This post has been kindly written by Gordon MacLellan, aka Creeping Toad
We started with a venue we all valued and a belief that children’s language grew more by direct experience than by just reading, listening and being told about things. Then we stirred into the mix Simon Armitage’s recent translation of “Gawain and the Green Knight” with its beautiful sense of rhythm and movement. A pinch of Michael Morpurgo’s Gawain followed and a grant from the Clore Duffield Foundation coordinated by Mid-Pennine Arts and we were ready to bake, with myself – environmental storyteller, artist and general creator-of-celebrations – as the spoon that stirs the pot.
But the children run
Down to the river
That races and rushes and ripples,
Rolling over stones and sand,
Running over the ford and
Under the bridges
Full of fish,
A broad broken bow of a bridge
Over the babbling water
A path to the forest
Wycoller Country Park lies along Wycoller Beck in the hills above Trawden in East Lancashire. Within a few minutes walk of our base by the dramatic ruins of Wycoller Hall, we could find woodland, stone bridges, waterfalls, open fields and slab-stone field walls and here we set our groups off to grow a new adventure. About 60 children were involved: a single Year 2 class from urban Whitefield Infant School and all of rural Roughlee C of E Primary School. Our goal was to use Gawain as a starting point, Wycoller itself for inspiration and retell Gawain as a new story poem. We wanted language to grow through exploration, observation, and simply being: getting to know the site would give children ways of using their own words. The trees might not offer new words but they would offer experiences to wrap existing words around, encouraging children to play with words, to enjoy them and perhaps to go off hunting for the particular word that would capture those colours, that sound, this shape.
Tall trees grow in these woods,
Towering, toppling, tumbling trees,
A tangle of leaves and branches and bark,
Old, old trees and new saplings
A world of green and brown
Gawain rode here once
Looking for the gallant Green Knight,
He is long gone
But his horse’s hoofprints are cut into the stones
Our group changed their minds. Gawain got left behind (“He’s already had an adventure”) and a group of 5 orphanned medieval children took over. Exploring the Park gave us the language we needed: simply looking, and walking, touching, smelling, hiding gave us words and descriptions. Characters, atmospheres, incidents all grew out of those discoveries. Returning to the same places gave nervous children confidence about their geography and they could plan action and map our developing story across the Park. In outdoor sessions, we gathered words like leaves, stringing cascades of words together and editing by listening to each other. We wrote, scribbled and drew incidents, stringing them on a washing line where everyone could see the pattern evolving and we could move them around easily.
Deep in the woods,
There is a wonderful palace.
A wild, woven willow hall
With windows looking out onto the world,
Decorated with jewels and gems,
Beside a swamp where
The tadpoles wriggle and spotted frogs jump.
There is a magical throne there
Where the King and Queen of the Forest sit.
Back in their classrooms, chapters were moved from one school to the other, building the story up and then passing it on. Hannah Kidd, a musician, came in to work on soundscapes and a Gawain song. With visual artist, Ruth Evans a long hanging was painted and appliquéd, offering a third ways of capturing the story. Every child made their own book, filled with their ideas, their finished pieces, drawings, pressed leaves and memories
By the time we had finished, we had a 5,000 word story-poem full of a sense of place. The Park infused every stanza of the work, had set action, reflection and characters in motion and given us all a reminder of how easily and how richly the environment will inform writing and help us create work that we can all be proud of.
And he stumbles
Into a ruined room where black rooks rustle
Gordon MacLellan: Creeping Toad. Creeping Toad works with groups to find ways of celebrating the relationships between people, places and wildlife. An artist and storyteller, Gordon works across the UK and abroad telling stories in schools, leading events in nature reserves, country parks, urban streets and rural gardens…just about anywhere, really!