So how did a visit to the Royal Geographical Society Exhibition, “Enduring Eye”, lead to Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens?
The initial aim was personal. It was the “rediscovery” of Sir Ernest Shackleton as a model for successful leadership some ten years ago or so that led to my fascination with his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17. The story of the survival of all 28 crew members in such adverse and varied conditions is both a miracle and testament to the strength of planning, organisation and the achievement of shared goals, namely “to stay alive”.
So during the week of half term I planned to take myself off to the RGS (IBG) to see an exhibition of photographs and movie taken by the Australian Frank Hurley during the expedition. As something like this does not happen very often, and since it was half term, I thought I would invite the Year 8 pupils at my school to come along if they wished. Certainly there is historical significance and a powerful story that I feel would benefit the children to experience.
I had a plan: travel to London, see the exhibition, have lunch, travel home. Keep it simple, have clear objectives, allow enough time.
Five of us – myself and four Year 8s – travelled up to London by train having met at Horsham. We emerged eventually from South Kensington underground station to be greeted by the half term queues snaking along Exhibition Road to get into the Natural History and Science Museums. There is a certain satisfaction in passing these by when you have a more specific, and in this case, unique objective in mind. The stroll up to the RGS in bright spring-like sunshine was a delight. Finding the RGS and the well-organised exhibition space was like discovering a hidden gem. Almost off the beaten path, the RGS itself is a beacon for the exploration of our world; to seek to understand that which is beyond our own boundaries, our own experiences. In a 21st Century context, its relevance seems greater now as we wrestle with the rapid changes in society, technology, politics and our environment.
To see Hurley’s photographs along with the text of the exhibition, breathes new life into a well-documented, oft-studied but nevertheless unbelievable series of events that happened 100 years ago. One of the boys was very well-briefed, at least thanks to the BBCs dramatisation starring Sir Kenneth Branagh. This helped hugely as we wound our way in and out of the displays. Each carefully chosen photo and accompanying text telling the compelling story of the Endurance and its crew; of the hope and expectation that was eventually defeated in the harshest of Antarctic winters, to be replaced by Shackleton’s revision of his mission’s goals: “to save life”. As the story of Shackleton and his crew unfolded in the months after the Endurance was lost, the boys found a great deal of interest in the minutiae of the events: What happened to the dogs? How were the photographs saved? What did they eat? Sifting through the details, it explains how survival became possible; living day-to-day, hour-to-hour with the aim of staying alive galvanising the crew, providing a clear shared purpose and offering focus in the tasks that were essential in getting everyone from one day to the next.
Rather than being a large and overwhelming exhibition, the displays of photographs and movie were discrete and compact. There was a feeling of the experience being long enough to be manageable, detailed enough to be fascinating and brief enough to elicit the comment “is that it?” with a twinge of disappointment. It certainly allowed us to achieve our first objective and, as we remerged into the Kensington sunlight, the next one hove into view: what’s for lunch?
Now I have to admit that hadn’t entirely thought this one through. We all had spending money and I had a notional idea we would find somewhere for a quick solution – a noodle bar? Sandwiches? Pizza, even? But the boys, having run the gamut of possibilities (including Sushi and discounting McDonalds on my insistence) alighted on the possibility of visiting Subway. Although it could be construed as fast food, I acquiesced and dutifully consulted the Google Maps Oracle for the nearest location. There were two options both 25 minutes away in opposite directions – Paddington or Earls Court. Neither salubrious locations, yet neither is Subway salubrious. However, the swathe of green on the map between Kensington Gore and Paddington made up our minds: we would stretch our legs and take in the sights of Hyde Park.
First, was the quiz about the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall which highlighted the boys’ rather sketchy knowledge of Queen Victoria’s grand gesture of love and devotion to the memory of her husband. However, they mastered that and we walked on. Of greater fascination were the tame (relatively) green parakeets that readily feed on peanuts, perching on the hands of passers-by to retrieve them. It certainly attracted plenty of those and some of the boys were keen to share their knowledge of precisely why the birds were there. That said, there is something magical about such close contact with a wild animal, albeit one that is not meant to be there and is now rather less than “wild”!
Parakeets were followed by Peter Pan’s statue, to ensure that the chance wasn’t wasted to connect with a little literature. And then a longer walk to reach the lunch venue. On the way I learned, from one of the boys, that beneath the box for the signal button at pedestrian crossings is a little grey, ridged cone-shaped dial which rotates when it is safe to cross designed for visually- and hearing-imparied pedestrians. I am grateful to have been educated.
Lunch at Subway, in the company of hungry pre-teen boys was a masterclass in how to consume a foot-long sandwich at speed and mercifully didn’t last long. At this point time was still very much on our side and a return to Hyde Park, with the general aim of a walk back to South Kensington, was agreed. On the way, a series of street names with the word Sussex in it (Sussex Place, Sussex Street, Sussex Square, Sussex Mews E.) made for an entertaining distraction. However, it was on reaching Hyde Park again that the day took an unexpected but meaningful turn.
“Is there a playground here, sir?” was the question. “Yes”, was the answer. The fantastic – and usually packed – Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens was only a short detour. Time was not yet against us for our return train ride and hadn’t been for the whole trip. Avoiding the peak of rush hour by catching an early enough train to take us back to Horsham by 5.00pm was one of my hidden aims! I didn’t want us to feel rushed or pressed for time, but they were asking if they could go and play. So why not? What’s more important?
So we walked a little further than anticipated and the boys had half and hour So they headed one way, I headed to the conveniently located, parent-friendly coffee bar for the obligatory latte and beetroot seed cake. Exactly 30 minutes later, several emails written and read, the boys come trotting back flushed, excited and full of stories. Exactly the outcome playing should have.
And then, Bayswater to Victoria – getting close to 4.00pm. I hadn’t looked at train times. Trusting instead to experience and an anticipation that transport out of the Nation’s Capital would be reasonably frequent, I believed that we would make it back by our stated return time of 5.00pm. And it is with gratitude to Southern Rail, that the 16.09 from Victoria arrived in Horsham at 16.55. It couldn’t have happened any better if I’d planned it!
So finally, with parents met and boys safely returning home I was left to reflect. A day I had set aside to engage with a drama that occurred 100 years ago, enabled me to make connections with a purpose: providing an opportunity to share Shackleton’s story with a new generation, sharing London in all its varied glory, giving children a chance to learn and play and realising that our rail network really can run on time!
Certainly something to be repeated…