Seat of learning

Do you have a great novel in you? Want to know more about real ale? One picturesque adult-education retreat has it all

On a stunning estate in the Cotswolds, 56-bedrooms lie deserted. This was the scene every weekend at a conference centre until the idea of using the space for weekend study breaks came up, and the Farncombe Estate Centre was born. The estate is owned by the multimillionaire entrepreneur Jorgen Philip-Sorensen, who didn't get where he is by letting business opportunities pass him by.

On a stunning estate in the Cotswolds, 56-bedrooms lie deserted. This was the scene every weekend at a conference centre until the idea of using the space for weekend study breaks came up, and the Farncombe Estate Centre was born. The estate is owned by the multimillionaire entrepreneur Jorgen Philip-Sorensen, who didn't get where he is by letting business opportunities pass him by.

The centre, launched last autumn, is the newest member of the Adult Residential Colleges Association (ARCA) - a group of centres offering good-value short study breaks - and it's the only place of its kind in Worcestershire. It offers a breathtaking view across the Vale of Evesham to the Malvern Hills - a 20-mile expanse. And it must be one of the safest colleges - it was once a training centre for security staff, and its safety measures haven't changed - there's a security officer on duty 24 hours a day.

I had a snoop around the place earlier this month. It was nearly 10pm on a Friday when I arrived, but there was still a streak of red sky across the valley, and enough starlight to give a sense of the magnificent view. Despite the hour, the site felt homely and safe. I passed a woman student going for a late-night stroll. A couple of people were having a quiet drink in the bar, but most were tucked up in bed after their first lesson. The courses run from Friday evenings to just after lunch on Sundays. Guests arrive some time after 5pm on the Friday, and have a chance to settle into their rooms before dinner. The first lesson makes allowances for weary minds and bodies - for a writing course, it may be more like a group chat about the students' expectations of their stay; or for a yoga course, a bit of gentle stretching.

Wildly differing courses are on offer - from massage and "The Cuban Missile Crisis" to chamber-music practice sessions. But most fall into one of five categories - music, history, art, healthy living and literature. The programme is compiled by William Reddaway, the head of lifelong learning, who has great fun doing it. "The range of courses we put on is mind-blowing," he says. "Our new programme includes real-ale appreciation - there are three real-ale breweries within 20 miles of here - walking, storytelling, handling birds of prey, gospel singing, folk jamming..."

There is no shortage of tutors offering to run courses, says Reddaway. He was delighted to be approached by Wincey Willis, well known from her days as a TV-am weather presenter, who is now a public speaker. She will be running a public-speaking course at Farncombe in October.

More arcane courses coming up include a weekend of playing the viol - the medieval stringed instrument - with maestro Alison Crum, and the intriguingly named "Scones, Snowshill and Shin Kicking", a walking weekend that will include a visit to the Cotswold Olympicks, a number of traditional events, including shin-kicking and a torchlight procession.

On the weekend of my visit, there is yoga, Pilates, "the history of flowers and gardens as seen in art", and creative writing. I sleep soundly in my comfy room (springy bed; big TV; tea and biscuits), and after a power shower (all rooms are en-suite), feel refreshed, and bound down to the main block for breakfast. The centre is made up of a cluster of Cotswold-stone buildings on the 300-acre estate, which runs down the side of a hill. Most of the buildings were put up within the last 30 years, although two cottages date from about 1900.

I tuck into bacon and eggs for breakfast. The guests are chatting happily with their fellow-students and course tutors. Lunch and dinner comprise a starter, and a choice of main courses and puddings. And there are scones with local jam for tea, if you're not out discovering an old church or wildlife-spotting as part of your course. Farncombe is starting to look incredibly good value - £175 for two nights full board in a single room, including course fees. Some programmes, such as "Wines for summer", carry an extra charge for supplies or outings.

"Creative writing for all" demands nothing more than a pen, paper and enthusiasm. The tutor, Jane Blank, is convinced that there is plenty of latent literary talent, and is eager to nurture it. Her 11 students are aged from about 40 to nearly 80, apart from one woman in her twenties. There are only two men in the class, both of whom have brought laptops. What they all need to do, says Blank, is to get excited about redrafting. "Even top writers such as Ian McEwan will have produced first drafts that were rubbish," she tells the class.

I join in and am impressed to find that it caters for all tastes and abilities. Blank is not a literary snob - she discusses the various merits of Thomas Hardy and Mills & Boon. And no one is stumped for something to write about because most of the work is based on the notion that everyone has at least one decent story inside them - their own.

We learnt about narrative techniques and discussed our ideas. Some on the course have ambitions of writing a bestseller; others were simply looking for a new hobby. Forty-eight hours at Farncombe Estate will have inspired them.

For more information: www.farncombeestate.co.uk

education@independent.co.uk

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