I first ran my History of London for Kids walk last September at the request of a friend of my wife’s and have done so a number of times since, the latest being today (21 kids with accompanying adults to get them across the roads safely and cajole and corral them into the right place at the right time. Anyone need any cats herding? After today, I’m your man!)
The media seems to enjoy putting out a constant stream of stories about how kids these days are obese, dumbed-down couch potatoes with the attention spans of absent-minded goldfish, no interest in reading and how they know nothing about our history. I have to say that my experience with the kids that have come on all of my walks is that couldn’t be further from the truth; perceptive, knowledgeable, engaged and attentive which, over the course of a two-hour walk (three today after they had finished bombarding me with questions at each stop) is quite some achievement.
The questions they ask me and the response I get to some I ask of them are two of the things I really love about doing these walks for kids. By and large in turn searching and knowledgeable, but some (especially from the younger ones) just downright funny.
I’ve been particularly impressed with the knowledge about the Great Plague and surrounding issues among kids in the core age range the walk is aimed at (9-13 year-olds).
Take today for example. A key area of learning history for kids this age is an understanding of how we know what we know and who recorded it for us (they were asking me that question constantly today about every subject).
So, to introduce the stop to talk about the Great Plague I reveal the famous portrait of Samuel Pepys and, as the words “do any of you know who this is?” had barely left my mouth, 15 kids shouted straight back at me in unison “Pepys!”. Who’d have thought the great Mr Pepys would end up as a pin-up boy for 21st century schoolkids?
It’s always the stop that draws the really searching questions that slightly stop you in your tracks as well: “why didn’t the fleas bite the rats?”; “if they believed it was caused by ‘miasma’, exactly how much understanding did they have of the spread of infection through the air?”; “wouldn’t the cats and dogs have caught the plague had they been left alive to kill the rats?”.
I’ve mentioned before in another blog post how one of the real joys of leading guided walks is when you get asked the difficult questions that show people are really paying attention to what you’re saying. Never more so is this the case than when they come from kids of this age.
Final mention, though, has to be reserved for a boy on the walk today who couldn’t have been more than 6-7 years old. He was first to me at every stop, standing there looking up at me with rapt attention the whole time.
As we got to the monument to talk about the Great Fire, I asked “who knows what this is?”. Up shoots his hand. “Yes?” I say, looking down at him. “The King’s stick” came his reply.
Next I asked if anyone knew why Pudding Lane is so called. After the usual round of bakery product-related guesses (it’s actually because of the hogs’ stomachs or “puddings” as they were known which were carried down there from the medieval meat market on Eastcheap to be dumped in the river), up goes his hand again: “From the pudding-shaped cars that are on there”.
But he was saving his best till last. “Anyone know where the Great Fire of London is said to have finished?”. A sea of blank faces (for once!). But our hero was on a roll. Not to be undaunted, up goes his hand: “31 millimetres” he said, with utter courage in his conviction he was right. Quite brilliant.
So, if you happen to be on one of my walks that goes that way, the Monument will henceforth be referred to as “the King’s stick”, Pudding Lane will be so-called because of strange pudding-shaped cars that frequent it and the Great Fire of London will have travelled precisely only 31 millimetres from its point of origin. Because my little mate said so, and who am I to argue?
Yep, the kids are alright and an absolute joy to guide. Really looking forward to the next time.