, in person, on his own vessel. A rare opportunity.
We took some photos and said goodbye. Sketched the mysterious schooner and the cranes and container ships at Port of Felixstowe on the other side of the harbour. Ate our packed lunches at a local sailing centre, felt the force of the unchecked wind as it whistled down from the north and accepted the invitation from the sailing centre manager to shelter in their café from a sudden, savage shower instead of running for our bus.
The beach at Lower Holbrook is a long thin strip of sand curving round a shallow bay. People have lived and worked and hunted and fished here for thousands of years but it's usually deserted now. We left the bus and walked through the reed beds, then there it was between the trees – a surprise to all of our party, except for me and the teaching assistant (a robust walker and kayaker).
The tide was high, obscuring the wide stretches of mud and the children were enchanted. Once again the teacher and her assistant kept an unobtrusive lookout as the children paddled, picked up small, non-stinging jellyfish and climbed all over the monstrous fallen trees. And all the time they and I were talking, talking, talking about the place and what Might Happen here – either in my books or their own.
What if I was stranded here, where would I shelter? What if those jelly fish turned into monsters? What if we floated away on one of these enormous trees? What if there were pirates in the bay? What if I fell through a hole in the sand and found myself in another world?
When they got back to school their pens were busy. Yes, I could see the influence of exciting interactive video games in many of the stories but the zombies and the fast cars and the AK47s were wonderfully mixed with hollow trees and fishing boats, jellyfish and flooding streams. Such glorious mix ups make writing fun. They had taken the experiences of the day and transmuted them into fifteen completely individual adventures, editing and rewriting without complaint. They were writing with all their senses – there was the slime on the hands, the cold on the faces, the smell of rotting fish, the grit of the sand and, yes, the wet feet too.