Offord Primary School

We are delighted to be working with Offord Primary School and their communities again in 2018, thanks to a grant from Cambridge Community Foundation’s A14 Community fund. We have worked alongside children, their families and the wider village community to creatively survey local wildlife and think about protected species, particularly bats.  We also continued to explore the local environment in extraordinary and intriguing ways. There have been a series of artist residency days with Deb Wilenski, followed by a Fantastical Bats Community Day - a hands on creative day open to all - in June.  See the diary posts below for more detail. 

Offord Primary School was our second Fantastical Cambridgeshire school partner. Deb Wilenski began working as their artist in residence in September 2016. Through Wild Exchanges we introduced some of the children’s ideas and discoveries into the working worlds of adult professionals in many walks of life - as inspiration for new work and prompts to remember where their own fascinations began.  This extraordinary Fantastical Map of the local area (pictured above) is one legacy of the project. A series of postcards have been produced as an invitation for everyone to keep exploring. 

There's a secret cave under this stone: who else lives in our local environment and how can we find signs of them?

A nest for a fat pigeon: how do animals construct homes and pathways, what might we build for them?

Would you like fire coming out of your ankle? What if people had amazing adaptations like moths, ants and bats?

How do the bats get in and out? Researching local species including the rare whispering Barbastelle Bat

A14 and Cambridge Community Foundation Logos

Sounds and animations


These two films capture some of the extraordinary moments from our work in Offord Primary School in 2016/17. The first is a collection of sounds and moments collected during the first community day whilst Old Mags and the stolen baby is the animation created collaboratively by the Hawks class (aged 7 - 9). It has been shared as a provocation for new stories and ideas with all the other children in the school and the wider community.

Fantastical Bats and Habitats


(Helen Stratford and Jo Holland) On two glorious June days, we welcomed 230 participants to Fantastical Bats and Habitats, our 24-hour creative wildlife surveying day for the The Offords community. Here are just a few highlights from the two days:

Our youngest visitor was 6 months old and our oldest over 80! We invited all of our visitors to think fantastically about animal habitats, particularly bats and protected species, through a range of creative and community activities.

We saw a ‘Giant Wild Village’ grow all around Offord school playground and inside the school, ‘Ant Architecture’ stretched throughout the hall.  Trees and play equipment were adapted to accommodate wildlife such as hedgehogs and changed into the shape of pigs, inspired by ‘animal architectures’.  A huge bat appeared next to the orchard and bat facts sprang up around the playground.

People also gathered together and walked to St Peter’s Church, especially opened by Church Warden Liz Howard.  Bat expert Pat Howard (AKA Bat Man) and Gerard Smith, from the A14 team, worked alongside families to discover how to identify bats from their droppings, how bats catch their prey and to further explore the relationship between human and non-human habitats, in this amazing case with both protected species and protected buildings.

Going on the bat walk – we learnt lots of facts from the bat fact manNathaniel (6)

On Saturday these themes continued: exploring overnight motion-capture footage to see who the school shared their orchard with and the discovery of squirrels, hedgehogs, cats and muntjac deer; identifying, analysing and categorising bugs found in the Orchard with Bug enthusiast and local resident Gareth Rondell; listening to and drawing wildlife sounds normally inaudible to humans in the tent of sounds, recorded by bio-acoustic engineer William Seale and including a series of nocturnal bat sounds; the ‘Ant Architecture’ grew fantastically and Big Bug hotels sprang up in the ‘Giant Wild Village’.

An extraordinary 46 people set out on a second wildlife walk, tracking a freshly mown path across Millennium Green to All Saints Church, kindly opened by Reverend Jes Salt and Church Warden John Simpkin. There were more signs of bats in The Offords at the Church and everyone spotted wildlife along the way, shouting out discoveries to share them with the group; blackbird, wood pecker, jackdaw, damsel flies, dragon flies, swifts, meadow brown butterfly and large whites.

Look a cinnabar moth, they like Ragwort. Lolly (5)

The day culminated in the installation of new bat boxes in sites chosen in collaboration with children, teachers and on-site wildlife experts.

Over 24-hours residents and visitors found unfamiliar and exciting new habitats within a village they considered home. They found out through walking, talking, collecting and making fantastically, how the spaces they knew so well were also inhabited by other exciting beings of all species and types.

Please do it again next year. Sarah and Tom

Being bats


A Boy hanging upside down being a bat

Boy haning upside down being a bat

(by Deb Wilenski) When we first went to look for signs of bats in All Saints Church we studied the outside of the building closely; the tower, the windows, the ways in for bats and other creatures.  On our second visit Benjamin’s granddad, John, who helps care for the church, met us at the door so we could come inside.  We walked up the grassy path to organ music playing softly and we remembered the whispering Barbastelle bats, a rare species found locally, who have found a way to lower their echolocation signals to avoid detection by their prey.  So quietly, whispering, we came into this beautiful little church to search for signs of animal occupation.

Image of the ceiling of the church - looking for signs of bats in All Saints Church

Searching for signs of bats in the Church ceiling

John showed us bat droppings, collecting on ledges and steps, and told us that the bats move around the church week by week, leaving these signs in different places.  The church had been recently cleaned but the children were still expert at spotting where the bats had been.  Jeremy asked how the bats could get in and John described how they squeeze through even the smallest gaps between rafters and tiles on the roof.

Looking up and around there were other wings in the church, flying company for bats.  Quiet carved forms no wider than the roof beams, the wings of WW2 pilots in insignia and aeroplanes, angels of course, and birds too.  So many corners to explore and significant objects to examine.   This was only the second time the class had been inside the church and so we invited them to look freely, see what they were drawn to and to record in observational sketches the details they liked most.  It was a peaceful and beautifully focused time of noticing, and recording.

Clipboard with a pencil drawing of a bat

Photo of the stained glass windows

Detail in the Church ceiling

Child laying is the church aisle drawing

Observational sketch

Child drawing in the church

In the afternoon we continued our bat research in different ways.  Some children drew bats using online searches for clear images as their inspiration.  A group of four children went to interview children and adults in other classes.  One group of boys show me how they could hang like bats and demonstrated physically how to be bats in the playground.  And a fourth surveyed the school grounds and orchard to photograph likely places for bat boxes.  They will take their suggestions to bat specialist Pat Howard who will be at the 24h Fantastical Bats event.

