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

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software Developer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing software co...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate / Digital Account Exe...

Guru Careers: Junior Designer / Design Graduate

£18k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Junior Designer / Design Graduate to join...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas