For my children’s generation, a school trip generally means an expensive journey to an impoverished Third World country: digging wells in Africa — you know the sort of thing. Back in the 1970s, our horizons were more modest. For us, a school trip generally meant a day out in a coach that stank of cigarette smoke and stale vomit, to a place within two hours’ drive of the state grammar where I spent my early teens.
My school was on the Wirral, that bland suburban hinterland sandwiched between Liverpool and North Wales, and it was North Wales which provided the destination for my most memorable school trip. Nowadays, this kind of away day would be no big deal, but to me it felt exotic. Apart from a day trip to Boulogne with my mum, I’d never been abroad, and back then that wasn’t unusual. We spent our summer camping in the Lake District and I never felt like the odd one out. A few of my classmates went to Spain, but they were the exception.
The purpose of our trip was to visit the castles of the North Wales coast — a topic we were studying for history O-level. We’d been to North Wales before, but that was to learn about glaciation, a subject I hated. Conversely, King Edward’s brutal subjugation of the Welsh was a subject I adored. Why the Welsh might have objected to being subjugated was never mentioned. Edward was English, we were English, and so it went without saying that being conquered by the English was the best outcome for all concerned (ironically, this was an era of resurgent Welsh nationalism, spawning that classic quip: ‘Come home to a real fire — buy a cottage in Wales’).
We’d already learnt a bit about these castles, so seeing them up close was thrilling. As we journeyed west, following in Edward’s footsteps, we could see how they evolved. Flint, the first one we came to, was the oldest and most rudimentary. Rhuddlan was more complex, then Conway, then Beaumaris. It was as if he’d built them with our O-level coursework in mind.
Our exit through the gift shop swiftly degenerated into an adolescent orgy of shoplifting
It was in Beaumaris that things went awry. Having been shown around this splendid site, the acme of medieval fortification, we were given half an hour to amuse ourselves before we left for home. This was a strategic error Edward Longshanks would never have made. All day long we’d been kept in line, marched from location to location. Now, like the invading armies of our ancestors, we were let loose for a spot of pillage, and our exit through the gift shop swiftly degenerated into an adolescent orgy of shoplifting.
I didn’t steal anything in the end, but that wasn’t because I was a better person — it was simply because I lacked the courage. I would have loved to have stolen something, anything, to maintain my honour on the homebound journey. Instead I had to sit there, silent and shamefaced at the back of that manky bus, sensing my classmates’ contempt as they displayed their plundered booty. It was useless tat, the lot of it — nothing any of us wanted — but they’d had the balls to nick it and I hadn’t. I was nothing like Edward I, the hammer of the Welsh (and Scots). I was more like Edward II, his wimpy son.
Remarkably no one was caught red-handed (suggesting there were some seasoned shoplifters among us) and by the time the gift shop noticed the shortfall we were safely back in England. However this was merely a brief respite. The proprietor called the police, the police contacted the school and a stern policeman came into our classroom and commanded each of us to write a full and frank account of what we’d witnessed that fateful day.
Even I wasn’t that stupid. Of course it would have been easy to name names (the most prolific shoplifters had been proud to advertise their purloined loot) but if they ever found out who’d grassed them up? The consequences didn’t bear contemplating. We were told our statements would remain confidential, but even at the age of 14 I was cynical enough to doubt it. Ours was the era of The Sweeney, not Dixon of Dock Green.
My statement was a masterpiece of obfuscation. Yes, I’d been in the gift shop. Yes, I’d seen plenty of my classmates there. No, I hadn’t seen anyone steal anything — I was far too busy studying the guidebook to Beaumaris Castle. I’m sure the police didn’t believe a word of it, but it didn’t matter. As usual, it was the biggest crooks who turned out to be the biggest narks. In an attempt to save their own skins, they sang like canaries and stitched each other up good and proper. It was a valuable lesson which has stood me in good stead throughout my adult life.
And after all, isn’t that the sort of thing you’re supposed to learn on a school trip?