Drawing on a old photo of the church - drew bats using online searches for clear images as their inspiration

Bats draw on an image of the ceiling

We have begun to combine our findings as collaborative researchers and artists. And will also continue to work in this way on our last whole day together, with children across the school taking part too. Here are some of the things the children found out from their school friends and teachers about bats:

They stay together and live in woods.
They are nocturnal so only come out at night.
Bats are the only flying mammal.
They can hear from a distance.
They are blind, noises bounce off them.
Baby bats are called pups.
Bats use echolocation to fly around so they don’t bump into things.
Bats are really popular.
Bats use their fur to make sounds.
Mrs Amner has a family of bats at her house.
They are not in the attic because it’s a new house and the eaves are sealed off.
She sees them most evenings around 9:20pm in the garden.
Bats need to be near water where they can catch mosquitos and moths
The water source could be a river or stream or pond, but also a water butt.
Bats poo lots (evidence in the church!).
They hang down from trees.
When they wake up they flap their wings to get the blood moving.
Their wings are like cloth.
They have pointy ‘elf’ ears.
They have strong backs.

Close up of a pencil drawing of a bat

How do the bats get in and out?


Barbastelle bat

Barbastelle bat, a rare species found locally

(by Deb Wilenski) Who we are, where we live, who we live next to are all questions raised by the expansion of the A14.  In this ongoing and extensive work the builders are human and the impact on wildlife, on other species of animals, has to be considered by humans too.  I have shared with the children some images of the relocation of voles and of conservation plans for other protected species.  Some interesting conversations about human and animal co-existence have begun.

I decided for our third week to reverse the focus and explore the worlds of animal architects and animals who share our own built environments.  Much of human construction and engineering is inspired by the building skills of other animals.  I was specifically prompted by driving on a man-made road, behind a man-made lorry, carrying the logo of a giant ant – master builder and transporter of the insect world.

Lorry carrying the logo of a giant ant

Chris PackhamAn underground ant city

So we explored three questions: who already shares our constructed environments with us?  How do animals build?  How could we build for animals?  We took our researches into the school grounds and orchard, to the Millennium Green and following a grassy path, to All Saints Church which has Long-Eared and Pipistrelle bats roosting in its structures.

The sharp- eyed surveyors in Wrens class found abundant evidence of animal occupation and building and began to ask questions: how do the bats get in and out of the church?  What would make a good bat tower?  We found a busy community of ants in the orchard who disappeared down their tunnels when a log was upturned. 

Offord Church

Sharp-eyed surveyors in Wrens class finding abundant evidence of animal occupation

Sharp-eyed surveyors in Wrens class finding abundant evidence of animal occupation

Some children built like ants in the afternoon – transporting pieces of white paper to form tunnels and cells, linking individual locations together to form communities.   Others built environments for bats with towers and bridges, tunnels to fly through and many ways in and out.

environments for bats with towers and bridges, tunnels to fly through and many ways in and out

environments for bats with towers and bridges, tunnels to fly through and many ways in and out

environments for bats with towers and bridges, tunnels to fly through and many ways in and out

environments for bats with towers and bridges, tunnels to fly through and many ways in and out

Drawing of environments for bats

environments for bats with towers and bridges, tunnels to fly through and many ways in and out

A nest for a fat pigeon


Harry's map

Millennium Green

(by Deb Wilenski) Leading on from our first week’s exploration of legs and adaptations, we began to think about where legs go and how.  I shared some images from our previous Offord school project in which children had made different kinds of maps; a mouse map of the school orchard, an aerial view for a bird.  And when we arrived in the Millennium Green we split into small groups again to look for and record the different pathways, human and animal, which were visible or could be imagined.

From journeys we turned to settling.  Where could animals make their homes?  Were any already obvious?  What materials were available for construction?  Lolly spotted a mouse tunnel through nettles and told me it goes in through here and then round in a big circle and this is where it comes out.  Right inside is where they have their beds.

Millennium Green

A mouse tunnel through nettles

The green had been recently mown and heaps of cut grasses made brilliant nesting material.  A nest for a fat pigeon grew with each new handful of grass, was decorated and fresh green grass placed in its centre.  It occupied half the bench in the end, a new shared place of rest for pigeons and people together.

Heaps of cut grasses made brilliant nesting material

A heap of cut grass

In the afternoon we introduced clay alongside the materials used in the morning and the children created intricate homes for animals.  A long roll of paper was used to represent a large road, coming right alongside the animal homes as the A14 does.  And each group found ways to cross or move home, by bridge, tower or pathway.

A long roll of paper was used to represent a large road

Intricate homes for animals

Intricate homes for animals made of clay

Intricate homes for animals

Children created intricate homes for animals

A long roll of paper was used to represent a large road

Would you like fire coming out of your ankle?


Drawing legs

(by Deb Wilenski) In our second project with Offord Primary School we are exploring the relationships between human and animal ecology – shared habitats, new transport developments, protected species and the many ways in which our sense of who we are is tied up with where we live and who else lives there with us.

In this wonderfully small school, with a total of 100 pupils, many children know each other and we began by thinking of ourselves as fellow scientists and artists, part of a community which includes the children who explored with us last time, the adult professionals with whom we made wild exchanges, the wildlife specialists who are part of the A14 development teams, and the village community who know their local spaces well.

It was in this spirit that Wrens class, 16 skilled and enthusiastic wildlife surveyors, set off with their teachers and parent volunteers to explore the animal and plant ecology of the Millennium Green.  They recorded findings in a series of small observational drawings, some named, others recorded by physical form only.



Finding a stone

Tree canopy

Moss in the palm of a hand


We continued this process of looking and recording in the afternoon focussing on ourselves as a species that has evolved to walk on two legs.  We compared human and animal legs of many kinds and tested our own legs to see what they could do.  And on a perfect sunny day with bare feet in the grass, the children worked in pairs, one acting as the ‘leg’ model, one as the ‘drawer’, to make observational drawings.

