When you’re a kid school trips are the bestest best thing ever… You get to leave the classroom for a day, you get to wear your own clothes (in the UK anyway)… You get to go on a bus! It’s only later on that you realise they were a bit rubbish. One of my school trips was, you’re going to love this, to the top of the road outside the school. This wasn’t a long trip and didn’t involve a bus, unsurprisingly, and I think the entire thing was for the sole purpose of telling us something about the local place name- ‘It comes from the Danish word helvede,’ sort of thing. We didn’t even get our own clothes for that one now I come to think of it. It seemed at the time to be brilliant though. There were other trips to the science museum, to a local nature reserve… One trip stands out more than any other and I think it might have been one of the first- A day out in the countryside, a visit to the tiny Cheshire village of Burwardsley.
Over twenty years later I sit here wondering what that trip was all for. Burwardsley has little that would interest a class of five year olds. There’s an education centre there but not much else. Today it looks as though the education centre has a reconstruction of an Iron Age Roundhouse but from the looks of it that wasn’t there all those years ago. There is, I read, a ridge of sandstone over the village but to go just for that seems a stretch. And a sandstone ridge? At five? No… I think the trip was so that the teacher could say ‘Behold children, this is an English country village.’ The place was only fifty minutes to an hour away but when you’re five that feels like forever. It feels like you’ve been taken as far away as the Mongolian steppes or Timbuktu. For a bunch of kids from an outer-town, lower middle to working class suburb primary school this was an alien environment. Another reason why the teacher wanted to take us there no doubt- To show us somewhere that wasn’t built of brick, burnt out cars and concrete.
It started out as one of those typical school trips- Own clothes, excitement, a day out from the classroom. You get to eat lunch on a bench somewhere and it seems frightfully exciting. For once you aren’t in the dinner hall being leered at by the dinner lady from hell. Guess what? You can be a rebel for once… You don’t have to eat your sandwich first! We probably did eat our sandwiches first because by then we had all become too terrified not to. We probably all thought that old Mrs Klebb was watching from the bushes or something, ready to attack us if we didn’t eat the sandwiches first. Lunchtime was later though. Before that came the inevitable splitting us off into groups and being sent out to look at various parts of the village.
My group consisted of about four or five of us, I cannot recall who was there apart from that one girl was the daughter of the adult in charge. We were each given a pencil and a sheet on which were printed numerous pictures of leaves, no instructions as to what to do with it, and sent on our merry way. Now the adult in charge of us… Not the brightest spark in the box. I shall call her Inga. Inga was one of those people who have about three brain cells and don’t know how to use half of them. Had she any clue about anything at all then in all likelihood this trip would have faded into the ether like all the others. There might have been another adult with us as well but, honestly, I can’t be sure. If they did exist they don’t make much of a difference to the story so let us pretend that they don’t.
Off we trot through this lovely, picturesque Cheshire village. It’s exactly the same as it was a hundred years ago, the sort of place from an Edith Nesbit story where a group of terribly polite children get into a series of awful scrapes. It’s where people get murdered by the baker’s dozen in Agatha Christie novels. The overpaid prima donna footballers haven’t penetrated here like they have other parts of the county. They haven’t knocked it all down and put up faux Georgian mansions with two gymns, five swimming pools and a private disco. It’s still the very definition of an English village. Imagine the sort of image you see on a postcard or a fancy biscuit tin or a commemorative plate. It doesn’t take long to walk through and soon enough we’ve been steered off the road and into a dark, foreboding woodland.
I recall looking at my worksheet every once in a while. Am I supposed to write on this? How? I’m in the middle of a woodland and I have nothing to write on. Maybe we were supposed to identify the leaves. It’s the sort of thing you take five year olds into the woods for… Well… Usually. We follow this path for what seems like ages. It’s a more or less straight path that goes upwards through the trees. Then we are stopped and Inga starts to look around.
‘I think we’re lost,’ she remarks. Lost? How can we be lost? We’ve been following a straight path for the last fifteen minutes (it feels like longer but it was probably only fifteen minutes.) Being five this doesn’t register with any of us and we begin to believe we are lost and start to worry. As the adult in charge it’s up to Inga to come up with a solution and her bright idea is to keep following the path forwards and look for a way down the steep escarpment that has formed on our left. Going down this slope will soon bring us back to the village so it isn’t a completely insane idea. The sensible idea would have been to turn back but sensibility and Inga don’t go hand in hand, as you’re about to find out.
At one point I figure out that I’m the eldest in our little group, barring Inga and the other adult who possibly might not exist- If she did exist I’m currently wondering why she (if she did exist I’m sure she was a she) didn’t just suggest turning back… Unless she was as dumb as Inga in which case we children were probably all in mortal peril. For now let us assume she doesn’t exist and get back to my figuring out that I was the eldest barring Inga- Because being a few weeks older than everyone else means you’re infinitely more qualified in every aspect of everything, I take to the front of the group.
‘I’ll lead the way, I’m the eldest,’ I sate pompously and before long begin feeling the need to repeat this as often as possible. They say that adversity brings out the best in people, it brings leaders to the fore. That’s evidently what happened here. My natural talent for exploration was shining through and I was guiding our bold expedition to safety, as though we were going in search of El Dorado or up the Congo to find Kurtz, as though I were one of those Victorian pioneers. To be honest, as an outside observer from the future I have more faith in the five year old Jamest Shacklechill in getting everybody out of this none-mess than I have in Inga. I don’t blame him for wanting to lead the way.
Unfortunately despite my attempts to lead the way the aforementioned Inga is still in charge. After some more walking, a vague memory of trying to get through an overgrown bush surfaces, she comes across a potential way down the slope. It’s sort of just a bit of an incline which is less steep than the rest, the only reasonable way down we’ve seen, and so she decides to keep going down the path and ignores it. Eventually it reaches the edge of the wood and turns further up the slope, going back on itself. Barring the edge of the wood is a short metal fence but beyond is a field, a farmhouse and a way back to the village! From here on it should be easy. Climb the fence, cross the field, get back to the village. Or you know, turn around and follow the path back to where we came in. Then someone, probably Inga, suggests the fence might be electric. Naturally, she goes to climb over it without even checking if it is electric.
‘No mummy… Don’t touch it!’ her daughter cries. Then she grabs hold of the fence and…
At this point our expedition into the woods is some fancy camerawork and a Bill Murray away from being a Wes Anderson film. To begin, there is a simple way to check if a fence is electric. Ask yourself, ‘is it buzzing?’ If it is making a buzzing noise it is more than likely to be electrified. Also, safety regulations mean that you have to put up a warning sign. These checks are not undertaken before Inga touches the fence and one of two things could happen here. The first is that the fence does indeed turn out to be electric. Inga is zapped by a gajillion vaults, there’s an explosion and the force throws her backwards through the air, simultaneously nominating her for the 1995 Darwin Awards. The remainder of us gather round her body (camera looking straight up from Inga’s perspective, everyone in a complete circle staring down at it.)
‘Is she dead?’ (Someone prods Inga with a stick)
‘Yeah. I think so.’
‘What are we going to do now?’
‘I think we should bury her.’ So we bury her under a pile of leaves and go on our way, deeper into the woods and now with a fair bit more competent leadership in the form of Shacklechill. The second thing that could happen is bugger all. In the anti-climax of the century, it is indeed bugger all that happens because, of course, the fence isn’t electric.
Then Inga decides we’re not going to cross the field and instead we’re going back along the path the way we came from.
GARGHHHH! THIS BLOODY WOMAN! SHE LITERALLY HAS NO COMMON SENSE! Is she even qualified to take a bunch of five year olds into the woods? No. She isn’t. We should have turned back a long time ago and now we’re going to be late for lunch. Are we going to go all the way back? Not on your nelly we are! We’re going back to that less steep bit of the incline she was checking out earlier. We went through all that with the fence for nothing.
Once more Shacklechill decides to leap into the breach, volunteering to go first down the slope because he’s the eldest. Seriously… Where did this guy come from? I was never this confident. I wouldn’t normally jump up to the line like this. I can only say it was the faux-adversity of the situation that brought it out of me. I don’t actually remember what going down the slope was like, just that we did go down it and that Shacklechill took the lead. It obviously wasn’t that harrowing, probably wasn’t that steep and would have saved a whole bunch of time if we’d gone down it in the first place. It would have saved time to go back to where we came into the woods.
It isn’t long from reaching the bottom of the slope that we find ourselves back on the road, fashionably late for lunch thanks to Inga’s incompetence. The teacher (as played by Bill Murray, obviously) is impatiently waiting on the road outside where the bus is parked. Inga explains what happened, how she managed to somehow get us lost on a straight path. Then she pipes up with ‘They had fun but they didn’t do any of their work.’ The teacher rolls her eyes and responds with ‘Typical.’
Unsurprisingly Inga never darkened another school trip after getting us ‘lost’ and attempting to blow herself to kingdom come. Shacklechill vanished back to wherever he had come from and over twenty years later I happen to take a look at Burwardsley on Google Maps. Right next to the village there’s this crescent of woodland, our woodland. It’s tiny. It’s more like a small copse. Inga not only managed to get herself and a bunch of five year olds lost on a straight path but she also managed it in something that can’t even be described as a forest or a woodland. It was a copse!
People enjoying the sun outside the inn at Burwardsley (Courtesy of the Sunday Times)