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An article by Year 12 student Nor from Oxford, followed by a poem and painting by Year 11 student Camille from London
It was the 8th day of a very hot July in a small woodland in South West Oxfordshire. Two dozen Year 10-13 students and another dozen staff mentors travelled far and wide to get to Wytham Woods (University of Oxford Environmental Sustainability Project Award Runner Up 2022 for its youth work), through hot and cold, through train stations and traffic jams. We are the UK Schools Sustainability Network (UKSSN) and this is the tale of what happened next…...
With a mix of arrival times and transport options we arrived at a mismatch of times. I arrived second to last of those getting themselves there and in between the second and last of the big groups coming by taxi from the train station. Given the overwhelming heat and general traffic, typical of Oxford, you can probably guess how much of a frying pan everyone's journeys to Hill End Outdoor Centre had been.
The earlier groups were out walking with Wytham Woods researcher Julia when I arrived, having participated in a mysterious stick name icebreaker led by staff mentor Phoebe from Oxford, giving me time to get settled and add what I wanted to get out of the weekend to the post-it notes wall before the next person arrived.
As soon as everyone was assembled it was potatoes and beany sauce for tea put together by the amazing Dr Kim Polgreen who runs the Oxford Earth Academy and invited UKSSN to spend time at Wytham this summer after a staff group sampled its delights last summer. Much like the UKSSN trip to Glasgow for COP26 in November, the similar instant friendliness and exchange of information made introductions unforced and free. After tea we were given time to wander around, which many of us took, exploring Hill End and having crazy conversations.
Then we relocated from the dorms to the campfire for story time. We heard a Hungarian folk story from staff mentor Anita Molnara from the Avon network about a boy with a dream, an angry sultan, masters beating their workers, and ending with the dreamer getting the girl. We also heard from Bill Finnegan from Oxford Uni who played an episode of the long-time podcast which helped us travel through time, both back in time and forwards into the future. Staff mentor Phil Leamon who runs the Surrey network then asked us to create our own stories from prompts with the essential elements of a hero, an antagonist, a setting, a helper and a magic object. Magic beans that grew into paint producing flower covered bean stalks, artists who wanted to spread love and awareness, a young child with bow and arrows of knowledge, loggers, ogres and oppressive kings/governments all featured in our various stories. Then we had marshmallows toasted over the campfire. They were tasty.
A nature walk spotting bats, listening to owls and lots of mysterious rustling followed. Then we all went stargazing with Phil, spotting constellations and hearing the tales of Persephone, Cassiopeia, Calisto and her son Arcas in the moonlit blue rural Oxfordshire sky. Did you know there are more stars than grains of sand on this planet but more atoms in a grain of sand than in a star?
In a slow trickle of people, used to different bedtime routines, we retreated to our different dorm rooms. Room 3 was full of lots of very cool people.
Saturday morning started bright and early, with people gradually heading into the main room joining in on the conversations, tea drinking and Lego wind turbine building. Before long, early morning Tai Chi with Somerset mentor Mary Leonard began an interesting relaxing practice to which people had a range of reactions. After becoming pretty relaxed, breakfast took place consisting of bread, jam, cereal, strawberries and a long queue.
Next came the potentially boring business of planning in the form of mind mapping ideas in the birch tree grove. In fact, it was an infectiously creative discussion with mentor Jess Tipton who set up and runs UKSSN and Bill about what UKSSN could do next year and what education should provide climate and nature wise.
After a break for lunch, we went into Wytham Woods, a beautiful glade of dappled sunlight, meeting up with researcher Tom (an entomologist with a passion for beetles and spiders in particular) and researcher Danny (the bat person who's been studying the bats of Wytham woods for an insane number of years).
It was immensely interesting to learn all about how bats are a quarter of all mammals, about the different species of bats in England and which ones you can find in Wytham. We were also very lucky to get to see some bats. They are super tiny and their wing hands are crazy.
Bug spotting was similarly educational, learning about Tom's work on holding the government to account in terms of what they count as biodiversity, learning about how he looks for bugs using nets around brambles and turning over decayed old logs and breaking them apart. Also, apparently to study reptiles what you do is drop litter like corrugated iron pieces as they are naturally drawn to sources of heat.
After a long walk it was nice to get back to the dorms and attempt to shake off the heat. Anita played the How Bad are Bananas? game with us, introducing us to facts like a flight from London to Hong Kong being only marginally worse than the average annual carbon footprint of someone living in the UK.
Then we went and learned all about the rules for eye-catching sign-making with mentor Tom who runs the Avon network. He taught us all about how to create effective signs possibly for protesting, possibly not. The resulting designs were awesome.
Dinner consisted of pizza from a local farm. It was tasty, especially alongside the good conversation.
The campfire activities on Sunday included a quiz led by mentor Jenny Chapman who runs the London network about bird song, eco acronyms, David Attenborough quotes, definitions and Latin names of organisms. Then Tom showed us his collection of claws, feet, bones and fur introducing us to a range of animals and why they have certain features. Then we played a blindfolded game led by Phoebe to test how well we could use our senses which ended with us rolling down hills and using the sunset to create silhouettes.
Later evening student-led activities were pretty chaotic (especially our attempts at Highland dancing) but eventually everyone got to sleep.
