All of this had to do with our lessons of how South Africa was ‘discovered’, first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and how it became an important part of the spice trade. It took until I was older to realise that a country that already had several different tribes living off the land can’t really have been discovered, but at the time it was all pretty fascinating. We hadn’t yet gotten to the part where the English got involved, but learning about Vasco de Garma, how he was the first European to reach India by sea and his realisation that South Africa was the perfect place to stop on the journey was very interesting. My love of history increased with every story about his travels and the difficulties faced by those who traded in spices.
The trips were different in England. Gone were the visits to friend’s farms and nature reserves with hippos. Instead I got to go to places I dreamed of visiting when I first read that history book. When I told friends about my school trips, their eyes open wide and they sound envious. Yet they don’t realise how exciting it was for me to go on the trips I did over here. The first one I remember was a trip to a Victorian school. We all had to dress up in that style, we were taught as if we were of that era (although obviously minus the caning) and ate a standard lunch at the time. Other children may have thought it was boring. I loved every single minute of it. The building was so incredibly old and held so many stories. For a day I got to live like the children in one of the books I read. It was fascinating and made me want to learn more. They joked that we might have been allowed up the chimney’s to try and be a chimneysweep if we’d been a few years younger. I left there wishing that I was a few years younger, or just a little bit smaller in order to have a go and climbing the chimney.
I never would have experienced a trip like the one I did to Sherringham in Norfolk. It was a standard trip that all year 6’s took for a week, before school broke up and we all went off to sixth form. We headed up to Sherringham, partially to learn about coastal erosion, but also in order to experience a few days doing different things. While we were there we got to go on an assault course and do an obstacle course. We learnt archery and shooting. In the evening’s we played games in the woods surrounding the place we stayed at. I learnt orienteering and how to climb and abseil down. In between all that we walked around Cromer. We learnt about coastal erosion and how the seaside communities were formed. We were shown how the houses were built with local stone, and I took some time touching the different stones bumping out from the houses, admiring how smoothed with age they were. I absolutely hated my primary school. I couldn’t wait to leave it, but that week was probably my favourite week at school ever.
At secondary school the trips were mostly for history. I went to an inter-church comprehensive, so there were also a few religious based trips and days away, as well as the occasional history trip and exchange trip. I loved the history trips. One of my favourite was to Stansted Moutfitched, where we were able to walk around the model of a motte and bailey castle. Looking around all the houses, it almost felt as if we’d been taken back in time. I found it incredible how houses had changed and adapted over the centuries. They had models of some of the people who would have worked in the village situated in some of the houses. Some of them had recorded voices, which was hilarious. I still remember the farmer like accents of one as he yelled out “I’m Percy Potter” at us at regular intervals. We were able to put someone in the stocks for a bit, which was brilliant fun.
There is such a depth of historical buildings in this country. After seeing a replica of what castles would have looked like we were able to go around Wimpole Hall and Home Farm and see how the estate developed and changed over the years. On another trip we learnt about Audley End and walked around the grounds. For a child and teenager with love of history and a thirst for knowledge, I always wished that we could have gone around more country houses. My parents couldn’t afford to take all five of us on daytrips like that on a regular basis, so these school trips enabled me to experience things I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. It was always fun to escape from everyday school trips for a while, but I’m sure for a lot of children it’s also just wonderful to be able to experience things they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to experience.
In year 9 we learnt about the First World War. As part of our studies we went on a daytrip to France to go to the Somme and Vimy Ridge. It was a very early start to the day as we had to be on the coach at 4 am in order to get across on the ferry at a decent time. It was the start to a pretty eventful day, truth be told. I had handed my passport to my teacher the week before. At this time I only had South African citizenship, but had a permanent residency stamp in my passport to show that I had the right to stay. The trip across was beautiful. At that time, beyond that one day in Paris when we’d emigrated, I’d never been to France. I was vaguely disappointed when the scenery didn’t change after we got off the ferry, but knew that that made sense. I can’t really remember too much of the trip to the Somme as I was absolutely exhausted. I do remember when we reached the fields and we were being told about the battles fought there and the history of the trenches.