Drawing legs

They finished the session by adding fantastical adaptations to their classmates’ legs on a tracing paper layer, interviewing their partner and drawing the powers and features they wanted to be given.

Thomas' leg by Isla

Thomas’ leg by Isla: fire, bullet gun, butterfly and magnetic force

Isla's leg by Thomas

Isla’s leg by Thomas: mazes inside, spikes, a candle – the red lines are full of trap doors

A many layered map


This fantastical map was made collaboratively and contains over 100 layers of drawings and words and ideas, incorporating the work of children and adults alike – all carefully connected by illustrator Elena Arévalo Melville.

Offords High Street through the centre acts here as a symbolic divider between the school grounds (day time) and Millennium green (night time) whilst the railway track on the right shows the edge of Millennium Green.

We explored many ways of adventuring in these spaces together as individual school classes and during our 24 hour Fantastical Offords Day. The key below indicates how some of the elements on this map were created:

Yellow Dot Discoveries and creations in the school Orchard – including the Hugging Tree and many dens.

Red Dot Explorations of real and fantastical plants – including the carnivorous night-time plant and Island Seaweed

Purple Dot Explorations of real and fantastical bugs – including clay bugs and the huge lesser stag beetle collage

Blue Dot Explorations as other people and animals which created new stories and characters – including the fox, baby and Old Mags, caveman archer quote, and Haunting Trees.

Pink Dot Night-time sounds and nocturnal creatures, real and imagined – including the Sonic Bat and the Teddy Bear Bat.

Day-time sounds and sights - including the weasel and swishing reeds at the Millennium Green.

Real landmarks including the church, the High Street, and the train line

Fantastical Offords Community Day


On two of the most stunningly bright spring days, over 220 people joined us for 24-hours of creative adventuring in the village of Offord D'Arcy, Cambridgeshire.

With Offord Primary School as basecamp, collectively we explored local spaces in extraordinary, enchanting and intriguing ways – finding the unusual in the everyday. From 2pm on the 24 March we hosted a heap of activates, the full programme can be found here. An afternoon exploring with props boxes (our emergency curiosity kits) and creating fantastical dens and signs was followed by an evening of laying traps, collecting, detecting and gazing.  A camp fire was lit, the secret Orchard was opened to all and 50 people embarked on a dusk walk to Millennium Green. Together we found lesser stag beetles and moths, heard bats and discovered why stars twinkle.

Saturday began with wondrous wildlife sounds, bacon butties and discovering the animal trails that appeared overnight. St Neots museum set off on an extraordinary walk around the village and other adventures unearthed amazing finds such as Spluggy, the Caddisfly larva and bunnyland (an extraordinary complex warren) on millennium green. Back at basecamp, exploring continued with fantastical periscopes and new creations from tiny spaces of wonder to exquisite fantastical bugs. A Dusk to Dawn Sound Space was also created in a classroom.

Together with the children’s discoveries made during the artist residency at the school, these amazing ideas are all being fed into the creation of the Fantastical Map of the Offords. Below are some comments about the day and a few images to give a taste of the fantastical adventures we had together. A film and more detailed slide show follows soon.

Our ears and eyes were opened by the tent of sounds….it makes you think how amazing life is and how much you miss. Lesley (school neighbour/community)

Letting the kids go, run and not be scared to touch a tree (in a safe but free environment) (Clare, parent)

It’s been brilliant, in terms of friendliness, interactions and atmosphere (parents)

I liked everything – periscopes, bugs, sounds (Ella, 10)

I liked drawing in the dark and being with the woodlouse and finding my centipede (child)

The day was made possible by the brilliant energy of the children and families and local residents who joined in but also by the support to run the activities and the day from: all the staff and Governors at Offord Primary School, OPTA, artist Colette Kinley, naturalist and Governor Gareth Rondell, Free Cakes for Kids, St Neots Museum, Cambridge Conservation Initiative, Richard Rice, DS Smith Packaging and Dufaylite (St Neots).

Particular thanks to photographer and film-maker Maciek Platek for his filming and the many beautiful images included here, to bio-acoustic engineer William Seale for sharing his extraordinary recordings in our tent of sounds and to illustrator Elena Arévalo Melville for her fantastical mapping and signage on the day. And of course to CCI artists Helen Stratford and Deb Wilenski, all our wonderful volunteers and CCI staff and Board of Trustees.

Our next Fantastical Community Day will be with Round House Primary School and Love’s Farm community on 30 June and 1 July. Save the date! 

Images by CCI and Maciek Platek

Borrowed stories and underground eggs


(by Deb Wilenski) When Hawks class decided on the narrative for their animation (see Old Mags and the Stolen Baby) they had other story ideas that were too good to leave behind.  I offered one of these to Wrens, the youngest children in the school, in the form of a puppet story to begin our fantastical morning together.

An Image from the puppet story Old Mags still trips up over the fox in the forest

In the puppet story Old Mags still trips up over the fox in the forest, but this time as she lies on the ground she discovers that it is actually a very interesting place to be.  She can see and hear things she never noticed before; slugs, ants running, beetles, a talking mole.  She decides to stay there for a long time to explore…

It was a very wet morning but when I asked if the children would like to go and investigate their own ground in the orchard, they were wonderfully enthusiastic.  Within seconds we had found tiny creatures, mysterious holes and underground eggs.

Children go and investigate their own ground in the orchard

Childs hand holding a yellow and brown snail

A mysterious hole with underground eggs

Back in the classroom the children looked at images of fantastical bugs made by artists.  I showed them intricate glass sculptures by Emanuel Toffolo, creatures made from recycled metal by Dimitar Valchev and one of the oldest illustrations of woodlice in the world.

White dotted beetle by Emanuel ToffoloWhite dotted beetle by Emanuel Toffolo

Dimitar Valchevs metallic insect sculpturesMechanical insect sculpture by Dimitar Valchev

Woodlice from “The Book of Wonders of the Age” – 17th or 18th century manuscript

Woodlice from “The Book of Wonders of the Age” – 17th or 18th century manuscript

And then using clay or drawing the children invented fantastical bugs of their own, inspired by first-hand discoveries in the orchard, other artists’ work and each other’s imaginations. 

