In the heat of Summer, I escape from the salted sweat dripping from every corner; escape from the shelves I’m attempting to put up and run to the cool of a shaded pub to reflect on the London trip, a long-awaited reflection on the History Trip to London, England, last term.
For the purposes of continued anonymity, names of tripping malefactors and jubilant journeymen have been blinged.
Our story begins, not so long ago in a moment of weakness, not madness.
An email pinged. It was from Beryll.
Beryll from History.
Beryll needed me. She was in a fix.
A tight fix.
She needed a man.
Now, I have to confess, I’m one of those teachers who is all or nothing and for a good while I’ve ducked the shot of requests to support trips and the like, so I felt this was my moment to make up for it.
I replied to the request from History, from Beryll, to accompany a group of Year 7s to London on a trip taking in the wonders and delights of this nation’s core of decadence and moral atrophy; my moral fibre was summoned and I clicked and tapped:
“Yes, no probs. Smiley emoji.”
The response was swift.
A little too swift.
The hook was barbed and the line happily hoinked in. Beryll was fast. That was her reputation, though not loose: happily married in fact.
The barb was set deep. She had appealed to my martyr psyche. It was weeks away yet, what did I care of a 5 a.m. departure by coach and a 10 p.m return the following day? A total of 41 hours? “Pah”, said I.
My circumstances, working and staying 90 miles away from home, meaning I sleep in the back of my van in the week rather than under the eaves of a 16th century cottage with my wife (available on Airbnb, (not my wife)), meant an additional night in the tin hull – but, no matter, the opportunity to see the sights, be a tourist and escape the provinces was worth it; also rather useful back story for pay threshold progression: winky emoji.
Over the past 20 years I’ve spent a lot of time organising trips and supporting others as they seek to enrich the educational experiences of our youth. It is less and less straightforward. Safeguarding and risk assessments are the sentinels of such endeavour and put many of us off. I remember taking a group of 12 and 13 year olds away to the Gower, a cottage in the middle of nowhere, organising a midnight walk, disappearing and hiding high in a tree imitating the sound of a wild dog. There were screams, tears, shouts, hunting calls and hot chocolate at the end of it all. Sadly, such wildness has been whittled away over time.
As the trip grew closer I grew more frustrated with my enthusiasm. Supporting the trip meant either staying an extra night in the van when I could be at home, or driving up to meet the coach, meaning a total away time of 44 hours not 41.
Thankfully, with some negotiation, I was able to meet the coach an hour into its journey and at 4 a.m. my wife ferried me up to the services. Fifty 11 and 12 year olds met us, queuing for food and urination, or just standing, shell-shocked by the out-of-county experience thus far. I spotted one or two agog at the sight of my wife. She exists. Not just a fictional character I make up during the course of my lessons. I look around remembering the initial email and the promise that our selected pupils were the “nice ones”, I mentally note the variance in our appreciation of this category and file away for future review.
In fact, they are the nice ones: they are the unusual, the kooky, the quiet, the introverts, the extroverts, the Most Able and Pupil Premium, the diligent and the forgetful.
At 5 a.m. in a motorway services pupils offer sweets. I decline. Beryll offers coffee. My wife and I accept.
We have a lovely coach driver and she gets us underway with little hesitation and with plenty of smiles. As the sun lifts into the sky it is clear we will have the weather for trekking around London this weekend. The journey goes without event. I have one pupil sat to my left across the aisle who latches on. I’ve never taught her, but she is a mine of endless chatter. I turn to the well-used tease to silence her and suggest she has her eyes on one of the lads. I tell her I’ll find out if he is single. It works. She is silent. But it doesn’t last.
As we pull into our designated London drop-off spot Beryll is quick to rearrange the itinerary due to traffic delays. The Tower of London is our first destination, followed by a walk across Tower Bridge and our night’s billet: The HMS Belfast, moored at Tower Bridge, offering workshops, history talks and nightly stopovers.
I have swapped my tin can for a steel one.
This really is a first for me. I haven’t done anything vaguely touristy in London for at least 25 years, unless you count art galleries. The Tower is one I quickly note down for a future visit should we ever have children of our own. Kids and staff gawk at the Beefeaters, the guardsmen, the gigantic Tower ravens, get lost in the Tower itself and promptly reunited with a flea in our ear from a man in red regalia and ruff.
There is one moment of frustration as we attempt to leave. We round up our teams of 10 and, after a good 15 minutes of last minute looks at this, and laughs at that, we make a break for it, until one lad, one of mine, pulls out an iPad to take a photo of Tower Bridge. Now is not the time. 50 kids are on the move and we’re in the mix of a tourist hub. He is truculent, rude and perfunctory and my voice rises, the iPad disappears into a bag also containing a laptop. Who sends a child away to trot around London with an iPad and a laptop in their day bag?
