I went to visit the Bayeux tapestry when I was 15. Booooooring! I have a vague recollection of wandering through the darkened room in which it is hung, but I’m fairly sure my main aim was to get out into the sun as quickly as possible. What interest could an ancient wall-hanging possibly hold for a teenage boy?
Fast forward 26 years, and I was there again last week, travelling with my wife and making a detour to Bayeux for the purpose of visiting the famous tapestry on our way through Normandy. And how different it was this time! It’s the same building, probably the same audio commentary, although the computer graphics in the hall upstairs are no doubt new.
But I was fascinated by the accounts of King Edward of England, of Harold going to France and signing over England to William the Bastard (as he was then known), and how his breaking of that oath led to the Norman invasion of England. The Bayeux tapestry tells the story of this turbulent period through a series of images along its 70 metre length. Long since added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, the site receives many thousands of visitors who walk slowly along its length, admiring this intricate storytelling tool, produced in the 11th century for an illiterate population. It takes around 20 minutes to walk the length of the tapestry and hear the commentary that explains each scene.
Our visit to Bayeux got me thinking. Why are history and geography in particular so much more interesting to me now, as a fortysomething, than they were when my brain was better equipped to absorb the mass of information presented to me in my school years? I really didn’t appreciate the wonders of nature or the rich layers of history that my poor teachers were trying to pass on to me. It was all about getting us through the exams, and not about the real magic contained in the substance of those stories and those pictures behind the facts.
Now, with nothing more than interest and the desire to learn for pure enjoyment’s sake, I can go back to those same topics that I studied with dread and immerse myself in the lavish worlds of past rulers, in the great struggles of revolutionaries, and be astounded at the forces of nature that shaped our world.
Do we miss a trick with the youngsters in our education system? Is there a way to create that enthrallment early in life, or is it just the way of the world that we only learn to make sense of science, history, language and the natural world around us when we live a little more of our lives. I am convinced that any subject could (and should) be made far more relevant to children as they are put through our education system. Even maths can be made sexy!
As we shuffled slowly along the length of the Bayeux tapestry, large groups of French school kids hurried impatiently past us, eager to step outside again and uninterested in this ancient artefact. And I wondered whether they’ll be back again in time, just like I had to good fortune to return and look at the same scene through very different eyes.