Shropshire's Children's University - My First Year

It’s just over a year now since I became Chancellor of Shropshire’s Children’s University, so it feels like time for a bit of a round-up.  In December I handed out Gold Awards at Keele University to children from schools in Wem, Whixall and Lower Heath [see photographs, including this one here with Peter Jones, Head of Shropshire's Children's University, and Kevin Mattinson, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Community & Partnerships at Keele University].  As with all the awards ceremonies I’ve presided over in schools and community halls it was a great occasion for celebration.  Keele University went out of their way to give the award-winners a good day, so many thanks to them. We had a lunchtime reception with an opportunity afterwards for the children, their teachers and families - and me too – to lie on our backs in the the university's star-dome and explore our solar system. There was also a chance – which I missed, being in Keele University’s Observatory instead – to build a university from scratch out of Lego.

It felt like a fitting ending to a great year.  The Children’s University has been running for a number of years now, but is still relatively new to Shropshire.   Only eighteen months in, however,  it has seventy-one learning destinations and providers county wide, with nine schools fully signed up and two thousand holders of Passports for Learning.  The number of graduates to date are two-hundred and fifty, and eighteen of these have achieved Gold Awards.  The Keele Graduation was preceded by one at Birmingham University, which I was unfortunately unable to attend, and currently we have three more graduations coming up before Easter.

Those are the figures.  What of the children themselves, and the graduations?  What are they like? Well, they have to be experienced to be believed.  Late last year, St Peter’s Wem had so many children graduating and so many parents and grandparents wanting to attend that they had to hold two separate ceremonies.  Their hall was packed on both occasions.  The children robed up in one of the classrooms and marched in to a fanfare of cheers and claps.  Peter Jones, Head of the Children’s University of Shropshire, gave a short address, as I did too, then awards were handed out, photographs taken, caps thrown in the air and the atmosphere of pride and celebration was much as you’d expect for any graduation.  Afterwards the street was crowded with parents, cars, even a bus.  There was no doubt, those nights, that something was going on in Wem.

So what are the children being awarded for? The Children's University is all about out of school learning activities. These can be anything from cubs and cookery to  caving and football,  and you can fill in the gaps between.  The Shropshire Music Service is signed up as a Children’s University learning destination, so any child learning music through the Music Service will receive stamps on their Passport for Learning.  Likewise the Library Service and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, and I mentioned caving because the Shropshire Caving Club is one of many learning destinations, county wide, that have joined forces with the Children’s University over the last year.

The idea is three-fold, firstly to reward children for their out-of-school learning activities, secondly to encourage those activities to be as wide as possible, and thirdly - but by no means least - to encourage children to be self-motivated in developing their interests.  The Children’s University is a child-centred organization whose aim is to make available to children between the ages of five and fourteen the learning opportunities they’re asking for. This is why I agreed to become Shropshire’s Chancellor.  It’s been a great first year. I’m looking forward to the year to come.



[All photographs are taken at Keele University, except the one above, which was taken at St. Peter's Wem.]


Rodney Matthews, Gerry Anderson & Lavender Castle

I turned on the news a couple of nights ago only to hear that my one-time writing buddy, Gerry Anderson, had died. I was sorry to hear it.  He was an interesting man.  It was back in the nineties that I first came across him, introduced by the fantasy artist, Rodney Matthews.  At that stage the two of them were seeking funding to make Lavender Castle, an animated TV series for children, but they had no writer. I was fortunate enough to be invited on board, along with Rick Wakeman as composer, and then there were four of us hoping for funding - though for a number of years it looked as if the project would never get off the ground.

I remember several meetings during that time, one at my house in Shropshire, another at Rodney Matthew's home in Wales and another at Pinewood Studios, where Gerry Anderson was working on some other project - I forget which one. Great interest had been shown, both by the BBC and ITV, and time and again there was cause for excitement, but then deals fell through.

Finally, however, the funding was found and I ended up devising twelve story outlines and co-writing six scripts with Gerry Anderson, including the first episode, shown below.  It was an interesting experience, but not one I'd care to repeat.  The world of children's books is far less cut-throat than the world of children's TV.  Rodney Matthews was pure gold - a man of integrity, imagination and a completely unique take on the world, and Gerry Anderson was gentlemanly at all times, and I'm glad to have met him. But I can't say that of everybody I met, and I returned to the world of book publishing with an enormous sense of relief.

It's strange to remember those days after all these years.  What initially drew me to Lavender Castle wasn't the chance to work with Gerry Anderson.  It was the chance to work with Rodney Matthews, a fantastic [and fantastical] artist working at the top of his powers.  To have my ideas turned into pictures by Matthews made the whole experience worthwhile.  Not even seeing them animated, moving and with my words in their mouths was more exciting than that.

If you want to know more about Rodney Matthews, follow this link:

If you want to see the first episode of Lavender Castle, follow this link:  



We were on holiday in the little cottage that in 'Telling the Sea' I call Wren's Nest.  In the book, I wanted Owen - the local minister's son, who'd run away from home - to skin a rabbit.  However, I didn't know how to do this because I'd never seen it at first hand. I told a friend I didn't know how to do it and he said he'd set up a snare for me.  Before  he could, however, I awoke in the wee hours after midnight to find  stones rattling at my window and my friend with roadkill in his hands.  A rabbit, he called up, only recently deceased.

I remember wrapping myself up in my dressing-gown and going downstairs.  I let in my friend and we went through to the kitchen.  While I filled a bucket with water, he took a knife, chopped off the rabbit's head and ran a blade down its body, skinned it and cleaned out its innards. It's an extraordinary thing to see a body underneath its skin, and still warm too. I don't know what struck me more, horror, shock or fascination. My friend told me how to treat the skin with salt to preserve it, which I did and I still have that rabbit pelt to this day.  He said that in honour of the rabbit, I shouldn't throw away its body but, out of respect for the passing of its life, I should eat it.

And, next day, I did.  With the help of my husband and children, I made a fire in the cottage garden and we cooked the rabbit the way I guessed Owen would in 'Telling the Sea'.  Then we shared it between us.  It was burnt, but it tasted good.  

I've never forgotten that rabbit, its fur as soft as silk, its skin marked with a network of red veins shooting off in all direction like a road map. Thousands of animals get run over every year, but this one was special. Nor will I ever forget the friend who appeared in the darkness like a conjuror, producing a rabbit from a hat. In a lifetime writing books, this is one of the memories that most stands out.  It happened twenty years ago, but it still says something to me about the value of a life.  If you read 'Telling the Sea' perhaps you'll see why.