Clay model of a fantastical creature

Finger drawing of a fantastical creature

A drawing of fantastical creatures

A drawing of fantastical creatures

Making a clay model

Drawing of fantastical creatures

With these new creatures the tale of Old Mags continued before and after lunch; the torrential rain caused a flood in the bugs’ world and an exodus to a new land, crowds of bugs travelled together and when they finally arrived set up a new home, Old Mags joined them and drank her cup of tea!  The story was acted out through movement and developed though collaborative drawing and conversation.

Children acting out being crawling bugs escaping from the floodCrawling bugs escaping from the flood

A boy being a Sleeping woodliceSleeping woodlice

Lines on paper showing part of the bugs’ journey

Part of the bugs’ journey

At the end of the afternoon the children discovered how many legs they had between them and a fantastical 28-legged creature walked with great coordination back to its classroom.

Children discovered how many legs they had between them and a fantastical 28-legged creature

Line drawing of a house

Old Mags and the Stolen Baby


(by Deb Wilenski) I began work with Hawks class (the seven, eight and nine year old children) way back in September.  After a long break we met recently for a whole day together.  We spent time remembering our adventures so far: how we had explored the school orchard, made ink there from walnuts and fire, experimented with calligraphy, discovered the orchard fox, become map-makers in many languages and visited the Millenium Green as other animals and people. 

I also shared with the children my wild exchange conversation with Planet Earth II producer Fredi Devas.  He had responded to Martha’s ‘A walk on the wild side’ map with amazing stories about people, places and animals.  There were strong connections between his ways of working and the skills the children develop as they make connections between landscape, wildlife, themselves and a sense of place.

Picking up the children’s previous interest in film-making we began our ambitious project for the day; to make an animated fantastical film, drawing on our ways of exploring so far.  We drew our main characters from those the children had played at the Millenium Green (see Maps from other minds) and we had our brainstorming session for a narrative out in the orchard.  The children were full of ideas:

Drawing our main characters from those the children had played at the Millenium Green

Children were full of ideas

Old Mags was going for a walk one day when her stick broke, then the fox tripped her over and she fell onto the ground.  She could hear the ants running.  (Maggie, who had explored Millenium Green as her nan)

Old Granny Mags is going to her house and she finds a baby on her doorstep.  A mouse comes in and frightens both of them.  Mags goes back into the woods but she forgets the baby by accident…the mouse runs off with the baby.  (Chelsea)

There’s an evil slug and snail.  (Harry)

A mutant slug. (Tom)

There are lots of thorns and they get stuck in the fox.  (Lucy)

There’s an evil tree, its roots come out and pull people underground.  (Lucas)

There’s this tree that looks evil but really it just wants to make friends.  (Joshua)

We managed to settle on a single narrative for the animation, with lots of side characters, and the children each took on a task; producing fantastical lettering for the title sequences, drawing Old Mags and the baby, making backdrops from materials gathered in the orchard, creating Old Mags’ house and the evil trees. 

Making backdrop from materials gathered in the orchard

Drawing of an evil tree

Fantastical lettering for the title sequences

And miraculously by the end of the day we had a first version of the film: Old Mags and the stolen baby.  As we quickly checked it before watching as a whole class, the children noticed places where the animated movement was too fast or words appeared too slowly, and the idea of editing and adding sound was suggested as a focus for the whole school Fantastical Friday to come in two weeks’ time.

24 hours of wild adventuring


24 hours of wild adventuring

(by Helen Stratford) I am the creative producer for this community day based at the school on 24th / 25th March (timetable here) and have been working closely with the staff at the school and the CCI team to shape these 24 hours of wild adventuring for all the community.

The day will focus on re-discovering and mapping the school grounds and neighbouring Millennium Green. We have dreaming up all sorts of playful invitations that can invite everyone to spend time in these spaces and see them differently. The day builds on the residency with artist Deb Wilenski, supported by the Fantastical Cambridgeshire Illustrator Elena Arévalo Melville. This has been exploring the school orchard and Millenium Green through the children’s interests in sound, animals, plants and what happens on their school’s grounds at night.

On Friday afternoon and evening local moth expert and school governor Gareth Rondel will be helping set moth, bat and small mammal traps alongside offering the chance to see animal star constellations in the sky (weather depending). Also on Friday there will be den making in the school orchard and over-night sand experiments in the playground to track footprints of night time activity.

On Saturday there will be maps and messages from the school children inviting new visitors to explore the orchard and Millenium Green in surprising ways. You can visit the outside Tent of Sounds and the inside Dusk to Dark Sound Space to hear and draw day and night time recorded sounds by the children and acoustic engineer William Searle or make a periscope to see the spaces of the school in an entirely new light.

Alongside these drop in events, local artist Colette Kinley will be drawing and detecting from traps and tracks in the sand and running miniature nature garden making. We are also delighted that colleagues from St Neots Museum will be leading Extraordinary Stories & Objects walks and running  a Mystery Object Table – so please bring along any artefacts to be identified.

The day will be documented through a series of short films and interviews with the children and community.

In between all these amazing activities there will be free tea, cake - by the wonderful charity Free Cakes For Kids, and breakfast butties from 10am to 12 noon by OPTA (Offord Parent Teacher Association) to fuel the adventuring!

Free. All welcome. No skills necessary. Please note all children must be accompanied. No booking required. All activities are based in the School or start from the School grounds. 

Detailed timings are:

Friday 24th March (2pm – 7.30pm)

Signs of night-time life - discover which animals visit the school orchards and grounds: 

Join in anytime between 2pm and 7.30pm. We will be working with all the children in the school from 2pm – 3.15pm to begin making dens and laying pitfall traps in the school orchard & grounds. Stay on as a family and add your own experiments whilst enjoying free refreshments. Then from 6:15pm - 7:30pm, join us to help local moth expert and school governor Gareth Rondel collects moths, lay small animal traps and see if we can detect any bats both in the school grounds and over at Millenium Green.

