…said the British customs team as we left the British passport control in Dunkirk. As the last of our group of seventy twelve-year-olds disappeared through the door, all five members of the customs inspectors burst out laughing. “You could have heard a pin drop as you brought your children through, we have never seen, or heard such a well-behaved school group, it so quiet” she said between her laughs.
Yes, even seventy Dutch twelve-year-olds can be quiet and serious!
Travelling with large groups of school children has its moments. The chaos, the noise and the feeling that you are heading a flock of sheep. But occasionally something like this comes along.
As a teacher it does give you a good feeling to get such a compliment! Was it our very serious (and possibly slightly over the top) instructions? Was it the uniforms of the serious looking customs men and women staring down from their desks? Was it a bit of both?
Either way, we were happy, the customs people were happy and the kids were quiet…..what is there not to like?
This really does seem a note-worthy moment to post. So much has happened in the last three years. In the autumn of 2019 I travelled with 80 or so pupils and a team of colleagues for the last time, the journey being from the Netherlands to visit the U.K. for just under a week. It was before the pandemic and before the Brexit deal was finalized.
Now three years later we have just repeated the visit for the first time. This time with two groups, one of 71 twelve year olds accompanied by seven teachers and a secon group of 60, mostly fourteen year olds and five teachers. On the program were various outside activities at the location were we stayed as well as a day trip to Oxford, and for the older children also a visit to London.
Reflecting now, from the comfort of having returned, what is there to say, what has remained the same and what has changed?
We’ll leave aside the fact that our travel agency, who organized the main logistics of the trip, let us down to a serious level,. Leaving us with many situations where we were forced to improvise, be creative or simply hang around in the cold waiting for a bus at five in the morning. But what about Brexit or Covid issues?
The main Brexit difference was that now, every single child is required to have a passport, and not just a EU Identity card. The extra expense of this change was born by parents and thankfully due to notifying them of it months in advance presented no unexpected problems. We were also fortunate to have no pupils in our group with complex nationality issues. Visa requirements have become significantly tighter since Brexit, this is doubtless a bridge that we will have to cross another time.
The Covid part of the story in the end worked out reasonably well, but did leave us a little on edge at times. There are no real Covid restrictions to travel between the Netherlands and the UK at present. However the idea of setting off on the trip with people in the bus who were testing positive was a concern. We didn’t specifically ask pupils to test, I’m pretty sure that we are actually not allowed to do that. It was the health issues amongst the staff that was the main concern. The days before we travelled, one of my colleagues had two family members at home who were testing positive, what if there were more cases amongst the teachers pop up at the last minute? We needed the full team, and a fully fit team! It really is an excursion that needs you to be at the top of your game in terms of health to cope with the 16-18 hour working days.
Right until the morning of our departure teachers were testing, thankfully in the end all with negative results. Did we have pupils with us who might have tested positive? Quite possibly yes, sitting amongst us in a crowed bus for hours on end. Did we have an outbreak of pupils feeling under the weather and maybe ill? Well, that’s a no, despite the tightly packed bedrooms that the pupils slept in.
Some colleagues were at times definately a little effected by symptoms that could easily have been a relatively light case of Covid. Did we test whilst in the U.K.? That’s a definite no. There seemed little to be gained by knowing. We just ploughed on with the excursion.
All in all the trip as a whole felt remarkably similar to the trip of three years ago. There was a bit more hand washing go on before eating, but to be honest, that is about as far as the Covid measures went. But also about as far as the measures really could go in such crouded conditions. Hopefully we’ll be making the same trip again next year, and hopefully the Covid situation will have eased still further, the situation/rules at the border crossing, given the current state of British politics, is anyone’s guess!
I grew up in the east of England in an area to the north of Cambridge known a s the Fens. It’s a landscape that is dominated by the simple and often hard geometry of a flat horizon line interrupted by an odd house or cluster of trees. Many might find it a bleak and empty landscape but it is an area of great beauty, rich colours and hugely expansive skies. I love visiting the area, as I often do, and driving and walking across the roads and tracks that run like ribbons across the fields.
Simple geometry and hard lines have always been an important part of my own work and I often wonder whether some of the reason for this might actually be in part tied up with my love for the simple structures found in the Fenland landscape and indeed the expanses of the nearby north Norfolk coast with its beaches and marshlands.
The fact that I have ended up living in the Dutch landscape has, I guess, only strengthened this fascination. I don’t consider myself a landscape painter, although I am hugely interested in the landscape and what it means to us, how we use or abuse it and how we manipulate the way it looks. These are the sorts of issues I am considering in my work. Whilst doing this, that interest in geometry keeps coming back, and above all that horizon line stretching taught across a composition.
Having been back to the Fens during the Christmas break with camera in hand I feel the geometry recharge has set me up for the coming months in my studio work.