Teacher Focus Bedales Russia

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I have been organizing school trips for over 20 years and TCBC have offered by far the best service to date. Their attention to detail is second to none. Their guides are also second to none.

Rima Tremlett Head of Oriental Languages

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Jonathan Selby / Nick Meigh
History Department, Bedales

We were lucky enough to have both Group Leaders join us for this interview at Bedales School. Jonathan and Nick have led 8 school tours to Russia between them, the last 5 of which have been with us. They travel every Easter with a group of around 30 students. This year Jonathan led the tour and Nick took a break, but is raring to go for the next one!

TCBC: How did you first come about TCBC?

Nick Meigh: It was in 2007, during the time of organising our trip for 2008, and I had received a brochure from Russian City Breaks, as you were then, and I got in contact with the company and I booked the tour from there. This year has therefore been our 5th time to Russia with you.

TCBC: How have you found the pre-departure service with us?

NM: Very good. Everything is pretty much organised for you with a few discussions of what you want to see and how you want to organise the trip. It's all done very smoothly. Then a month or 6 weeks before, Kristina gets in contact about evening activities and to finalise the itinerary, so it’s all done way in advance and you’re not worrying at the last minute about anything.

TCBC: Had you been to Russia previously before travelling with us?

NM: Yes, we’ve been 3 times before with another company.

TCBC: How does the experience compare?

NM: They don’t compare at all really. Anything that was above and beyond the normal provision seemed to be very expensive and quite difficult to organise with the other company. There was a bit of unpredictability too and you kind of turned up not knowing what you’re doing in the evenings and that kind of thing. The big difference with TCBC is that everything is organised way in advance and you know exactly what you are doing from minute to minute which is a huge benefit for the kind of tour we take.

Jonathan Selby: They just have a set programme which you can't go outside. Also although other companies may look cheaper at first glance, it balances out in the end and actually there is very little difference in cost. For instance, we didn't like having to buy tickets while we were there through the guide or through an agency who add their percentage and also having to account for unexpected additional coach hours which was quite enormous. I think the other thing that TCBC is very good at is actually accommodating the things that we asked about. I mean, when we asked about the Grand Kremlin Palace (it was in an article I read in The Spectator), you picked it up very quickly, pursued it and booked it. The same was true with Kirov’s flat which is off the beaten track. I think TCBC is very good at actually tailoring the tour to what you want. Another difference is the personal touch. We had two crises during our trips with another company and in terms of dealing with unforeseen eventualities they were completely useless.

NM: Also the quality of guides that we’ve had in Russia with you has been exceptional.

TCBC: When you are in Russia, what do you enjoy most of all about the trip? Do you have a personal highlight?

NM: We’ve seen new things when we’ve gone with you so the Grand Kremlin Palace and the Terem Palace, I think that’s been a complete highlight. The performances we’ve seen at the ballet have also been a huge highlight for me.

JS: The contrast really because you get the kind of bourgeois culture with the ballet and you also get, what I call, the proletarian culture of the folkshow and the circus which is culturally astonishing, so I think that contrast is really good. The cultural experience is certainly varied.

TCBC: How is the trip relevant for students in terms of their course work?

JS: They study 110 years of Russian history and their course begins in 1855 with Alexander II so we go and see where Alexander II was assassinated and it goes through to Khruschev and we end up seeing his hat and his coat and everything in between. One of the things I enjoyed seeing is the Smolny Institute, because that’s the headquarters of the Bolshevik Party and we were able to stand where Lenin delivered his speeches so it actually links with the course very well. Particularly the St Petersburg Central Revolution.

NM: There have also been a couple of times when students who haven’t studied history have come along, because they’ve been studying Russian artists so they’ve come on that aspect. We’ve got quite a big cross over between people doing history and those doing art and there is so much valuable stuff to see like the Hermitage and Tretyakov Gallery. That kind of thing is amazing.

TCBC: And do you enjoy the night train?

NM: The night train is really good. I admit I really missed that this year, I have to say. My one night a year of going to sleep on a train.

TCBC: You have both been to Russia with Bedales 7 times, that's 14 trips between you. Do you still have the same passion to organise the trip?

NM & JS: Yes!

TCBC: Is that because of the destination? What do you think brings you back every year?

JS: Well it is astonishingly interesting historically and we have also varied a bit of what we’ve seen. But I think also its culturally so different. It’s constantly surprising from the bizarre through to things we know are going to happen. It just constantly astonishes you that even if you have been there, it is always a very exciting thought to be going again. There’s a wildness about Russia which I find compelling I think. There is a very different feel to the whole place which other European cities I have visited don't have.

NM: It was interesting to talk with the students, who I didn’t go with this year. They were all saying how scary they thought Moscow was, because it was so different. And these are pretty well travelled students. It opened their eyes because there is that element of surprise and shock and difference with Russia that nowhere else has really given them and which they have never encountered before.

TCBC: So do you still enjoy seeing the students reaction when they are standing on Red Square for example?

NM: Yes, and that’s part of it as well obviously because we always get such positive feedback. You can really sense they are really really enjoying it.

JS: It is recognised now without any doubt as the cream of the tours at Bedales - and they do a lot of tours. It is regarded as the jewel in the crown because it’s always had such positive feedback from everybody. For 8 years we’ve not had a pupil who hasn’t been astonished by it. A lot of them have gone on after here, having got a taste for Russia, to go back, to go on the Trans-Siberian, to continue their studies in Russian. The trip has stayed with them. One girl made sure she was doing Russian art and went to live in St Petersburg for a while because of some two and a half days she spent on a school tour. So it really does inspire people.

TCBC: Many teachers will say that their students have returned after a trip to Russia and gone on to generally study better and get better marks. They also comment that they have had much positive feedback from parents. Do you notice this? Is there a lot of talk about the trip?

NM: Definitely. It’s been interesting for me because I didn’t go this year, to discuss the trip with the students and ask them what they thought of it. They're telling me all about what they saw and we even had a long discussion about the circus because they were just so amazed by it, something they haven’t seen before.

JS: It’s difficult to judge I think. In the end it’s illustrating rather than actually learning necessarily much more about it. Although occasionally when you get a guide like Lena, with her historical insights, listening to her is actually quite fruitful in terms of everything they’ve been studying. I think it does benefit and a lot of them have said to me they didn’t realise how much of the course they would see when they were there so that helps register it.

NM: I remember last year when we were driving to the railway station in Moscow. Lena had finished and asked if there were any questions and one of the students said, do you think the revolution was successful? And she gave such a perfect answer, that they were all asking her to write it down, they were so bowled over by how she was able to express really succinctly the successes and failures of the Russian Revolution on a coach journey to the railway station. It was amazing.

TCBC: Do you have a particular favorite memory from your many trips to Russia?

JS: When we first visited the Grand Kremlin Palace for me, it coincided with Putin’s guard actually rehearsing their drill movements. So not only were we in this place we’ve never been to before and most people don’t visit, but there was something very spectacular going on there. That was also the year when we went to the downstairs rooms and we were there before Putin himself had been there. It had just been reopened that morning. That moment struck me, the whole place is quite striking anyhow, because of its gilded wonders, but I think the circumstances of that occasion were particularly memorable.

TCBC: Would you recommend TCBC?

NM: Definitely, yes. I have!