Brunel 200 Legacy Folk South West – In the Footsteps of The Little Giant
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In the Footsteps of The Little Giant

Folk South West is the folk arts development organisation for the South West of England. It works to stimulate enjoyment, participation and creativity in the music, song, dance and traditions of the South West.

In the Footsteps of The Little Giant was Folk South West’s contribution to the Brunel 200 celebrations. The project had three main strands – schools, community and performance – each focusing on the social impact of Brunel’s work, both then and now, largely through the medium of folk song, music and theatre.

Schools: the main thrust of the first part of the project targeted schools throughout the South West.

The aims of the work were:

to help key stage 2 pupils explore the life, times and work of Brunel through spoken material, traditional song and music.
involve children in their own song writing.
Teachers received training and a project pack (book & CD) looking at Brunel’s work through folk song and the visual arts.
12 artists worked in schools.
43 schools took part, each sending two staff to two training sessions which were repeated in five different locations.
5024 children altogether took part in the performances and workshops in schools.

Communities: Folk South West ran 11 community weekends in different parts of the region on harmony singing, song writing, techniques for collecting oral history and playing in a band, bringing in 7 artists to lead sessions.

Communities created their own Brunel exhibitions and performances. Oral history training included everything needed to set up local oral history projects, including applying for a Local Heritage Initiative grant and, since then, Folk South West has published new songs, stories and artwork created in both school and community initiatives.

Folk South West on tour.

Folk South West on tour.

102 people benefited from community weekends in:

• Westbury Park School, Cotham School and ss Great Britain in Bristol
• Ansford Community School, Castle Cary, Somerset
• Frome Festival, Somerset
• St Mary's Primary School, Chippenham, Wiltshire
• St Nicholas Junior School, Sidmouth, Devon
• Westbury Junior School, Wiltshire
• Sherborne School for Girls, Sherborne, Dorset
• Swindon Brunel Festival
• Greenford Primary, Maiden Newton, Dorset


FSW toured a musical play about Brunel’s work and life, ‘The Ballad of Mrs. Brunel’. The play gave a lot of information about Brunel’s life, contrasting it with the lives of ordinary people at the time.

• 9 artists worked on the play.
• the play was performed eight times to audiences of approx. 400

The Ballad of Mrs Brunel was performed in:

• Wedmore, Somerset
• David Hall, South Petherton, Somerset
• Chedworth, Gloucestershire
• Dorchester, Dorset
• The Cause, Chippenham, Wiltshire
• Ilminster Warehouse, Somerset
• Norton Sub Hamdon, Somerset
• Manor Pavillion, Sidmouth, Devon

Future performance plans include Cheltenham Folk Festival and at Wadebridge Town Hall in Cornwall in August 2007. There is a possibility of the play being included in one of the village hall touring schemes for either Dorset, Somerset or Devon.

Eddie Upton, Artistic Director of Folk South West, commented:

“We feel we have left all participating schools and teachers well equipped to carry on this work with future generations of children. We have also developed a strong team of artists who are able to carry on future education projects using our Brunel model as the basis for their work.”

Jay Smith, head of Castle Cary Community Primary School in Somerset gave positive feedback:

“I am writing to express our heartfelt thanks for the fantastic and unique experience you gave all the children in our school… After attending the training, my colleague and I felt much better informed about Brunel and also felt able to work at song writing with our children… most of our children did song writing: the results are fantastic. They show an excellent understanding of the methods of folk writing and singing, an appreciation of how folk music sits within our oral history and its importance to our locality… Why did your project work? I believe the most important thing you did was to come into school with a pack and give us training. I was given another pack to do with railways at the same time and I confess I haven’t even opened it… the imaginative presentation of some of the more abstract concepts of bridge building and branch lines was inspired and I will ‘borrow’ your ideas from now on! The impact on the school has been huge. I have been overwhelmed by the unexpected by-products of this project. We all feel an immense PRIDE in the fact that Brunel is connected to our locality. We have changed our history curriculum starting this September to include a topic on Brunel…. children are writing their own songs and many want to learn to play an instrument… I have felt a huge personal engagement with this project… I, we, can’t thank you enough for your ideas and courage in pursuing this project and if there is ever the opportunity to work with Folk South West again, put us at the head of the queue!”

Philippa Coulson, Education and Training Co-ordinator, has written a personal response to the project, as one of the workers who toured the region with In the Footsteps of the Little Giant:

“Take a box and put in it:
A birthday present
One bucket and spade
One Football
One daily newspaper (The Times if possible)
One letter in a large envelope with a stamp
One pint of milk (or PVA in a milk container if you prefer!) and
Several large pieces of coal (washed)

Dress up in Victorian costume, learn some songs and tour round 45 schools in the South West of England!

I grew up in the South West, my first ever school trip was to Clifton Suspension Bridge, I thought I knew all about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was a short man, who smoked a lot of cigars and built gritty engineering things like bridges and tunnels and my Dad had always said that he was a great man. What more was there to know?

For whatever reason, we all have preconceptions about Brunel and his achievements. Even with the best will in the world it is hard to deny that he was a macho sort of figure who was inconsiderate to his contractors, unsupportive to his wife, treated his son’s disability with a total lack of sensitivity, etc. The prospect of spending months of my life with this man seemed a matter for little rejoicing!!! However, scratch the surface just a little and you find Brunel the artist, the passionate man that could speak eloquently, inspire investors and navvies alike and who insisted that the railway workers at Swindon should have reasonable housing to try to discourage them from living the same wayward lives as the navvies.

