Don't forget your paintbrush

The amateur artist in Joe Gilbert finds inspiration and encouragement in the Lake District

WHOEVER CALLED England a green and pleasant land must have set eyes on Wasdale in spring. The Lakes have inspired poets and painters from Wordsworth to Ruskin. And the region still has plenty to offer aspiring talents in the form of art and craft holidays.

Dotted around the Lakes are a number of specialist centres running creative courses in idyllic surroundings. At the entrance to Wasdale, the Gosforth Pottery can teach you to make a pot in a week, with painting and rug-making optional extras. "Our students range from complete beginners to old hands," says Barbara Wright, who runs the centre with her husband, Dick.

The Pottery is part of Hardingill House, a rambling Cumbrian pile built in 1680, where you can stay in double, twin or single bedrooms overlooking the garden. "We work together in small groups all morning," says Barbara, a professional potter for 20 years. "These sessions cover all the basics, such as hand- building, throwing on the wheel, glazing and hand-firing."

The Pottery is well-equipped with a couple of workshops, wheel-room and a newly built studio. Eager students from all over the world cram terracotta novelties into a couple of large kilns while others paint watercolours. A complete beginner can expect to make four pots by hand over the week and six on the wheel - anything from conventional jugs and vases to fantastic animals.

More experienced students use advanced techniques to add spouts, handles and lids to casserole dishes and teapots. "Wacky portrait busts are another favourite," says Barbara. "Some people amaze us and produce over 20 pots in the week."

The workshops stay open till 10.30pm for those who are really keen, while others can also enjoy walking, painting and sketching or rug-making in the afternoon. Nearby, the valleys of Ennerdale, Wasdale and Eskdale are excellent rambling country, where Dick Wright, a qualified mountain leader, arranges walks to suit everyone.

Another attraction of Hardingill is the family atmosphere. Groups can be 10 or fewer and lunch and dinner are taken together. So it is a chance for like-minded souls to get acquainted, swap tips or plan an afternoon on the hills. "People get on like a house on fire and it usually ends up like a week-long party," Barbara says.

At pounds 375 for a full week's board including tuition and materials, the entertainment comes cheap. And if you can't finish or carry off all your pots, they can be glazed and posted for a small charge.

Twenty miles from Gosforth in the heart of the southern Lakes, Great Langdale winds down to Windermere and Rydal Water is a few miles to the north. Wordsworth lived here for 37 years and you will soon see why. His Guide to the Lakes portrays the scenery as "sublime and beautiful", and who could disagree?

It is a landscape painter's dream - a fact that hasn't escaped the notice of Ambleside-based firm Painting in Lakeland. It offers specialist painting holidays at two local hotels between April and September. Courses can be booked on a weekly or daily basis and they cater for complete beginners, intermediates and experienced artists.

The most popular option is the Eltermere Country House Hotel, near Ambleside. "The idea is to enjoy yourself, make friends and learn as much as possible in the process," says course tutor Bob Henfrey, a distinguished Lakeland artist.

Beginners start with simple pencil sketches, soon progressing to shading and drawing in colour. With groups of 10 or fewer, students come on fast, so a novice can be doing a proper watercolour within a couple of days. You can't help but be impressed with the organisation, too. Artist's materials are sold at discount prices and you are given a list of essentials with your pre-course information. Even if the heavens open, the hotel studio, spacious and well lit, saves the day.

But landscape is the main preoccupation with individual help on composition, colour harmony and mood. You will be encouraged to produce a major piece in oil, watercolour or acrylic, plus a sheaf of sketches in paint and crayon.

And after a day's painting comes dinner at the hotel. Try spicy Cumberland sausage, trout or sticky toffee pudding. The cost of accommodation varies throughout the season and is arranged directly with the hotel. Tuition costs pounds 175 for a week or pounds 25 for the day and non-residents can join in for pounds 35 a day.

But if painting is not for you, the Blencathra Centre, a few miles from Keswick in the central Lakes, is offering one-week courses in landscape and nature photography this year. The centre is a converted Victorian sanatorium and stands on the side of Blencathra mountain. Tutor Derry Brabbs is acclaimed for his photographic collaborations with the legendary walker, Alfred Wainwright, including memorable shots for Fellwalking with Wainwright. His September landscape course will take you to some of the master's favourite haunts, provided you are fit enough for five-mile round-trips.

It's a rare chance for keen amateurs to work with one of Britain's top professionals at a magical time of year. After a good breakfast comes a pep talk, then a trek to the day's location. Dawn and sunset sessions are a high spot, offering a glorious range of moods, colours and light- effects.

The cost is pounds 295 including full board in twin or family rooms, with some self-catering. Blencathra is warm, comfortable and friendly, but in reality it is a field centre so don't expect bellboys or room service.

FACT FILE

lake district

Where to go

Gosforth Pottery (tel: 019467 25296). Painting in Lakeland, call Stephanie Abbot (tel: 01253 796680). Eltermere Country House Hotel, call Shelagh Stephenson (tel: 015394 37207). Blencathra Centre (tel: 017687 79601).

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