History books are wonderful things, when they’re written correctly. They can allow you to feel as if you are there alongside those going through the events unfolding. They can make you feel some of the emotions and feelings that must have been felt by those people. Nothing makes what happened in World War One more clear than standing on one side of a field and being able to see across to the trenches on the other side. The trenches seemed both very deep and very shallow at the same time. It was hard to understand how they were supposed to protect those young men from gunfire and shelling. I couldn’t comprehend just how horrible it must have been to have had to live in one of those trenches for days, weeks, months on end, hoping beyond hope that you weren’t going to be sent over the top, that the war was going to end and that you were going to be allowed home. I stood there next to my friends and classmates and wondered how horrible it would be if I had to watch them be injured or even killed. It was a beautiful late summers day. The sun was shining, the fields were green and gold and the birds were singing loudly in the trees nearby. I could hear the birds because for once my class was quiet. They became absolutely silent when we walked towards the gravestones in the graveyard nearby. Seeing how many of those graves were shared, how many of those graves had Unknown Soldier on it, it didn’t seem right to keep talking about our mundane lives. The sheep in the fields nearby were a constant reminder that the scars of that war are still there. We were told that there are still unexploded mines in those fields. Those mines would explode if a human stood on them, but sheep are able to graze with no incident.
Vimy Ridge was a slightly different matter. I don’t know if it was because we’d been so serious at the Somme, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite as sombre there as it had been. We saw the massive craters caused by the explosives put in the mineshafts. Some people took this as an opportunity to roll down them, much to our teacher’s annoyance. We swiftly moved amongst the trenches, trenches that had been rebuilt to look as they did in World War One. Our legs needed stretching and, while we were conscious of remaining respectful (apart from those few rolling down the shell holes), we couldn’t remain sad for long. It was a beautiful day and it’s hard to stay serious when you’re 14 years old. When we got to the memorial, though, and saw the beautiful, cold looking structure, we fell silent. The statues around it depicted grief so perfectly we couldn’t help but be moved by it.
The trip back was initially uneventful until we got back to England. It was 10pm by this time. We were due back at school by midnight and some of us had been up since 2 am. Our buss was stopped by customs officials, as per usual, and my teacher took out my passport and the passport of one other student. His was fine. Mine was not. My teacher motioned towards me and I got off the bus.
In my rush to get my passport to my teacher, I had picked up the wrong one. My passport had been renewed recently and that one had my Schengen visa in and my right to remain in the UK stamped on it. My previous passport didn’t have that. Prior to getting my passport renewed I had to travel either with my father or his passport, as he had the residency permit with my name, his name and my brother’s name on. I had grabbed the old passport. In this passport there was an expired Schengen visa and no sign that I was actually allowed to stay in the UK. My teacher and I were taken into the main waiting room. It looked a little like an airport waiting room. It was empty. Then the questions started.
“Why are your parents here?”
“We emigrated in 1995, my mother is British, my father South African”
“Why is your father here?”
“He wanted to move over to England for years and we moved as soon as we could”
“How long have your parents been married?”
“How long were they married before they emigrated?”
“Well, like I said, we emigrated in 1995, and they’ve been married 16 years, so…” (luckily they didn’t leave me to do the maths and realised they were married before I was born and long before we left South Africa).
They had taken my parents phone number. I honestly thought that someone was calling my parents to let them know what had happened. I explained I took the wrong passport. My teacher explained that I had been at the school for 3 years. I was questioned for half an hour. My school bus was kept waiting for half an hour. I felt like an idiot for delaying everyone. I was terrified I’d caused trouble for my teacher and my family. Behind all of this I was incredibly worried that they might keep me detained until my parents could get there, that I was going to be left behind by my school that I might not be able to get home for a while. My teacher remained calm, and, while I was calm on the outside, she talked to me to reassure me that everything would be fine. After the interrogation they came up to me, handed my teacher my passport and told me I could go. There was no explanation, no telling me why everything was ok, we were just left.