History Around Us

Testing the approach

One of the best ways to exercise the '3-D' approach to learning history which underlies this module is to write a story or create a drama using an authentic location. This story will draw upon the real experience to be gained through working on a site and will include the use and interpretation of evidence as well as an understanding of the systems and relationships which this evidence represents. If it is a good story it will also involve - consciously or unconsciously - the different 'agendas' described in the introduction.

In the case of Coldharbour Mill a wealth of evidence exists to help children use their historical imagination. A more challenging site in every way is Houndtor medieval village on Dartmoor. Here the evidence is much more limited but there is a greater feeling of adventure and the unknown. Children may find more freedom and excitement in setting a story in a period very remote from their own providing the teacher can supply enough in the way of background information to answer some of the many questions they will need to ask.

The site

The deserted medieval 'village of Houndtor consists of six stone houses, one shed and three corn-drying barns (see plan and reconstruction) which were abandoned several hundred years ago, probably as a result of the Black Death (dates arrived at by carbon-dating pollen). Four of the houses are typical Devon 'longhouses' with cattle and people living under one roof (see reconstruction) and one - sometimes known as the 'manor house' - is much larger than the others.

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Exploring the site

The remains of the village lie about 15 minutes walk (¾ mile) from the public car park at Swallerton Gate. Leaving the mass of Houndtor itself on your right walk along the lane which goes past the car park in the direction of Manaton until you come to the end of a wall with a rough parking place nearby. Cross over the lane and take the well trodden path which skirts round Houndtor in a south easterly direction. Keeping the valley on your left stay roughly level until you come to the site of the village lying in an open area with another group of rocks (called Greator rocks) ahead of you.

You will be approaching the village from the direction from the north west. Using the plan overleaf take your own route through the site. Identify each house and trace the route you've taken.

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Choose one or more of the houses for a close look. Using the sketch provided (overleaf) check for any features that you can see on site e.g. doors, hearths, drains. What features are missing?

Pace out your house using your own stride as a unit of measurement, Three adult foot lengths equal roughly one metre. Make a scale plan showing where you think the people might have slept and how many cows you think would fit in. Try to visualise the inside and the outside of the house and do rough sketches from different viewpoints.

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Think about life in the village 700 years ago. What evidence of tasks can you find by looking at the evidence on site (for example, in the barns there are drying ovens, telling you that some grain was kept over winter to make bread and provide seed for sowing). In the landscape surrounding the village there is evidence of ploughing and field clearance. Can you find it? Where did the village get its water from?

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Looking around, why do you think that people chose to settle in a place like Houndtor? Why might they have left? What would you need to know in order to answer these questions?

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Writing a Houndtor story

Illustration: Life in a longhouse

Life in a longhouse

The houses were divided by a cross passage. To the right, screened off, was the family living space with a central hearth. Beyond that, also screened, lay an inner room for sleeping. To the left of the passage the cattle were tethered to posts driven into the earthen floor in an area known locally as a shippon. A drain lined with stones carried waste out through a hole in the end wall.

The thatched roofs came very close to the ground with few, if any, small windows. The stone walls were probably plastered internally and weatherproofed externally with cob. Smoke from the hearth escaped through the eaves. What furniture there was would have been very simple: benches round the hearth and perhaps a bedstead in the sleeping area.

Illustration: Plan of the village

Plan of the village

Choosing a subject

Medieval people loved a good story. One that is easily told is the Pardoner's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (written about 1400). This could be a model for a story set within the village that shows how wrong-doing reaps its own rewards. Alternatively you could base a story around an object like a coin. How did it come to be lost? Anything involving animals will be popular with children: a fable from Aesop might be good inspiration.

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A good story will be one that interweaves action with description and shows people acting from instinct but also in accordance with the beliefs and values of their times - in other words one that allows us to step into the shoes of the characters yet feel different. When assessing a story from the historical point of view we need to bear in mind the five key skills of the National Curriculum and the stages (levels) by which children acquire these skills.

Look for these features in particular:

  • A grasp of the remoteness of the period ('once upon a time' or 'a very long time ago, when castles were built and people fought with swords bows and arrows..'). Dates are not as important as a clear idea of what belongs in the medieval world and what doesn't. However older children should be encouraged to be specific about the century (even the year in some cases) in which their story is taking place. This is part of the process by which they acquire the specialised vocabulary we use to describe time as well as their own personal 'map' of the past.
  • A proper sense of sequence and order which recognises the dependence of one event on another. Older children should be aware of the complexity of factors which may be influencing a particular situation and the need to present information logically and clearly so that their readers can follow the action without becoming confused.
  • A strong feeling for the realities of life in the period being studied which comes a) from seeing them at first hand through their visit and b) through asking questions eg how did they light their houses if the windows were so small? A good peparation for this aspect of the writing is to get the children to imagine that they have been 'parachuted' into to Houndtor in the 13th Century. What would they need to know in order to survive? Besides the basics an 'experienced' time traveller would also show some understanding of the values and beliefs which held medieval society together. If the teacher wishes to ensure that this happens he/she could suggest that the story revolves around a crime or a natural disaster.
  • Telling details which show an eye for significant evidence and also the ability to assess its reliability and relevance. It is here that the value of the visit becomes most obvious for it is quite possible that children will spot aspects of the site that no-one has seen before. At the very least their physical encounter with the historical environment should give their stories a strong sense of sense of place and movement through it.
  • A sense that people in the past had different points of view. This may come across in description but is even better demonstrated through dialogue. Writing historical dialogue is fraught with problems for the adult author but children sometimes find it easier. Providing they avoid obvious anachronisms and attempts to employ pseudo-antique terms like 'thee' and 'thou' and 'come hither maid,' simple plain English can represent the thoughts of people in the past in exactly the way they would have expressed them if writing in the present.
  • A sense of audience. All written work should be read aloud if possible. Although a child may well want to keep their work private (and the more sincere it is, the more likely this is to be true) they should always be encouraged to think that they are writing for someone - someone who is intelligent but who knows nothing about the subject at the start. With history-based stories especially it is essential to 'set the scene' in a way which enables the audience to feel 'at home' both physically and emotionally.

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The starting point for background reading must be the range of resources produced by English Heritage, in particular the 'Teacher's Guide' series of booklets which cover many aspects of the historic environment, including abbeys, castles and historic houses, as well as humbler dwellings. Copies of three very useful leaflets - 'Making Successful Visits to Historic Sites', 'Learning Beyond the Classroom', and 'Designing Activity Sheets for a Site Visit' - will be supplied during the course. They contain lists of all the relevant titles. Video-cassettes are also available from English Heritage on free loan: you will be seeing 'Doorstep Discovery' and 'History At Home' as part of the module, together with excerpts from 'Teaching on Site', a series which covers many other aspects of the National Curriculum. You will also be seeing individual programmes from the BBC Landmarks series 'Investigating Local History.'

Two publications by the National Trust are of particular value: 'Learning from Country Houses' by Chris Culpin is full of ideas and information, whilst 'No Longer Dead to Me' edited by John Fines describes the inspiring drama projects carried out by the Trust's Youth Theatre company (now sadly disbanded). Other useful books will be found in the general reading list distributed at the start of the course.

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