Sunday started with a bang as a mix of persistent window-piercing early morning brightness and overlapping alarms jolted people awake. Students Alexander and Jared had been up even earlier to find purple emperor butterflies and returned with photographic evidence. Breakfast was again very tasty and lively despite the fact that it was accompanied by the packing of bags and the finalising of train and taxi times.
However, before anyone could leave Jenny had one more session for us. We discussed the difference between individual change and systems change and the vital importance of both, considering our influence as investors, citizens, as part of organisations, role models and consumers. For instance, she talked about using your vote with full understanding of a party’s policies and history, getting your organisation to move to a green bank and attempting to normalise conservations about climate change by casually talking about travelling by train or through visible mending. Did you know that the annual emissions on average of a coal mine amount to 8,400,000,000kg of CO2? We are paying a lot of attention to plastics but there are other alarming statistics. #SystemsChangeNotClimateChange
The rest of the day was chill in every sense of what it means to be chill. Random conversations occurred, full of motivation and inspiration, where we shared ideas and came up with ambitious plans and people slowly went off in groups of 1-7 after checking which of the pre-trip post-stick aims we had achieved, until only 6 of us were left staying on an extra day to attend the Green Careers fair run by Kim the next day.
Also, mentor Jenny and students Camille and Remus finally finished the Lego wind turbine amongst wide cheers and celebration.
While the main party had been good, the after party was also very cool. Our conversations got even more interesting and inspirational spreading through the afternoon, dinner and into our late evening walk. And it was on said walk that we finally saw a badger that Jared took us to after spotting it earlier that evening! According to the seek app, it was a Meles meles native to Europe and some parts of West Asia thought to carry TB to cows so shot by farmers and in danger of disappearing as the climate gets hotter.
We didn’t get back to the dorms until late having too much fun trekking about the woods long after the sun had gone down. The forest looked magnificent in the fading twilight, full of badgers, deer, insects and thriving life and then as silhouettes in the moonlight the trees looked even more spectacular, the leaves in the holes creating a feast for the eyes.
Monday morning was a blur as we had to be out of the dorms and down on the main field of Hill End by 9am to help Kim run the Green Careers fair. Although we did have time during our clean-up of the dorms to look at the moths in the trap set up by Kim for us. Moths it turns out are actually quite interesting. The trap had caught a buff tip, a red footman, a popular hawk moth, quite a few cornets and buff arches as well as some common footman and swallow tips.
At the Green Careers fair, everyone was randomly allocated to hear from different speakers of which there was a real range: an environmentalist in the army, someone in construction, in clean energy, in sustainability roles in schools, in consulting, in wood recycling, and in regenerative farming. The list went on and on.
I was the helper for group 3. First, we heard from Jo Bowlt an Army reservist about how slowly the military is working on things like climate security as climate change will multiply conflict and as resources dry up and natural disasters become more frequent and deadly. We also heard from Siemens Energy about their hydrogen power units or HPU that have been used to power construction sites and TV shows like some BBC Bristol’s nature programme, which sounded interesting although I could only understand the GCSE-level physics.
We got to hear from Emma, a trainee quantity surveyor from Beard Construction, a family-owned contractor, who got us to design our own house and then make it as sustainable as possible, as cheaply as possible. My team didn’t win although learning about things like sheep’s wool installation, grey water systems and the different types of walls, floors and roofs that can be considered sustainable was awesome.
Our last workshop was with Megan, a teacher in the UKSSN’s Oxford network, who got us to consider how jobs in schools can be eco like how a Head teacher can make sure the school spends its’ finances environmentally as well as economically and how schools in the future might have a sustainability lead.
The very hot and tiring day was rounded off by a talk about every sector being essential and to quote the speaker from Oxford University “You can turn a pedal or you can tap a spike [representing different industries] turning the whole wheel no matter which spike you tap.”
Thank you to all those who made our trip possible: Kim Polgreen for inviting, hosting and feeding us; Hill End Centre for accommodating us; UKSSN staff (Anita, Jenny, Jess, Mary, Phil, Phoebe, Stuart, Tom and Toni), Bill Finnegan and Wytham Woods researchers for leading our activities and behind-the-scenes work; and Oxford University, Transform Our World (using iWill funding) and UKSSN schools for funding the trip.
Please check out our @ukschoolssusty Instagram and Twitter for more photos and insights from the weekend (#UKSSNSummer and #UKSSNStudentTakeover) and to keep an eye on our progress. We’ve got some ambitious plans and lots of hopeful enthusiastic energy to back them up.
Trip summary by Nor, Year 12 student, Oxford
A poem inspired by our trip to Wytham Woods by Camille, Year 11, London
Welcome to Hill End
Dragging ourselves up the unfamiliar hills
Tracing the thistle paths,
Hanging upside down on small trees.
There are spaces between silhouettes of leaves,
Cutouts of the smeared sky,
A contained pocket of inspiration.
Highland dancing in the dark,
Magical mushrooms* are infusing a common madness.
High on the stars,
Shapes morph into fantasy creatures,
And everything matters.
In a magical cave of trees,
Shiver in the hot breeze,
Gentle sounds of
Fill the cave.
A petrified tree standing in the fire sky,
The moon is framed by trees,
The light gives an air of pixie.
Watching the black and white creature
Rustle the dead leaves.
Welcome to Hill End.
* reference to a circle of wooden mushrooms up on a hill near the students' dormitory
Artwork inspired by our trip to Wytham Woods also by Camille
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