Activities include Victorian rock pool rambles and nature writing retreats. 

Passion for the Devonshire coast reignited with new project

The University of Exeter and Bath Spa University have joined forces to revive public interest in the natural history of the Devonshire coast. ‘Science at the Seaside: Pleasure Hunts in North Devon’ is a collaborative public engagement project between the two universities.

The project seeks to increase public awareness of the rich history of nineteenth-century literary and scientific writing about the North Devon coast, and the role that figures such as George Eliot and Philip Gosse, among others, played in the growth of popular interest in science and natural history in the period.

Primary investigator on the project, Dr Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi from Bath Spa University, and the co-investigator, Professor John Plunkett from English at the University of Exeter, received a grant of £30k from North Devon Fishery Local Action Group (FLAG) in 2013 to launch the project.

Professor Plunkett said: “Before the heyday of Devon’s tourist resorts, its coast was a place of discovery and inspiration. At a time when the population of towns and cities were expanding enormously, there was a contrary desire to research and explore the natural environment. The rockpools, beaches and marine biodiversity of North Devon attracted many individuals, literary and scientific, local and distinguished. We strongly believe that the rich history of scientific and literary writing about the North Devon coast deserves to be better known and celebrated.”

The grant enabled the pair to create a programme of activities with Ilfracombe Museum, including Victorian rock pool rambles and nature writing retreats; with further funding from Bath Spa University and University of Exeter, these activities were extended to local Devon primary schools.

School workshops were taught by PhD students to develop ideas about the significance and value of the pupils’ local seaside through art and creative writing. 

Dr Hadjiafxendi said: “Due to the success of the family activities with Ilfracombe Museum and with further funding, we were able to extend our initiative into schools. We worked with 17 primary schools last year, delivering workshops to more than 1000 pupils and this year an additional 12 schools have signed up, which is great.

“Working with the local schools was a steep learning curve but it ended up being a fantastic and engaging experience for all of us. We are thrilled at the interest from the local primary schools and have been so lucky to have the opportunity to continue developing ‘Science at the Seaside’.

“Our long term goal is for our activities to become a permanent part of the curriculum at all primary schools in Devon and perhaps even one day across the UK. The local area and the community are both really important to Bath Spa University and it has been a pleasure sharing our learning.”

Professor Plunkett added: “The project has been a great way of taking our research into primary schools in Devon. We wanted to recreate something of the curiosity and fascination experienced by the first Victorian tourists, bringing together science and art, amusement with education, careful observation with creative thinking. We aim to carry on developing our links with primary schools this year, so that more pupils can learn about this neglected aspect of our local heritage.”

The success of the schools workshops in 2014/15 has resulted in funding renewal for 2015/16. The project kicks off again this autumn term and will be running throughout the school year.

Date: 21 September 2015

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