Y13 English study weekend in Medway, Kent
This year we chose a new venue for our annual Y13 study weekend – the Medway district of Kent, famed for its connections with Dickens, and its proximity to Chaucer’s Pilgrims’ Way. On a sunny Friday afternoon, we wondered at the romance of Rochester’s Restoration House (Satis House in Great Expectations), and shared our thoughts on Pip’s first arrival at Miss Havisham’s, and Matilda’s experiences of Rochester in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip (later we played her game of spotting the local businesses that exploit the Dickens’ connection – an apple from Pips of Rochester anyone?). We followed up with hilarious readings of the opening of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, which we continued in appropriately poetic (doggerel?) fashion in the grounds of Rochester castle. In the cathedral crypt, we staged an impromptu performance of Doctor Faustus’ encounter with the Seven Deadly Sins.
Struck by the concrete expanses of ring roads, motorways and industrial estates in this part of the world, it was a relief to discover our youth hostel was in a little green oasis – and was in fact a former Kentish oast house. Our intrepid and forbearing coach driver Colin took us out after supper in the gathering gloom to the Kentish marshes; several wrong turns and an almost total bus-diagonally-wedged-in-right-angle-bend later, it was completely dark and we bailed out at Cliffe churchyard to read the opening of Great Expectations by torchlight. Esme Alleyn proved a terrifying Magwitch, especially as she had to compete for volume with the bell-ringing practice carrying on meanwhile. Buoyed by this unforgettable experience, we struck out on the marshes themselves, where a red moon brooded over the distant Thames estuary, and read the opening of Heart of Darkness.
Saturday took us to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham, which was holding a 40′s day with lots of splendid costumes, role play and entertainment. Under the canopy of one of the many huge warehouses, we read and performed extracts from Vanity Fair and Our Mutual Friend, before boarding a paddle steamer for a trip upstream to see the historic barracks, the Victorian rope factory (a whole lot more amazing than it sounds), and, yes, more examples of modern Kentish road-building. By now accustomed to concrete wasteland, the empty expanses of the North Downs in the afternoon were like a dose of Optrex. As we padded along the Pilgrims’ Way, we stopped to read extracts from Canterbury Tales; Mrs Redston treating us to her legendary Middle English. In a wide open field, we were indignant on behalf of John Clare’s Badger. In the evening, we shared our anthology pieces at the hostel – it has been great to see such variety in the students’ own choices of literature and in their approaches to them.
On Sunday we left Kent for London, and a bracing tramp on Hampstead Heath prepared us to be Freddy, George and Mr Beebe desporting themselves at the bathing pool, before being surprised naked by Lucy and her mother (we stopped short of total verisimilitude here). The beautiful Keats’ house was our final destination, where we reflected on his poignant letters to girl-next-door Fanny Brawne, before reading and discussing Ode to a Nightingale in the garden.
We returned in the afternoon, full of ideas to carry into our coursework study of Vanity Fair and Birthday Letters.