As it turned out it was a joy to research this astonishing man, to put together a teachers pack and to work in schools.

Brunel flew into all corners of the curriculum.”

In the initial meetings with teachers it quickly became apparent that it was possible to make the project as big as or as small as necessary and that it could be focused around one area of the curriculum or all areas. Many schools had already studied The Victorians and so the historical links were plain to see. There was excited talk of stories, letters and diaries for English and Literacy. There was planning to make use of the wealth of mathematical and scientific data available and plenty of opportunity to ‘Help Mr.Brunel to solve some of his engineering problems'.

In building Box Tunnel they used a ton of candles and a ton of dynamite per week. How many tons of candles were used during the whole construction?

Some schools undertook oral history projects, talking to people who had worked on the railway and seeing how much life had changed in the town or village where they live. In addition to all that there was a wealth of art and craft activities. The ingenuity was breathtaking. However when we said that we intended to deliver the project through song and song-writing there was often a rather polite and slightly stunned silence.

Folk South West works with traditional music all the time and we accept as natural that songs are an important part of our heritage. Without looking too hard we found a wealth of resource material. There seemed to be no shortage of songs about navvies, quite a lot about various railway lines and even a contemporary song about the launch of the ss Great Britain. When the songs we found didn’t quite fit what we wanted, we altered them and we also commissioned three new songs about The Great Western Railway line, Clifton Suspension Bridge and Swindon the Railway Town. Together all these songs tell much of Brunel’s story.

“If we’re good, Mrs Taylor puts on the CD at the end of the day and we all join in the chorus as loud as we can!”

The Bright String of Pearls’ song was written by John Kirkpatrick especially for the project and takes the form of Brunel dedicating the Great Western Railway line to Queen Victoria. The song follows the route from Paddington down to Penzance and explains how beautiful places and amazing engineering feats were linked together by this wonderful railway line. Most of the schools involved are close to the railway line anyway and this song, in itself a piece of geography, helped many of the children to identify how their own town fits into the geography of the south west and gave them a real sense of pride.

“We did not lecture our children about Brunel, we sang about him!”

Musicians recorded the songs and each school received a CD as part of their resource pack. The songs, together with some spoken material, were delivered as part of a performance in each school. Since there is no reason why children should not contribute songs to our heritage the performance was followed by workshops where groups of children could write their own songs. There was a choice of seven different workshop subjects: the seaside; the penny post; the bridge; the ss Great Britain; Swindon the railway town; travelling by rail; and football, racing and a grand day out. All of the workshops involved writing a song but the subject matter was different according to the topic chosen. Anyone who has ever written a song will know that you need quite a lot of information and the children had to organise and reorganise their knowledge to understand how each of these topics was affected by the work of Brunel. It gave them an insight into how the lives of even ordinary working people were altered considerably by the coming of the railways and the development of the large steamships.

Each of the items in the box represents a change in people’s lives. Ordinary people could travel to the seaside, to football matches and to the races on special day excursions. Thomas Cook designed the first package trips including train travel and entry to the Great Exhibition. People living in large cities could get milk, Rowland Hill invented the modern postal system and trains delivered daily newspapers outside London for the first time. It gives a glimpse of how dramatically life changed in a short period of time.

“All the children enjoyed the project and singing their songs at the sharing session. They especially enjoyed recording them.”

After the performance visit, each school had the option of a follow up workshop. In some cases this was used so that more classes could have the chance to take part in a songwriting workshop but in others the uses were many and varied. One school learnt how to build ships and boats using withies and tissue paper. They then wrote a song for each boat as if it were leaving the harbour at Bristol on the day of the launch of the ss Great Britain. This school went on to use the same technique to build a giant model of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Another school used the opportunity to learn some traditional dances and some created their own Great Western Railway dance.

Others used the time to polish up their songs and in some cases record them for posterity.

Finally some of the schools gathered to share their songs and other work that they had done and to enjoy singing through some of the songs all together.

“An era was brought to life through songs. This cross curricular approach to History is exactly what we are trying to promote as a school so we hope it will be available in the future.”

Folk South West is the regional folk arts development agency for the South West. It is core funded by the Arts Council. This particular project was funded by Heritage Lottery as part of the Brunel 200 celebrations. It has been wonderful working with so many different schools and helping them to make the most of this birthday celebration year.

It is planning to apply for a further grant in order to publish the resource pack and will be carrying out more workshops in schools next year.

If you would like advice on designing your own project using traditional song, dance or oral history please contact Philippa Toulson on 01935 822911 or

“The impact on us as a school was huge. We all feel an immense pride that Brunel is connected to our locality. Children have already dragged their families to buildings and exhibitions to do with Brunel and our project culminated in a whole school trip to ss Great Britain, a feat never before undertaken! We have changed our history curriculum and bought and made resources which we can use year on year.”

Special thanks to Alan Rees of Westbury Park Primary School Bristol
Jay Smith of Castle Cary and Marina Barber and Nick Taylor of Lovington C of E Primary Schools.

For further information about the work of Folk South West, contact them at:
The Stables, Montacute House, Montacute, Somerset TA15 6XP
or via: