|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
||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
||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.
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.
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
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,
“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
“Take a box and put in it:
A birthday present
One bucket and spade
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!
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
As it turned out it was a joy to research this astonishing
man, to put together a teachers pack and to work in schools.
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
“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
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.
did not lecture our children about Brunel, we sang about him!”
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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: www.folksw.org.uk