Things that make you go Boom! Exploding science

Things that make you go Boom! Exploding science

It started, as so many of these things do with a simple question: “Andy, do you think you could…?” To which the answer is always “Of course I can.” Followed by wondering how to do it. In this case it was could do something about Southsea Castle for a group of non-engaging teenagers. “Of course I can.”

Where to begin?

Things were complicated by the short timescale involved: I had a day to create and prepare, ready to deliver the following afternoon at a site I don’t know that well. No problem. There was absolutely no possibility of this exploding in my face. None at all.

Anyway, down to business.

The morning was dispatched bringing my knowledge of the castle up to date. Apparently, the history of Southsea Castle can mostly be characterised by the following: “Quick, build a fortress: the French are coming! Actually, I don’t think they are after all. As you were.” Over, and over again.

So, I had an hour and a half to fill with activity around a fort that kept gearing up for invasions that never came. A process that ensured it was always obsolete by the time it was (re)built.

There wasn’t a lot to go on There weren’t even that many things exploding to keep people’s interest.

When in doubt, do science

Like it says: sometimes, history isn’t always the way into a subject. Sometimes, science is a better engager. After all, you only need to be impressed by the exploding thing for it to be interesting. You don’t need to know the chemical formula for it.

So, science it was then.

What was the best science thing to do to link to an artillery fort…?

It took an embarrassingly long time to land on the obvious answer: guns and explosions.

Years ago, I designed a family session based on vinegar and baking soda rockets. The idea was simple: use the reaction of an acid & a carbonate to produce carbon dioxide. Keep that CO2 enclosed in a bottle until there’s enough to bow a cork out of a bottle. That failure produces propulsion that launches the bottle through the air.

Dead simple. Dead easy. Reliable activity.

One small problem: I was building this from scratch and had no materials. No bottles, no acid, no launch tube, no nothing. And I had until close of play to assemble all of this mysterious kit. No pressure.

Shopping for an exploding grapefruit

Ok. Now to build a session round these rockets.

Not a massive problem. Southsea Castle is an artillery fort, so we can talk about gunnery, we can talk about obsolescence, and we can do gun-loading drill. That will lead nicely into launching stuff across the common.

So, all I need is a pair of cannon that have a deep tube at one end and a shallow tube at the other. One that’s big enough to be impressive for teenagers who are well versed in not being impressed. Oh, and I need a stand to put it on.

Got it! Drainpipe. Not the stuff that goes from your gutter to the ground but the big brown ones that go underground. 110mm diameter tube. 3m long. We have a winner. A quick bit of sawing and gluing later and I had something that looked like a cannon, albeit a brown one.

Cannon, apparently

Cannon, apparently

Bags of gunpowder came courtesy of some crafty sewing and some sand.

Powder bags

Powder bags

The only thing remaining is something to use as shot…Something that looks sensible in an 11cm tube. This is supposed to be fun. I know: grapefruit. Let’s fire some grapefruit! That’ll be a lot of fun.

The baking soda rockets requires a trip to the baking isle at Tesco (other supermarkets are available) and some corks that I keep in the bottom of a cupboard. A few odd bits and pieces to make it work and we’re good to rock and roll.

Gun battery

Gun battery

Now to make it an exciting afternoon for disinterested teenagers.

No plan survives contact…

It was a hot day in Portsmouth, ideal for people being grumpy and low energy.

It was pretty clear in about 10 seconds that the tour I’d written was going out of the window. Instead we talked about the bizarreness of this fort that kept being built and rebuilt for an enemy that never came. In between neglect and incompetence let it descend into near ruin. This lead to one of the memorable quotes of the afternoon:

“Were all people in history thick as pig…?”

On the basis of this story, many of them appeared to be. It was going better than it might but there was still a palpable lack of energy.

Move on.

And now for something completely different

Let’s go outside and blow things up.

I’ll be honest, the gun loading drill was a bit flat. They were talking to me and moving around but there wasn’t what you might call “engagement”. They kept asking about whether there was going to be any exploding.

Ok, let’s blow some stuff up then.

Under normal circumstances I might have talked about the chemistry of the reaction, or of the physics of the propulsion. In this case, that went in the bin. They wanted the big bang and as little preamble as possible.

So we built our rockets. There was the usual level of not listening to instructions, and things being dropped, which warmed the atmosphere notably and began to generate some enthusiasm for the task in hand.

Eventually, we were ready to start firing. The range was clear, they were enthused (though cautiously) and ready to go.

The danger of it exploding in the face

There’s always a hint of trepidation at this point, no amount of testing guarantees something as “shed science” as this is going to work properly. It’s quite susceptible to people not doing it right. I’m always nervous.

However, there was nothing to worry about. The first participant looked, worryingly, as though he knew exactly what he was doing. And it launched brilliantly, fired a good twenty yards across the field and was described as “bare wicked”.

