Students at Hooke Park College, the woodland kingdom of John Makepeace in deepest Dorset, found an unscheduled item on the menu as they gathered for their end-of-term Christmas lunch - bombe surprise.
The bombshell, announced by Peter Miles, the college director, was that the school had run out of cash and that he had been sacked. Mr Makepeace, who also runs the well-known School for Craftsmen in Wood (alumni include Lord Linley) at Parnham House, Beaminster, a wood or two away, was unable to attend the lunch, being on business in London. But he admitted later that the decision to close the school - until next September, and possibly for ever - had been a difficult one.
'Of course one feels sad,' he said, as he prepared to spend Christmas in Egypt. 'We've just had to find the best answer we can when there are no students and no income.'
Bournemouth University, which has sponsored the 12-month postgraduate diploma in forestry design and manufacture, moved quickly to protect the 24 Hooke students until their course finishes at the end of this month. The university has already invited Mr Miles to join its staff to supervise the final phase of the last year's course, which culminates in an exhibition of students' work at the Barbican Centre, London, which opens on Friday and runs until 24 January.
Buried in a 330-acre wood, Hooke Park College has for years represented Mr Makepeace's most ambitious dream - to create a total working environment in which students would learn how to fell slender forest thinnings and convert them into exquisite hand-crafted furniture.
The main college building, the House of Trees, is a stunning structure that has extended the frontiers of timber-framed construction. Designed by the architects A B K with engineers Buro Happold, the building is a remarkable, successful and rare example of sophisticated engineering married to inventive architecture and traditional craft skills. Round wooden poles were used as supporting arches, their butt ends bolted into concrete, tapered tops bent and pinned together with hi-tech joints of metal and epoxy resin.
Its purpose was equally inventive and Mr Makepeace proved a persuasive ambassador for an idealistic scheme which, he believed, could transform thousands of acres of neglected English woodland into centres of craftsmanship. Lord Carrington, one-time Foreign Secretary; Lord McAlpine, former Tory Party treasurer; and David Puttnam, the film producer, were among those who helped to raise more than pounds 1m to open Hooke Park in 1989.
The rural idyll was, however, short-lived; and the future of college, building and dream seems, if not over, then questionable. In the summer of 1992, the college ran into trouble over a contract to provide tables and bathroom furniture, including lavatory-roll holders, for Habitat. Students complained that the items were being made, with their 'sweated labour', from soft wood imported from Scandinavia instead of indigenous timber and threatened to strike. The upshot was the abrupt termination of the Habitat contract.
'The initial batch of tables from Hooke Park had quality problems,' says Mark Gilbey, Habitat's senior furniture designer. 'Worse than that, someone got their sums wrong. Their prices went up rather dramatically; twice or even three times. So we had to pull out, and got that range from Denmark instead.'
The arrival later that year of Peter Miles, a respected figure from the furniture industry with experience of both factory and workshop production, seemed to put the Makepeace dream on a new and more realistic course.
A two-year contract, supported by Bournemouth University and funded through the Government's High Technology National Training Scheme (HTNTS), underwrote the students' pounds 5,500 course fees while allowing them to draw unemployment benefit to cover lodgings and living costs. The partnership between woodland school and university (a recently elevated polytechnic) was further strengthened with a contract to design and build boardroom and reception area furniture to befit the university's new status.
Then government policy changed. 'In April last year Norman Lamont said HTNTS, as far as our students were concerned, was for the chop,' Mr Miles says. 'We've been all round the houses for alternative funding, but the message basically was the same: 'Hooke's had enough money. Sort yourselves out'.'
Gloomily, director and college trustees studied the consequences for next year's course - 200 inquiries but only eight students able to stump up the necessary pounds 12,500 out of their own pockets.
Peter Miles is deeply disappointed that Hooke was unable to get a clear two-year run to prove itself. Negotiating severance terms, he is guarded in his criticisms of John Makepeace. 'When I came here I asked him for independence and proper funding. I got the independence. It's a super course and morale was high. I expected the trustees to take another route out and I am disappointed by the outcome.' Does he think the courses would ever resume? 'Pass,' he replies tersely.
Mr Makepeace, however, remains confident about Hooke's future, both as a high-quality training ground and a research centre for the kind of innovative building techniques used in the college workshop. Next year he plans to start building an exhibition centre and five houses for student and staff accommodation in the middle of Hooke Wood. He has hired, as part- time consultant, Christopher West, who helped to design the British Aerospace Harrier jump-jet.
'All our new constructions at Hooke are addressing the development of techniques for using crops from managed woodlands,' he says. 'The fact that grant support has gone highlights the fact that the Parnham Trust - which runs Parnham House - is independent and it's now our aim to sell the course next September to people who are able to pay for it.'
The article 'The School that got lost in the woods' (Architecture page, 12 January) reported that the Hooke Park College, Beaminster, Dorset, was to close until next September and possibly for ever. The Director and Trustees of the Parnham Trust, which founded the college in 1989, have asked us to make clear that Hooke Park College is not closing, that future courses will start in September and that national and international recruitment has begun for these and will continue over the spring.
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