Saturday 25th March (10am - 2pm)

Check out our timed activities:

10am – 12pm             Detecting and drawing – join us to look at the pitfall/small mammal traps set the night before, detect bugs and draw your discoveries.

12 noon -  2pm           Tiny spaces of wonder – create your own miniature nature gardens using found objects

11am & 1pm               Extraordinary story walks with St Neots Museum –  based in the local area & approximately 30mins long

Or drop throughout the day to visit: Tent of sounds from wild Cambridgeshire.....Dusk to dawn sound space.....Table of making...Messages and maps for the Millenium Green....Mystery object table with St Neots Museum

In between all these amazing activities there will be free tea, cake - by the wonderful charity Free Cakes For Kids, and breakfast butties from 10am to 12 noon by OPTA (Offord Parent Teacher Association) to fuel the adventuring!

For map links click here.

The secret life of plants


(by Deb Wilenski) After an adventurous morning plant-hunting the children in Kingfishers class made field notes in the afternoon – in the form of diary entries, descriptions, diagrams and illustrations.  Some used their Magpie books as sources, as botanists and plant collectors have done for centuries. 

Tall thistles found on ‘the island’Tall Teasel found on ‘the island’

Thistle heads drawn by LilyTeasel heads drawn by Lily

Plants discovered and drawn by EllisPlants discovered and drawn by Ellis

Rhys’s adventurers diaryRhys’s adventurers diary

From these detailed, accurate and adventurous observations we offered the invitation to journey into the realms of fantastical botany.  Plants began to grow and transform, secret powers were unleashed.  There were plants with teeth, electric flowers and a hybrid unicorn-mushroom species came into being.

Carnivorous plant with castle, moon and rose (Grace)Carnivorous plant with castle, moon and rose (Grace)

Flower coloured by electrical storm (Bethany)Flower coloured by electrical storm (Bethany)

Mushroom in the moonlight, SonnyMushroom in the moonlight (Sonny)

The ‘mushcorn’ (mushroom x unicorn) with babies (Ella)The ‘mushcorn’ (mushroom x unicorn) with babies (Ella)

Fireflies re-charging inside a flower (Giuliano)Fireflies re-charging inside a flower (Giuliano)

Jennifer’s tree with hidden mouths becoming more and more complexJennifer’s tree with hidden mouths becoming more and more complex

Fantastical plant-hunting


(by Deb Wilenski) For our day with Kingfishers class (the nine, ten and eleven year old children), we chose to look very closely at something we often pass by.  For the whole day we focussed on the real and fantastical detail of plants. 

We began by looking at images from artists and scientists which show plant life in extraordinary ways; from nineteenth century paintings of botanical specimens in dramatic landscapes to digital images of fantastical worlds inside cellular structures:

Nineteenth century paintings of a botanical specimens in a dramatic landscape

Digital image of fantastical worlds inside a cellular structure

And we discovered plant adventurers, as inspiration for our roles during the day: Maria Sibylle Merian who in the seventeenth century journeyed to from Holland to South America with her daughter to document the plant and insect life there; David Douglas who introduced to the UK plants including the lupin and Douglas Fir and died in 1835 pursuing his interests in the volcanic landscapes of Hawaii.

Maria Sibylle Merian (1647 – 1717)Maria Sibylle Merian (1647 – 1717)

Seed cone from Douglas FirSeed cone from Douglas Fir

Our own botanical adventures began in the orchard.  Although I had been there many times before, seeing with the children’s ‘plant-hunter’ eyes revealed extraordinary new worlds. 

We’ve found tree’s blood, look it’s blood!  (Sophie)

It’s got little lines, you can see mini lines inside the other lines.  (Giuliano looking at a leaf)

Other leaves are cold and bendy but the magic leaf is smooth on top and warm.   (Ruby)

It doesn’t look furry but when you look at it here, it is.  (Emily looking at a leaf through the magnifying glass)

We found a tree like a giant deer’s leg, come and see!  (Gemma)

Maxim’s notebookMaxim’s notebook

Magnified image of a leaf

The children looked at ground level plants and fungi

The children looked at ground level plants and fungi and climbed up into the trees, spending a long time exploring this new perspective; they discovered details of the tree they were in and saw other plants mapped out beneath them.

climbed up into the trees

Girl with a magnifying glass

As they investigated the orchard the children were clearly thinking carefully about what they were seeing, asking questions and making field notes in their Magpie books:

Is it just made like that or is something guiding it?  (Jennifer, about the twisted tree)

How does the tree bark actually manage to stay on? (Gemma, looking at an old log)

How do mushrooms grow on wood?  They aren’t in soil.  I know, I’m going to write down what I can see and then next to it I’m going to write what I want to know.’  (Jennifer)

Joe B, looking closely at the birch tree branchesJoe B, looking closely at the birch tree branches

When we headed over to the Millenium Green and were led to the massive trees the children had talked about first thing in the morning, it began to feel like we really were plant adventurers entering new lands. 

Children climbing on fallen tree

Girl climbing inside a tree

The old willow trees were extraordinary markers of time; they had grown to a huge size and were now rotting down from the inside.  Jacob named one willow the wide and weak tree, and began a series of tree sketches and names in his Magpie book: the power tower tree or titan tree, the tree of trees, the porta-tree.

Pencil drawing of a nest tree

Pencil drawing of a nest

The willows led us to the water’s edge and the Island, a plant-filled land accessible only via fallen tree trunks.  Many children spent the rest of their time there, discovering seaweed, plants with thorns and spiky seed heads, bright berries still left where most leaves had fallen.  When it was time to leave it really felt like the adventure had only just begun.

Children sitting in a tree close to the pond edge

Holding a big ball of pond weed

Image of tree hanging over a pond

The fox and rabbit are calling for help


(by Deb Wilenski) The children in Robins and Wagtails classes responded immediately and inventively to William Seale’s recorded bat sounds.  They spent the whole morning exploring sounds in the orchard (Superheroes and bat sounds) and working with 3D construction to make invitations and experiments for the animals who live there.  In the afternoon we decided to continue investigating animal calls, songs and communications, getting some of the children’s ideas down on paper. 