Not everyone’s worked properly, but that’s part of the charm. Particularly the instruction to “shake once and then quickly into the tube” seemed to go in one ear and out the other. Several of them had their rocket go off in their hand, which caused huge hilarity. One of them pushed the cork in so hard it went into the bottle and were perplexed as to why it didn’t work.

It was great fun. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and talking to me. I couldn’t have asked for more.

And the moral of the story

This session was great fun. It’s going to become something I offer to schools as a science of forces experiment session.

But, the real point of it was that when someone asked “Andy, do you think you could…?” the answer was “of course I can.” Yes, I ran around trsying to make it happen. Yes, I had to rebuild the session on the fly. Yes, it wasn’t what I had planned. But the point is that it worked.

Some of them even wrote that they had “fun” on their evaluation.

So, if you fancy having some exploding learning fun. You know where I am.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, 0 comments
The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

Remembering Remembrance

Last week I was delivering drill sessions in Portsmouth schools. I was in the playground in the baking heat of an Indian Summer. In layers of wool and cotton I was beyond toasty warm. I was sweating buckets marching around playground suntraps.

Looking stern

Looking stern

It’s easy in such conditions to kid yourself that it’s still summer and not the last week of September. It’s easy to revel in the warmth of the moment and ignore the inevitable fact that the year is turning.

September. The turn of the seasons means one thing here at Past Participants: it’s time to start gearing up for November. It’s time to start gearing up for Remembrance.

It’s the best of times

I apologise for paraphrasing one of Portsmouth’s most famous sons.

I love Remembrance season. It’s a subject that really seems to connect with teachers and students alike. It’s a subject where I feel I really make an impact. It’s a subject that’s important.

It’s also the busiest time of the year because of all of that.

I shall spend most of November visiting the schools of Hampshire delivering Remembrance sessions. More often than not that also means delivering drill sessions in their playgrounds. The same playgrounds that, in September, were dappled in late summer sun are now blasted by a freezing wind. They really give an immersive feel to the whole Remembrance experience. It can also be really cold so the children are wrapped up against it while muggins is in the same kit that he was wearing back in September. It’s thick wool so it’s warm and, to a certain extent, waterproof but it’s not windproof.

I can live with that, it’s what I signed up for.

The stories we tell in our remembrance sessions are really powerful. Some are from the Great War discovering the experience of soldiers on the front line. Some are from the Second World War where we find out about the crews of Landing Craft as well as the soldiers on the beach.

It’s the worst of times

Not all of the stories turn out well for those concerned. That only makes them more powerful. Telling them properly and doing them justice means putting everything into it. It’s only fair.

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Think about it for a moment. Every time I deliver a Remembrance session, I introduce the group to a person who, I know, isn’t going to make it to the end of the session. Every session, I put myself through the emotional wringer to make sure I’m doing it properly. Every single session. There’s no shortcut, no way of insulating myself from it: it’s got to be done properly.

What that means for me is that the season really takes its toll on me emotionally. It’s important and I don’t begrudge it but, by the end of it, I am pretty wrung out from going through that process so often.

Am I looking forward to it?

Of course I am.

The effect that the sessions have on students and teachers alike make all the hard work, the cold, the emotional challenges all worthwhile. The fact that students remember these people years after they’ve taken part tells me this is worth doing.

I get a huge reward out of teaching Remembrance and from feeling that I am making a small but positive difference to the world.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun

Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun

Where have you been?

Things may have looked quiet on the surface recently, but there’s been a lot going on at Past Participant Towers over the last month or so. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

The end of term seems to have signalled a real change.

We dig deep holes…

You may have noticed some odd pictures cropping up on Facebook and wondered what’s been going on. Well, it’s dead simple: I’ve been doing a stint as a professional archaeologist.

Archaeologist's trowel

Archaeologist’s trowel

I’ve been working in various heritage roles for so long now that it’s easy to forget that this is where I came from. I have two archaeology degrees, that’s five years of studying. However, I’ve not wielded a trowel in anger since 2003, so people I’ve known and worked with for a long time don’t realise that my background is in digging holes. That always comes as a surprise.

When people ask me what my background is I usually reply that I’m a reformed archaeologist. It’s always been a useful part of my skillset as a heritage educator. It gives me the ability to talk about a wide range of historic, prehistoric and environmental subjects with a sense of authority.

So, when the opportunity came up this summer to re-acquaint myself with a mattock, I jumped at the chance. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I really wasn’t sure whether I could still cut it after thirteen years out of the trenches. However, it was a chance to put my money where my mouth is, which is a challenge I can’t ignore.

…And fill ‘em up again.

So I donned my hard hat and flash vest and got ready to get dirty on an active construction site.

Three men in a pit

Three men in a pit

I’ve been re-familiarising myself with pits, fills, context sheets, plans and sections.

