All hands on deck

When better than the bicentenary of Trafalgar to discover our nautical past, asks Amy McLellan
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This year marks the 200th anniversary of Horatio Nelson's finest - and last - hour, when he defeated the French off Cape Trafalgar, and events are taking place nationwide to celebrate the famous victory, culminating in Trafalgar Weekend (21-23 October). The National Maritime Museum, under the banner SeaBritain 2005 ( www.seabritain2005.com), aims to highlight the importance of the sea in shaping our past and our present. From understanding historical events, to the science of buoyancy and navigation, to marine biology and coastal erosion, to industrial heritage and society, SeaBritain taps into a wide array of national-curriculum topics for children of all ages.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Horatio Nelson's finest - and last - hour, when he defeated the French off Cape Trafalgar, and events are taking place nationwide to celebrate the famous victory, culminating in Trafalgar Weekend (21-23 October). The National Maritime Museum, under the banner SeaBritain 2005 ( www.seabritain2005.com), aims to highlight the importance of the sea in shaping our past and our present. From understanding historical events, to the science of buoyancy and navigation, to marine biology and coastal erosion, to industrial heritage and society, SeaBritain taps into a wide array of national-curriculum topics for children of all ages.

For teachers looking to plan a nautical day out, the National Maritime Museum ( www.nmm.ac.uk) in Greenwich is a great place to start. And there's plenty to fire a youngster's imagination, be it pirates, scurvy or the punishments meted out at sea. "Pirates and Vikings are popular," says Sheryl Twigg, a spokeswoman for the museum. "And they love Nelson's coat, with its bloodstains and bullet hole in the shoulder."

The museum hopes that teachers will take advantage of its curriculum database, which allows schools to quickly identify links to key subjects in the national curriculum within a maritime context. "Everything can be fitted around what the teachers need at any of the key stages," says Twigg.

Greenwich is also home to the Cutty Sark ( www.cuttysark.org.uk), a tea clipper built in 1869 for "White Hat" Willis, a London ship-owner who wanted to be first in the annual race to bring back the new season's tea from China. The advent of steam power and the opening of the Suez Canal closed off the Far East tea trade to sailing ships, but by 1885, the Cutty Sark was working in the Australian wool trade. Today, she offers a rare insight into life on the high seas in the late 19th century, whether in the wood-panelled saloon of the officers or the crew's cramped deckhouse.

A visit to the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth ( www.historicdockyard.co.uk) is a trip back in time to Britain's naval glory days. This complex of naval attractions is home to HMS Warrior, the world's first iron-hulled armoured battleship, which on her launch in 1860 rendered older warships obsolete. Three centuries earlier, and the pride of the English Navy was the Mary Rose, a favourite of Henry VIII before it sank in 1545. The ship was raised in 1982, restored, and today offers hands-on experience of life on board a Tudor warship. For example, pulling a longbow, hoisting the yard on the mast, and trying on replica armour. Teachers can download material from www.maryrose.org, and book activity sessions that range from life in a Tudor gun team to working as a trainee archaeologist.

The Historic Dockyard is also home to Nelson's HMS Victory ( www.hms-victory.com). After his fatal wounding at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson's body was returned to England in a brandy barrel for a full state funeral. A new multimedia attraction provides an insight into life on one of the Victory's gun decks.

The above-deck elegance - and the below-deck backbreaking work - of a tall ship can be revisited on the Glenlee bulk cargo-carrier, now moored in Glasgow Harbour ( www.glenlee.co.uk). Built in 1896, the Glenlee circumnavigated the globe four times, transporting cargo. In 1922, she was purchased by the Spanish navy, which used her as a training ship until 1981. She was then laid up in Seville harbour, where she was largely forgotten and later sank due to vandalism, before being recovered and restored by the Clyde Maritime Trust.

Further south, in Brixham, Devon, Sir Francis Drake's 16th-century Golden Hind, the ship in which he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, is open to visitors ( www.goldenhind.co.uk). Between 1577 and 1580, the Golden Hind enabled the great seaman to make some extraordinary discoveries and amass treasures worth £600,000 in 1580, equivalent to £25m today. There are a variety of resources available to teachers, covering everything from food on board an Elizabethan ship to rates of pay and punishments.

Fast-forwarding a few centuries, there are also opportunities to visit the ships that served Britain through the two world wars. The Historic Warships collection in Birkenhead ( www.historicwarships.org) includes a tour of the German U-boat U534, raised from the seabed 48 years after her sinking in May 1945, which marked the end of the Battle of the Atlantic. The collection also includes the frigate HMS Plymouth and the submarine HMS Onyx, which played important roles in the Falklands conflict, as well as the minehunter HMS Bronington.

Young Londoners can also tour the 1938 warship HMS Belfast, now moored on the Thames ( www.hmsbelfast.org.uk). At the outbreak of war, the ship patrolled the northern waters as part of a naval blockade on Germany. She suffered a mine explosion that took her out of action for a couple of years, but on rejoining the fleet in 1942 she was deployed for highly dangerous work, providing cover for Arctic convoys. HMS Belfast also played a role in the D-Day landings, and was one of the first ships to open fire on German positions in Normandy in 1944. In the following decade, she was active during the Korean War before sailing home in 1952, having fired her guns in anger for the last time. By her retirement in 1963, the Belfast had clocked up nearly half a million miles, but rather than heading for the scrapyard, she was opened to the public on 21 October 1971 - Trafalgar Day, no less.

Finally, teachers wanting to give their pupils some practical experience of coastlines, tides, currents and waves should contact adventure-holiday organisers such as PGL or TYF. By doing activities such as kayaking, windsurfing, canoeing and sailing, children are introduced to issues of risk assessment and environmental awareness, while at the same time gaining confidence and, most importantly, having fun. "We try to introduce the notion that kayaking and sailing are all about travel and exploration," says Matt O'Brien, activities manager of TYF in Pembrokeshire ( www.tfy.com). "We live on an island and we should all be mariners in some way."

Ay, ay, captain. So, why not use SeaBritain 2005 as an opportunity to do a little marine exploration of your own?

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