A fox is growling in the right at a squirrel climbing up a tree

Sound is intriguing and contradictory.  It’s a physical vibration but we experience it as invisible.  It’s all around us but has no discernible shape.  How might the five and six year olds represent animal sounds visually?  We looked together at some of the drawings made in CCI’s Tent of Sounds by children and adults during Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas.  There were shapes and waves and patterns in coded languages. 

The children understood and adopted these sound symbols quickly and were soon developing their own with intriguing surprises. 

Archie’s fox was barking but there was also a quieter swishing sound coming from the movements of its tail.

Archie’s fox was barking but there was also a quieter swishing sound coming from the movements of its tail

Amelia drew a bat and described the dramatic relationship between how it looked, what it could see, and what it could hear:

Amelia drew a bat and described the dramatic relationship between how it looked, what it could see, and what it could hear

The bats that appeared on paper were both fantastical and accurate.  The echolocation signals from Arthur’s bat expand into the space in front of it like the pattern of waves in a diagram:

The echolocation signals from Arthur’s bat expand into the space in front of it like the pattern of waves in a diagram

Bats using echolocation

But of course the children also reminded us what is important to them as children, and many of their drawings showed sound being used for contact and conversation, and as part of a story.  Arthur’s bat is calling to another bat; Laurie’s animals were calling for help to escape an erupting volcano; in Grace’s drawing two rabbits have an exchange in lines and circular symbols which she describes perfectly: One of the rabbits is talking and then he starts to eat his berries and the other is shocked by what he said.

Laurie: a volcano is erupting and the fox and rabbit are calling for help

Laurie: a volcano is erupting and the fox and rabbit are calling for help

Grace’s rabbits conversing in the moonlight

Grace’s rabbits conversing in the moonlight

Sounds were part of ordinary life and adventures, conflicts and relationships; sounds had shape, colour and texture.  I was amazed by the children’s willingness and ability to explore this complex world of sounds which began by listening to just a few minutes of bat recordings. 

I collected a wish list of sounds from the children to share with William Seale.  At many points in the afternoon children came and added their thoughts about this, sometimes refining the exact sound they wanted to hear, sometimes voicing a question that had been occupying their minds as they were drawing: when William is making his recordings how does he know exactly what he is hearing?  How does he record things underground?  Can he record at the bottom of the sea?  And, brilliantly, What does William sound like?

In a wild exchange interview with William, coming soon, I will be asking these and many more questions about the real and fantastical aspects of his work.  I’ll be sharing his answers with the children when we meet again in March.

Gabriel’s under-sea soundscape with sea eruption, pelicans, puffer fish and a whale

Gabriel’s under-sea soundscape with sea eruption, pelicans, puffer fish and a whale

Superheroes and bat sounds


(by Deb Wilenski)

Child dressed as Batman

Emir that's the magical moon what you can make a wish on it

Halfway through our Fantastical Cambridgeshire project with Offord Primary School things became fantastical indeed.  I arrived to meet the five and six year old children in Robins and Wagtails classes, to find an entire school of superheroes.  Dressed up for ‘Children in Need’ there was a buzz of excitement as Spidermen flexed their costume muscles and masked Batgirls zoomed around.  I wondered what could bring the attention of such strong narrative characters to the subtle life of the school orchard.

And then I thought of William Seale’s sounds.  William is a bio-acoustic specialist, introduced to us by Cambridge Conservation Initiative.  He has spent years of his life recording the extraordinary sounds of the natural world: muslin moth caterpillar spinning underground silk cocoon, synchronised drumming of common wasps inside their paper nest.

And luckily, in the compilation William offered for us to play as a sound performance there are bat sounds.  Sequences of squeaks and clicks and buzzes, perfect for Batman and his friends.

We listened to these before heading out to the orchard and as the children put on their coats Emir showed me a brilliant discovery.  By scratching the Batman sign on the front of his costume he could make high-pitched noises that really sounded like bats.  Other children experimented with their voices and soon we were recording fox growls and spider voices as well as a widening repertoire of bat sounds.

Hawks class had left messages for the younger children: look in the east of the orchard, there is a fox den; can you find Thor’s hammer?; watch out for the tentacle tree; you can make a den out of these few trees,  it is an amazing place to hide.  As the children went searching, I invited them to use their superpowers too – to find clues of what might have happened in the orchard in the night.  Gabriel became fascinated by signs of moles.  Other children joined and listened intently for the sounds coming from underground.

Children listening to the molesListening to the moles

Children listening to the moles

Children Lifting Thor’s hammer

Children Lifting Thor’s hammer

Children Lifting Thor’s hammerLifting Thor’s hammer

After finding signs of animals and listening for their sounds, we invited the children to build something – as an invitation to the animals of the orchard and as experiments that could be left and checked the following week for signs of disturbance.  The children built with great inventiveness and were keen to record in their own voices what they were making and how it worked.

Animal bed with leavesAnimal bed with leaves

Hanging ‘lullaby’ to help animals go to sleepHanging ‘lullaby’ to help animals go to sleep

A bug hotel with a slideA bug hotel with a slide

an apple pile to see if they come and eat anythingAn apple pile to see if they come and eat anything

A chair for the prime ministerA chair for the prime minister

A balance beam for baby animalsA balance beam for baby animals

Maps from other minds


(by Deb Wilenski)

Ava had been off school poorly but had still managed to make more maps of the orchard!  She brought them in to show us on our third Friday together.  The maps were drawn on a computer and showed aerial views of the orchard, complete with a key for the shapes that represented trees, my house, stones, human thing, pond and fffffox.  Her maps had turned around the human-fox relationship, referring to the mysterious gate that monsters come through, only this time we were the monsters, and the mysterious world at the gate was the school playground.  It was a map from the mind of a fox.

Ava map drawn on a computer

I brought my taxidermy fox from home this week and the children were intrigued by it.  Some felt sorry for it, and asked if it was dead but also wanted to come closer to see its fur, claws, and face.  Ruby carried the fox ceremoniously out to the orchard with us.

