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Twenty years ago a south Cheshire farmer called Jeffrey Lockett attended a cattle auction and was impressed by the theatrical aspect of the arena. It inspired him to hold a charity concert in one of his barns, a move endorsed by his mother, the mezzo-soprano and music teacher Betty Bannerman.

Enter several hundred bales of straw, which were stacked in tiers, attracted mice and played havoc with the acoustics. But never mind. Overnight Clonter Farm had become Clonter Opera Farm operating then, as now, on goodwill and a shoestring.

I know about the bales of straw because I was told about them. Repeatedly. By some of the people who had sat on them and by some of the people who wished they had. If there is one thing that matters to devotees of "The Glyndebourne of the North" it is being in at the beginning and therefore privy to the Tales of the Bales.

Something else that matters is looking the part. Things have come a long way since those hay days when the audience wore thermals and drank tea out of flasks. Although wellies are still de rigeur (at least to get from your transport to front of house), black ties abound. My partner, who enjoys dressing up like an Arctic turn, scoffed at the smattering of white jackets: "They look like band leaders". The band leader, who was also the band, came in and sat down at the piano. His white jacket gleamed under the arc lights paid for, like the instrument, by sponsors.

Apart from a little help from North West Arts, the Foundation for Sports and the Arts and Cheshire County Council, the enterprise is self-funded, chiefly by box office takings. Fortunately the farm has a corps of loyal fans.

"The emphasis here is on training singers," says Anna de Courcy, the energetic administrator, explaining the absence of orchestra.

It is not Covent Garden but then it has never claimed to be. Clonter is a registered charity which twice a year takes a handful of rising stars from opera schools and conservatoires and gives them three weeks tuition culminating in a short season of full-dress performances.

Earlier in the day Ms de Courcy had shown me around: "This is the main barn, er, theatre." Clonter looks like the working farm that it still is, though the 120 friesians were not in evidence. (The opera is an indulgence, not an earner, says Jeffrey Lockett. "Eccentric diversification is fine so long as you have a steady milk cheque coming in.") The silage barn is now a dining room, the farm implements shed a rehearsal studio, the dairy a bookings office.

You are reminded of the site's agricultural precedents by the plaster cow's head lolling its tongue over the aptly-named stalls which these days are furnished not with straw but with 300 second-hand maroon-and- gold seats. It costs between pounds l7 and pounds 25 to sit here.

"We used to sit on bales, you know," said a woman in Alice band and pearls hauling abottle of wine out of a cool box during one of the two indoor picnic intervals. "It looked like a cross between Glyndebourne and a point-to-point."

Clonter Opera Farm, Swettenham Heath, Congleton, Cheshire CW12 2LR. Free mailing list (box office: 01260 224514)

Jenny McClean