Meet the Bedford woman bringing history to life at Zeitgeist Tours

To celebrate Armed Forces Day, we spoke to professional military illustrator, Dawn Monks at Zeitgeist Tours about women in history, school trips and the pandemic.

Friday, 24th June 2022, 3:42 pm

Do you remember your school history trips? Were they interesting hands-on experiences that helped to make history more understandable – or a bit of a disappointment?

That was Dawn Monks’ initial inspiration for creating a bespoke historic tour service for students.

The single-mum from Bedford started her business in 2015 after her teenage children went on a history tour as part of their studies.

Dawn (left) and her trips for students (right).

Dawn explains: “My twins had the opportunity to go on a battlefield tour, which I thought was fantastic that they were going find out all this stuff and see all these amazing places. But it didn't turn out like that. It was a bit of a disappointment.”

Using her contacts as a military illustrator, Dawn brought together creatives, authors, academics, artists and archaeologists to give young adults a memorable, hands-on experience.

The tours, which either cross the channel to Belgium and France or visit the Suffolk countryside, involve students as much as possible and teach through seeing and doing instead of being told a set of facts.

Each child is given a ‘Tour Pal’, a book with information about the First World War and period photographs, posters and cartoon art.

Dawn with a Second World War Bren gun.

Dawn said: “I think you learn a lot more when you're enjoying it.”

Over three days, pupils are taken to battlefields, cemeteries and other places of importance to get the full picture of whichever subject they are exploring.

Dawn added: “It’s all about laughing as learning. It’s very sobering to go over there and see how many soldiers never came back. But also you've got to have a bit of fun.”

Pupils and teachers have opportunities to wear uniforms, shoot authentic rifles from the First World War (firing blanks, of course) and ‘meet’ soldiers who would have fought on the fields.

Pupils on a trip by Zeitgeist Tours.

Authenticity is at the heart of all that Zeitgeist Tours does and the actors and living historians, who pass on their knowledge, are very particular about getting the details right.

Dawn said: “They have all the kit and everything. It's all authentic period kit. So it's not just any old thing. It's got to be 100% correct.”

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During the pandemic Dawn has had to diversify and stand out from the big players in historic tours without compromising on quality content.

Students reading Zeitgeist Tours' Tour Pal.

She said: “We went down on our own route of trying to pack as much into every moment as we possibly could. We started running trench experience dates in the UK instead.”

The trench reconstruction site in Suffolk the company takes youngsters to is used by film companies.

Recently, Zeitgeist Tours has run joint trips for German and British schools which Dawn says was fantastic, “It was all about reconciliation and lovely to see the two standing together underneath the main gate for the Last Post and walking side by side to lay their memorial wreaths.”

As a woman in a male-dominated field, Dawn is happy to see it becoming “more and more open to girls to get into history” – and she’s keen to encouraged girls to get involved.

And if you’re feeling like you’ve missed out, don’t worry – the tour company is hoping to branch out to include tours for grownups soon!