We were also joined for this third day by illustrator and fantastical cartographer for our project, Elena Arévalo Melville.  As some of the children showed her their important places in the orchard, others wrote messages for Robins, the next and younger class who will come adventuring there.  Their experiments in calligraphy continued too:   

Welcome here Robins…can you find Thor’s hammer?...explore the den, don’t break the den…the fox is dead, the den is not…can you find the hugging tree? out for the tentacle tree…dear Wrens and Robins recently there has been a fox around the mysterious orchard, good luck finding it…have a look at this - you can make a den out of these few trees,  it is an amazing place to hide…

Children drawing and a taxidermy fox

Image of writing - can you find the fox den in the east of the orchard

As we gathered to get ready for our next adventure over the road in the Millenium Green, I invited the children in small groups to explore as themselves, but also as other animals.  Many people were familiar with parts of the Green, but discovered new ways of being there through their animal characters.  I travelled alongside Flynn, Harry, Ruby, Martha and Angel, who were expert explorers as a mouse, a dog, eagles, and foxes who are used to humans.

Children exploring

Children exploring

Children exploring

And we finished the morning by taking up Emily’s suggestion as teacher of this fantastic class – to make connections with the wider Offord community by imagining being other people exploring the Green.  The children adopted their roles with great commitment: they crawled as babies, or lay looking up at the sky; they moved slowly, bent over in old age, helped by walking sticks and younger friends; they travelled through the woods and clear spaces as ancient archers, skilled and alert; they followed and filmed the fantastical lives of a panda and magic horses as naturalist Steve Backshall and adventurer Bear Grylls.

Children in the woodOld archers explore the woods

‘My nan’ (Maggie) and ‘83 year old grandma’ (Sophia) meet on the path, helped by Molly and Emily‘My nan’ (Maggie) and  ‘83 year old grandma’ (Sophia) meet on the path, helped by Molly and Emily

As the children wrote in the afternoon about their different ways of exploring a great sense of empathy was clear. They really had discovered the green through another’s mind, body and emotions:

I explored the Millenium Green as a 83 year old grandma.  I pretended to not see very well.  I wrote a song about who I was:

Old Granny
Tired and old
She is so tired
She is so col-l-l-d
Swept up from the sea
She-e-e-e-e-e  is  me-e-e-e-e-e

My adventures as a baby boy:
loads of new people
scary and friendly monsters (dogs)
is the world a bin? (public littering)
evil plants (stinging nettles)
spiky plants (thistles)
things that latch on to me

I explored like a toddler then a grandad.  Most toddlers would try to eat the rabbit poo but at least the grandad would tell it ‘no!’  The toddlers in the world find the world through their mouth, so they would eat a stinging nettle, they would eat a leaf…or try and get the butterfly to eat.  Lots of people would say ‘no’ because butterflies are nature, not some nothingness animal.  They’re living nature!

The people we met on the Green also showed us how closely connected the Offord community can be – we bumped into Bridget’s dad out walking their dog who was very happy to meet us unexpectedly, and Dylan’s nan, who used to be Vice-Chair of the Millenium Green Trust.  She was a wonderful source of botanical information and had herself planted the pink tree some of the children had found earlier.

Children in the wood

Our fantastical map in the making is now beginning to connect the Orchard and the Green, and the many relationships between people in both places.  With babies, grandparents, and old archers we are also bringing in the element of time. 

Writing - I explored it a old archer

Orchard calligraphy


(by Deb Wilenski)

The ink we made together from the orchard walnuts sparked a great enthusiasm for writing in the seven, eight and nine year olds at Offord. 

We decided to spend the afternoon bringing words and writing into our ideas about maps.  Emily, the children’s teacher, was particularly interested in exploring calligraphy, and since the children were familiar with hieroglyphs from their Egyptian studies, I wondered if they might also want to invent new written symbols for the orchard.

Original london typography laser cut framed map

Calligraphy - the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog

We reminded ourselves about the different maps we had seen made from words.  We also looked at some images of calligraphy and discovered our orchard fox amongst them in a sentence that contains all the letters in the alphabet.  Some children had been fascinated in our first week by the moth flight-path photographs.  A close up of a moth’s tongue, a spiral as Emily W noticed, reminded us of the decorative swirls in calligraphy too.  Maybe a letter or word was also a kind of map tracing the pen’s journey in ink.  Maybe if you were small enough you could travel round a moth’s tongue.

Close up of a moth’s tongue

Calligraphy Font by Alejandro Paul

Archie’s re-writing of The quick brown fox was full of spirals.  Harry made a beautiful list of his favourite words for the orchard: sunlight, squirrel, fox den, footprint, bird wing.  Denzel wanted the base the children had built to be on the word map.  Ruairi wrote his words for the orchard in calligraphy made from wood, nails and weapons, a kind of writing that came from the guards’ play around the base.

Ruairi words in calligraphy made from wood, nails and weapons

Calligraphy - Base

Alfie calligraphy

We put all the children’s calligraphy together to form a word-map of the orchard above the gallery of objects.  And our first orchard hieroglyphs appeared too. 

Harry’s sentence reminded me of his deep interest in the fire when we cooked the ink: the fire burns to ash.  Emily F used the Egyptian letter system to spell out important orchard words; fire, warm, apple.  And Bridget developed new hieroglyphs for individual letters which recalled the patterns of lines we had found on logs, and which children had ‘printed’ using tracing paper and coloured pencils. 

Image of a fire burning

Bridget developed new hieroglyphs

Patterns of lines we had found on logs

Patterns of lines we had found on logs

New hieroglyphs

We made ink!


(by Deb Wilenski)

Close up of a child drawing with the home made ink with a feather made into a quill

One of the first trees you meet as you come into the orchard at Offord Primary School is a beautiful mature walnut.  It has enormous smooth leaves and on our first visit many of its green-shelled nuts had already fallen.  As the children in Hawks class had been studying ancient Egyptian writing and had made their own notebooks too, making and using walnut ink seemed a perfect way to put the orchard on paper.

Producing walnut ink is a simple but magical process.  You have to soak the green walnuts for a week, boil them for many hours, then strain and reduce the dark liquid.  You end up with a golden brown ink that has been used for centuries.  Many of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions are drawn and annotated in walnut ink.

