On course in Constable country

PUBLISHED: 17:06 28 July 2014 | UPDATED: 17:06 28 July 2014

Painting at the Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre

Painting at the Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre

Archant

If the chance to learn new and interesting skills in an idyllic setting were not enough, there is also cake, as Tara Greaves discovered on a visit to the Field Studies Council's flagship centre at Flatford Mill

John Blair, head of Flatford Mill Field Studies centreJohn Blair, head of Flatford Mill Field Studies centre

A mallard and her brood of 16 ducklings are causing a stir – but in a setting as wild and beautiful as Flatford Mill, natural distractions are to be expected and enjoyed.

Even if you have never stepped foot upon the dusty banks of this part of the River Stour before, it seems familiar thanks to the celebrated works of John Constable. The iconic Hay Wain, painted in 1821, features mallards gliding along the water just as they are today.

And while it would be understandable to come and simply admire the buildings and revel in the location, for about 8,000 young people, families and individuals each year there is an added lure – the chance to learn or develop an interesting skill or hobby.

For 70 years, the Field Studies Council (FSC) has been promoting opportunities for people to “increase environmental understanding” and at Flatford Mill, their flagship centre, chances abound.

Willow weaving at Flatford Mill Field Studies CentreWillow weaving at Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre

John Blair, head of the centre, said: “The council was set up in 1943 and Flatford Mill was the first centre established in 1946.

“There are now 19 centres in the UK most of which are residential and all in amazing buildings or in stunning locations.”

On weekdays during term the centre is used to teach children and young people.

“We provide practical experience of the outdoors and the natural world through field studies for schools, colleges and universities,” he said.

While that keeps the 40 full and part time staff busy, at weekends and in the schools holidays there are also some 130 courses for individuals and families.

John admits that some of the appeal is the chance to study and stay “in a painting” at the mill or Willy Lott’s House.

However, the increasing popularity of many of the courses shows that location is only part of the attraction.

Jo Hammond, from Holbrook, is one of 50 associate tutors who come and teach specific classes – in this case, a two day Willow Work for your Garden course.

“Most people who come on my courses are doing it as a hobby but you never know where it will take you,” said Jo, author of a book entitled, Willow, Basketry and Sculpture.

She usually has about 10 people on each course, who often arrive with some ideas about what they want to make.

Vivienne Gibbons, a masters student at Sheffield University, said although there was a basic technique to weaving, she liked the fact that there was no right or wrong way to do it.

“I’m 50 this year and I wanted to do 50 things in a year. This is my first,” she said.

“The course has been wonderful. You don’t normally get chance to play as an adult and that’s what this is. It’s just fun.”

Anna-Louise Bott, from Leicestershire, hoped she might be able to transfer some of her new skills into her work as a florist.

“The course was a birthday present from my mum, who is also taking it with me. I’m definitely going to take it up as a hobby, I love it,” she said.

The students enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, which allows for breaks for duck watching as well as tea and cakes.

With visitors from far and wide, the FSC has to protect the natural environment as much as possible.

John said: “We encourage people to come by train. We also have an outreach programme, where we go out to schools in Suffolk and Essex. It’s nice for them to come here but also good for them to learn specific things in their own area, plus it’s just one car or mini bus going rather than a coach coming here.”

But one of the main things people can do is take what they have learned and apply it where they live.

“The aim with everything we do is to increase people’s knowledge and skills and appreciation of the environment. We are very keen on people experiencing what we have here and thinking about how they can have a good impact on their local environment as well,” John added.

For more information and a course list please visit www.field-studies-council.org.

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