I was staying at Flatford Mill on the River Stour in south Suffolk, one of 11 field centres run by the Field Studies Council in the English and Welsh countryside. The council was established in 1943 to promote 'environmental understanding for all', chiefly through a programme of short courses on environment and arts-related themes. The courses last from a day to a week. Accommodation is basic, but prices are low, and all the centres are set amid attractive rural scenery.
John Constable grew up at Flatford Mill, and the Suffolk farmland, marshes, estuary, coastline and pretty villages provided the inspiration for many of his best- known paintings. I cannot paint, and have no great desire to learn, but for ages I had been planning to improve my photographic skills. When I saw that Flatford Mill was running a photography week in November, I decided the time had come.
There were three courses at Flatford Mill that week, and at dinner on the first night I met the picture-framers and bird- watchers, many of them Field Studies Council 'regulars'. After dinner we split into groups. Three people had signed on for the photography course, barely enough to make it viable, but good news because it meant more individual attention.
Penny, a shepherdess and farming journalist from Sussex, was there for much the same reasons as I. Kate, a Cambridge community care worker, had a lot in common with me, too: she is my wife. Our tutor, Russell Edwards, a retired science teacher turned freelance photographer and lecturer, had a laconic sense of humour. 'Have you all brought a camera?' he began. 'It's quite a useful asset when dealing with photography.' Later, we he moved on to auto-flash guns: 'They auto work, but they usually don't'
On our first morning, we were sent out with our cameras to capture the scenery. As luck would have it, the Stour had burst its banks and everywhere flooded fields glistened in the sunlight. I spotted a picnic bench marooned in a temporary lake and took a picture - one that would not have been possible the next day. Unfortunately, the floods put paid to my plan to walk along the riverbank to the village of Dedham, where Constable often painted.
The most photogenic building was Willy Lott's House, which appears in The Haywain. Mr Lott was an unassuming farmer who, it is said, never ventured farther than the churchyard of nearby East Bergholt, where he is buried. But two centuries later his name is known to art-lovers around the world, and thousands make the pilgrimage to his home each year. Like the mill, it is leased to the Field Studies Council by the National Trust and used as accommodation for the courses. Each morning I tried to be outside the mill at sunrise to capture the reflection of Willy Lott's House in the river. Sadly, there were no haymakers to complete the scene.
The course ran for four days. At the end of each day we developed our own film. It was fascinating to see how the evening's prints differed from the morning's memories. Any lingering delusions that photography is 'truth' were banished in the darkroom, as Russell taught us how to darken skies, brighten smiles and obliterate unwanted intrusions.
On a tour of local villages we came across a thatcher working on the roof of a cottage. Russell, never shy in the quest for a good story, called out to the man and asked if we could take pictures. Minutes later I was on the roof myself, observing the work and looking out over a patchwork of fields. 'I never thought I'd be so pleased to meet a Thatcher,' I mumbled to Kate.
I had taken along my 'point-and-shoot' camera, while Kate had a more creative version. On day one she discovered that her lens was broken. On day two, using a new telephoto lens, she struggled to hold the camera straight and her pictures were out of focus. On day three, the problem was over-exposure. On day four, at last, everything was right. The sense of relief, Russell's as much as Kate's, was palpable as one clear, attractive colour slide after another appeared. 'I tell you what I've learnt this week,' Kate said. 'I've learnt that I need a new camera.'
What I had learnt, to Russell's slight chagrin, was that my simple camera took as good a picture as anybody else's.
We were impressed by the professionalism of the tuition. By the end, the course had become much less formal and we were free to explore, to take pictures, or to use the darkroom as we wished, with Russell on hand until 9pm if we needed him.
On the final night, in true Scout camp tradition, there was a party. We showed off our best photos, the picture-framers displayed their work, and Edward Jackson, the centre's warden and resident bird expert, produced a passable imitation of a reed warbler. We discussed the courses we would return for next year - would it be the spider weekend, the fungi week, screenprinting, or the Constable country walks, including pub lunches? Four days earlier I had been surprised to discover that the same people took holidays at Flatford Mill every year. I'm already thinking about the next trip.
TONY KELLY's course cost pounds 179, including accommodation, meals and tuition but not materials. Most 1994 courses at Flatford Mill cost pounds 92 for weekends, pounds 184 for 4 days and pounds 236 for a week. Details from Field Studies Council, Flatford Mill Field Centre, East Bergholt, Colchester, Essex C07 6UL (0206 298283).
For details of Field Studies Council courses, contact the council, Preston Montford, Montford Bridge, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY4 IHW (0743 850674).
The National Trust gives guided walks of Constable country every afternoon from June to September ( pounds 1.50). Meet at Bridge Cottage near Flatford Mill at 1pm, 2.30pm or 4pm. Call 0206 298260 for details. Flatford Mill and Willy Lott's House are not usually open to visitors, although walks visit the mill.
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