As we lit the fire and watched it burn down low enough to cook the ink, it seemed to evoke strong memories for many children.  The orchard became simultaneously a place to experiment, to manufacture, to remember and to ask questions:

My dad and family always make fires in winter…why do the things we make fire on go dark afterwards?...why do the things we burn go orange?...I know how to light a fire, I’ve got a thing that makes sparks…we have fires at cubs…we went camping and cooked on a fire

Boy seen through smoke

Ink cooking on the fire

Image of flames in a fire

Children writing with the home made ink with sticks and feathers

Close up of a child drawing with the home made ink with a feather made into a quill

Close up of a child drawing with the home made ink with a wide stick

Writing made with the ink

Images made with the ink

Image of writing with the ink 'The ash swirls and swirls'

We tested the ink for strength, taking a small sample from the bubbling pot.  It worked brilliantly and more and more of the children came to try it out.  Many spent the rest of the morning writing and drawing using feathers, sticks, brushes and the walnut ink.  Maggie said I feel like an old person writing in this ink, and Harry noticed the heat haze as he continued to watch the fire: It looks like sound waves.  The first mark he made with the new ink was a long undulating wave.

Journeys, landmarks, night and day


(by Deb Wilenski) After their first morning in the school orchard, the seven, eight and nine year olds from Offord Primary School began mapping journeys and important places.  On many of their maps connected pathways appeared, and the orchard was represented as a series of invitations to move. 

Molly week 1

Martha week 1 hawks

There were places to stop too; the fox den, the house a group of children built from logs, the benches where we had our gallery, significant climbing trees.  Sometimes the paths passed through these landmarks, on others one journey made the map.  Mathisha’s map reminded me of Paul Klee’s drawings of Tunisia – architectural lines that follow a single pathway, the surrounding areas left blank.

Mathisha week 1 hawks

View of ancient city Paul Klee

And there were journeys in time.  Night maps were made by fireflies and moths, intricate patterns traced in dark skies.  Mouse trail maps ran between day and night.  One of Oliver’s maps was almost invisible, made from repeated spiralling movements linked by the faintest of golden lines.  It looked like the flight map of night insects, but was drawn very lightly on white paper.

Lucas week 1 hawks

Harry week 1 hawks

Alfie week 1 hawks

Oliver2 week 1

I remember Oliver in the orchard making his trails repeatedly and deliberately and his surprising trail making invention:

I was starting to make a trail.  Then I had a good idea to find this (piece of wood) and make a trail.  Then I had an even better idea to make this (string and handle) to pull things along.

Making a trail with a piece of wood and string

Making a trail with a piece of wood and string

Making a trail with a piece of wood and string

Golden apples, mouse maps and an orchard fox


(by Deb Wilenski)

View of a tree

Two children in the orchard

Offord Primary School has a fantastic old orchard.  It’s big enough to feel like another world and small enough to find your way around.  It has open spaces, hidden places, shadows and sunlight, mature apple and walnut trees, new saplings growing. 

In this Fantastical Cambridgeshire project we will work with children right across the school.  Last week our adventures began with a wonderful class of seven, eight and nine year olds.

Before heading off to the orchard we talked about exploring; as ourselves – human beings, artists, scientists – and as other creatures.  How would you explore as the neighbouring cat who comes into the school grounds?  What if you were a beetle?  A bird?  A snake?  The children were quick to pick up the invitation to imagine many ways of moving and different ways of seeing.

We set up a wild gallery space using empty boxes and frames on the orchard picnic tables.  Right through the morning there was a beautiful balance between fast, energetic exploring and slower time building up the gallery, looking at finds and writing labels for them:

golden apples, it’s a magnet rock, a rock with stones stuck together, something you can eat with chocolate, a broken pot, a hollow rock, a rock with a centipede, a crocodile’s head, a leaf like a ladybird, the smoothest silkiest pebble…

A Peddle

Two ripe apples

Apples, nuts and seeds

Flowers and leaves

Collection of apples, bark and a broken pot in a frame

There were sudden discoveries and urgent entreaties to ‘come and see’ – a fox house, a dead pigeon, a mysterious smooth patch on the ground.  The orchard fox went running through the children’s imaginations as they made traps and houses for it, hung apples in a net to entice it out, re-positioned the dead pigeon by the fox’s front door. 

In the afternoon we installed our orchard gallery in the school so other children and teachers could see our discoveries.  And we looked at maps of many kinds; word maps, a map of smells, flight paths, maps made by the movement of moths, mice and falling seeds. 

Flight of fireflies

Smelly maps

Art typographical map London

Maple Seed Royal Photographic Society

Flight of fireflies

The orchard maps the children drew were fascinating.  Some were aerial views, others burrowed underground.  There was a snake’s eye view from a tree-trunk, and a flight map of fireflies.  Noah told me he had been ‘a bit creative’; as your eye travels over his double bird map you can soar upwards and see the whole orchard laid out beneath you, but some of the detail is seen from the ground, from a very different perspective.  It’s a fascinating map of flying and landing.

fascinating map of flying and landing

Of seahorses and secret jewels


(by Jo Holland) We were delighted to meet the teaching staff of Offord Primary School during their INSET day this September. We introduced the ideas and principles of the Fantastical Cambridgeshire project, and how we would work with the children and the school community over the coming months.

First we asked everyone to think about their own connections to green and wild spaces and we then offered the staff a flavour of CCI’s working process by inviting them to…
… go silently into their school orchard, taking children’s words as a source of inspiration, for their own fantastical adventure. We also challenged them to find spaces where they could not be seen or could not see others. They were exceptionally good at responding to this challenge. They shared their findings on return by mapping together what they had found and where they had been and came up with surprising and intriguing responses:

On the quest for new jewels and found one right in the heart of the orchard.
I walked around first and then I found a piece of bark that looked like leather but also like a sea horse.
When I went into the orchard, because of the silence, all I could hear was my feet on the grass, the long grass and then the twigs snapping beneath me.
I found myself all around the edges of the orchard. I was also very focused on snaps and sounds.

These reflections on sounds link beautifully to some of the ways of looking and noticing we want to focus with the children - more to follow.

Here’s a couple of pics too

Image of person under trees

Pinic bench near tress