I’ve been enjoying working at the sharp-end of heritage as well as becoming the site expert in identifying ancient tree-throws (mostly by digging them).

I’ve even got to excavate my first skeleton in a very long time, albeit a lamb burial.

Lamb burial with trowel for scale

Trowel for scale

Some of it felt instantly familiar. Some of it far less so. It’s been over fifteen years since I last worked on a commercial site.

Working on a construction site has also helped me keep my engagement skills sharp. Many of the builders and digger drivers were really keen to know what we were up to. Often they’d drive their 9 tonne tippers right up to our pits to find out. Cheers for that.

It was a lot of fun to meet new people and enjoy the camaraderie that comes from a shared experience.

It was also pleasing to feel that I’ve still got it. Kind of.

And we never, ever, find a thing.

Working on a clean-stripped chalk site in the hottest weather of the summer has been…errr….challenging but rewarding. Hefting a mattock in 35 degrees of blazing sun with no shade was, I’ll admit, not a great deal of fun.

Desperately seeking shade

Desperately seeking shade

It’s has been good exercise and I reckon I’ve stored up enough Vitamin A to get through the winter.

But, I hear everyone ask, did you find anything?

Well….kind of. There was some cool stuff. There were several burials, there were things that may well have been Iron Age houses. There was even a Romano-British ditch.

There was also a lot of dross. By which I mean that, when you’re investigating things, a lot of the things you dig up turn out to be nothing much. Or, in my case, the boles of trees long gone.

That’s how I earned my nickname “The Tree Throw King” which was, I hope, meant affectionately.

I have also thoroughly enjoyed the experience of stopping off on my way home with me site kit on, hard hat & flash vest strapped to my back, covered in filth for a free cup of coffee in Waitrose. The looks I got were priceless.

The last days of summer

Sadly, all good things come to an end. It’s now time to refocus Past Participants on our core business. So I have, once again, hung up my trowel and returned to the office.

It’s going to be a busy and exciting few months. I’ll be keeping you up to date with the excitement as I get a chance.

Enjoy the photos.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Remembering Travis

Remembering Travis

Travis Who?

Travis were a band who were massive in Glasgow when I was living there in about 1999. They were everywhere for about two years (including a famous acoustic version of Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time which is well worth a watch), and then they dropped below everybody’s (including my) radar.

According to Wikipedia, they formed in 1990 in Lenzie (since made famous by the excellent Bags Fags and Mags, but I digress), they went through the obligatory “years in the wilderness” before making it big. They are also, if Wikipedia is to be believed, still going.

Yes, but why?

For those of who were not huge Travis fans, they had approximately two hits (to be fair they probably had more but I’ve forgotten).

The first was Driftwood, but that’s not why I remembered them.

Yesterday I was at the Gilbert White Field Study Centre again for a day of River Studies. Sadly, the weather forecast was “a little damp” to say the least. From the moment we left the centre to the moment we get back at the end of the day it rained solidly. It was never properly hammering it down, but it never stopped, not for a moment.

There was even a lovely moment when I realised that we were above the cloud base when on top of the hanger. It was great.

Fortunately, we’d come prepared: I was carrying a bag of spare waterproofs, spare gloves and hand warmers. Everyone had a great time splashing around in the mud.

It is, however, becoming something of a recurring theme at the moment. Getting rained on. Getting properly rained on, all day.

Which is why I found myself recalling Travis’ other big hit.

In lieu of something more insightful to say, I present you with a slice of classic Travis. It’ll all make sense. I promise.


Why does it always rain on me?

Fortunately, I’ve managed to dry everything out, ready for my next outing.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, Uncategorised, 0 comments
A Day out on the river…

A Day out on the river…

…Re-introducing myself to some old acquaintances.

Some of you may be aware that I’ve been doing some delivery for the Field Studies Centre at Gilbert White’s House recently, teaching “river studies days” It keeps my skills sharp and gives me a chance to keep my experience portfolio as broad as possible. I’m really enjoying myself, the sessions are a lot of fun and I get to work in the open air.

Yesterday I was teaching a group from a Portsmouth school and had this conversation when they arrived:

Teacher: you’ve been here a while. I didn’t come last year but I remember you from the year before.
Me: I’m not sure you do.
Teacher: But I do remember you.
Me: Yes, but not from here.
Teacher: [pause] You’re the man from the Royal Marines Museum aren’t you?
Me: That’s right. Don’t worry, we won’t be doing drill this morning.


I was really touched. I checked my records when I got home. The last time I taught this school was in 2014 and yet the performance I gave was so memorable that, in spite of me being in the wrong place, the teacher still recognised me.

It’s one thing to think I’m memorable, it’s another thing entirely to be presented with independent evidence of it. I was a very happy man.

Below is the GPS trace for the day, which I always find interesting, but disappointing as the hills are never as big in Strava as they are in real life.



Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, 0 comments