Parents today, tut I.
But really I note that this is a bag screaming ‘self-esteem issues’ and personal worth.
Our friend joins the group and is put on a watch list. I rename the watchlist, in my head, ‘Trouble ahead’, but in the end I just call it the watchlist because I keep humming.
As we walk across the bridge to our floating sleeping quarters, trouble-ahead proves ever more troublesome, he dillied and dallied across the Thames as I took position at the rear, the iPad is fished at again until curt words spoken sternly see it sinking away.
Eventually we reach our port of call, walking past bars, pubs, tapas and culture. Culture is in reach, cooling brews are in reach: torture as we hustle our little horde past temptation.
At this point all I can think of is food. There was talk of pizza in an email, I remember. Pizza. In London, England. Bella.
It takes an hour to settle in, stow luggage, visit the privy and get a quick who’s who on board this, our good ship.
Eventually, we bustle back out, past culture, tapas, pubs and bars all the way to Pizza Express. Fifty kids are seated, intolerances are noted, the strange odour from the toilets gauged and food arrives. The pizza base is waffer thin and at the end of play I’m still hungry and do a quick tour of the tables and our children, stopping some spills along the way, raising an eyebrow at the lads stacking menus as high as they can and taking interest in unfinished plates. I score a slice. One slice, but my success is feast enough.
Our night aboard the Belfast is without incident. The boys are asleep before the girls. While lads play chess in their bunks – I know – the girls bounce around in sleeping bags. After some mild barking, both parties are hushed and so are we.
The staff are a 3:2 split men to women and so the chaps are three to a room, but sleep comes quickly with only some snores from Doc. Brown, our Science representative.
The following day we head to the London Dungeons and I’m bringing up the rear again. Error. Such an error.
Of course, the two girls too terrified to go in are with me and I end up in bar, which has no toilet by the way, with the two fearful lassies, waiting the 100 minutes of the tour. No signal and little battery, we wait it out. Thirty minutes in another pupil exits with our Doc. Brown – he too has been terrified beyond his limit. Doc. Brown exits stage left and rejoins the tour while I babysit until the tour’s end.
Next: the Imperial War Museum.
Beryl really has chosen the sights. The last time I was here was 27 years ago and I remember it vividly, simultaneously, inwardly gawking at the accumulation of time that has built, bunker-like, leaving a No-Man’s land of expanse between then-child and now-man.
We divvy up our responsibilities and take it in turns to tour this bastion of culture and history. As I make my way through I’m reminded of the Airfix models I used to labour over; I built at 1:25 and here they are multiplied into life real.
Eventually, I take my place at the entranceway’s stairway; here I can view the coming and going of our charges as they squirt past from one exhibition to the next and eventually the gift shop from which I already have my fridge magnets to decorate the department fridge.
Our departure comes too soon and before we know it Beryl, myself, Doc Brown, Whitney (the PE rep.) and Mo Farrah (our science tech.) are bustling kids back onto the coach and the motorway is under our heels. A number of children sit on newspapers, a trick my wife has introduced us to that apparently distracts from sickness. It worked on the way here; it’ll work on the way back. But not quite. A bag is quickly supplied and the coach puts in an early stop.
We make it an early dinner stop and assess the various fastfood options. I choose poorly.
As I wait for number 67 to be squawked by the food retailer’s representative, I watch one boy from our group waiting patiently. He thinks he’s queuing I finally realise and usher him up to the counter.
I leave him to it, but continue to watch. His attention drifts quickly so I keep an ear out for his number. It is screeched by the food retailer’s representative, but he doesn’t understand second-hand English so this time I give him a wink and a nod and he goes up. This is a big moment for him, obviously. The bag is thrust at him. He says thank you, but is ignored. Dipping into his pocket he takes out a handful of change and drops it into the yellow charity rattle on the counter.
I turn away only to see Beryl buying the biggest bucket of chicken for a girl who has lost her money. I’m not sure she meant to spend as much as this; the bucket is bigger than the kid’s head, but she does so willingly and eventually joins the rest of us as we tiredly tuck in.
Every moment has been worth it:
- Time with colleagues.
- Shared concerns and troubles.
- Shared joys and jokes.
- Insights into pupil behaviour.
- Endless banter
Time with these kids, every one a delight in their own way, perhaps with one exception; I’m not a saint and even my patience wears thin with some.
Talk soon brings my exit around and my wife is there to pick me up. I look back and Beryl is ushering, Doc. Brown is collecting up rubbish while Whitney and Mo are threatening a singalong. The door slides shut.
The coach trundles on and the curtain falls on our cursory dip into cultured waters.