Heritage: Chase Cross schoolboys saddled up for cycling adventure

Constable country - visited by the boys of Chase Cross on their cycle adventure. Picture: Steve Coat

Constable country - visited by the boys of Chase Cross on their cycle adventure. Picture: Steve Coates - Credit: Steve Coates

Prof Ged Martin tells how an enthusiastic teacher led Collier Row boys on an adventure in 1963

Two problems faced Ronald Threadgall when he became a teacher at Romford's Chase Cross Secondary School for Boys (now Bower Park Academy) in 1962.

He was in charge of the "remedial" department, a clinical, cruel word for lads of eleven to thirteen with learning difficulties.

Many had missed out on learning to read. Ron Threadgall taught them using a 44-character phonetic alphabet. Boys would have fun making ooo and ahh sounds, then learn to make words - before being eased into the standard English spelling. He was a great promoter of the scheme, but it never caught on.

Another problem was self-confidence: the boys felt rejected.

Mr Threadgall's solution was - a cycle tour. A Scoutmaster, he was used to leading trips. Roads were quieter then!

Advance planning gave the youngsters a sense of purpose. They learned how to maintain their bicycles, and pass the cycling proficiency test.

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They practised writing postcards home, and budgeting their pocket money.

Each boy was responsible for planning a section of the route. The class re-enacted historical scenes from the places they would visit: Boadicea fighting the Romans in Epping Forest, St Cedd arriving at Bradwell to convert the Essex heathens, Saxons massacred by Vikings at the Battle of Maldon.

Accompanied by another teacher, Mr McDermott, the expedition left one Monday morning in May 1963, cheered by the whole school.

That first day, they cycled to Bradwell, on the windy Blackwater estuary. The boys tried to imagine life behind the earthworks of the Roman fort. Their first night was spent at Maldon's youth hostel, a new experience but "good fun".

Next day, they toured the jam factory at Tiptree. The smell of blackcurrant jam was "delightful", but the deep freeze, where fruit was stored, left them shivering. Then it was off to Colchester, to be thrilled by the Castle dungeons.

On Day Three, they left their kit at Colchester's youth hostel and rode to Harwich.

Mr Threadgall came from Dovercourt, and he used his local connections. A motor launch took the party out to the Royal Sovereign lightship. There was excitement when a giant North Sea car ferry churned past their tiny craft.

Later, they toured another Hook of Holland ferry at Parkeston Quay. The boys were tired when they got back to the Colchester hostel that evening, but - this was 1963 - there had to be prayers before they went to bed.

On Day Four, they took things easy, in a much-needed break.

At school, they'd studied the artist John Constable. Now they relaxed in Constable country, where he'd painted his beautiful landscapes, sunbathing and even swimming in the Stour - almost as cold as the Tiptree refrigerator!

Day Five brought problems.

On the sixty-mile trek to Cambridge, they struggled against headwinds and heavy rain. On the narrow streets of the university town, a careless motorist collided with one of the bikes.

Next day, after visiting the colleges, the party split into four groups, each taking a separate route to Saffron Walden. With only two supervising teachers, this meant that half the pre-teens were let loose on their own - a risk that wouldn't be allowed nowadays.

But they all arrived safely, even managing to raise a welder at ten o'clock at night, who cheerfully mended a cracked frame.

There were more problems, punctures and jammed gears, as they headed to St Albans and Whipsnade Zoo, but they made it safe home by way of Epping Forest.

The boys had learned that Essex wasn't dull and flat, as many people claimed. More important, they'd gained confidence through team work. An exhibition in the school underlined their achievement.

The headteacher asked his two colleagues to make the tour an annual event.

Ronald Threadgall later moved to a comprehensive school at Clacton. Sad to say, he died in 1998, not long after retiring.

Those Chase Cross lads are in their late sixties now. Do any still live in Havering?