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Not just the agri brigade

Nick Churchill goes behind the scenes to see what goes on at Kingston Maurward College

Not the ugliest campus in the world. Thomas Hardy used Kingston Maurward House as Knapwater House in Desperate Remedies.

Not the ugliest campus in the world. Thomas Hardy used Kingston Maurward House as Knapwater House in Desperate Remedies.

Seventy years after Dorset County Council bought Kingston Maurward in order to create a farm institute capable of nurturing the talent needed to push Britain’s agriculture into the future, the estate is still doing exactly that – and a lot more besides.
Much has changed since the first students arrived in 1949, not least the fact that Dorset’s economy is no longer primarily an agrarian one. With the possible exception of the advent of motorised tractors, farming before World War 2 had remained largely unaltered for generations, but the demands of a country emerging from the ravages of war meant that our agricultural industries had to re-adjust rapidly and embrace new thinking and production-oriented methods.
Some of those elements remain today, although tempered by fresh ideas about conservation, land management and future planning. All of these are fully explored across a wide range of courses at Kingston Maurward College that are designed to help students into work.
‘We’re not in the business of training students for the sake of it,’ says college spokesperson, communications manager Esther Baker. ‘Since the outset we have always worked very closely with local employers and businesses in order to make sure we are producing students with the skills that match what’s needed in industry.’

Kingston Maurward College is now about much more than wellies and tractors

Kingston Maurward College is now about much more than wellies and tractors

Today that means that as well as agriculture, the college – under new principal Luke Rake – offers land-based courses in areas as diverse as animal conservation and welfare, equine studies, outdoor adventure and sports coaching, sports turf, floristry, hard landscaping, blacksmithing and welding, countryside management, marine ecology and conservation, construction and arboriculture. There is also a range of business administration courses; there’s even military preparation – the only course of its kind in the country. ‘It gives students who are thinking of joining up the chance to work with serving members of the Armed Forces and gain some valuable work experience. It means that when they join the services they have some idea about what to expect and what’s expected of them,’ says course tutor Ryan Evans as some of the current intake are put through their paces in their first drill session.
‘People are often surprised by the breadth of what we do here,’ adds Esther. ‘We have monthly open mornings and we spend quite a lot of time visiting local schools and talking to potential students about the things they like doing and what they might want to do with their lives – that’s always our starting point when it comes to matching people with courses. Around 87 per cent of our students get jobs in the areas they trained for.’

An Olympic bouquet created by the college's students

An Olympic bouquet created by the college’s students

The 750-acre estate constitutes what must be one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country and although most of the students are aged 16 to 18, with an increasing number on apprenticeships, the prospectus also includes a range of Foundation and Top Up degrees, a BSc (Hons) in Agricultural Science and several diploma-level courses. It is some distance to the bright lights of any big city, but Kingston Maurward does attract mature students and there are 45 residential places available for those on full-time courses.
Even on a chilly day when spring seems a long way away, there’s a definite energy about the place. Last year the college invested in a new fleet of John Deere tractors and opened a purpose-built £1.2 million state-of-the-art agri-tech centre. That followed the new £850,000 horticultural glasshouse facilities opened in September 2014 by the actor Edward Fox, who had befriended Kingston Maurward’s resident blacksmith, Simon Grant Jones. ‘As well as his work here and with the students, Simon is very much in demand with private clients and is one of the few blacksmiths in the country who still makes actuals tools in the traditional way,’ explains Esther.

Edward Fox opening the horticultural glasshouses in 2014

Edward Fox opening the horticultural glasshouses in 2014

That’s quite a skill to pass on and although there are classrooms at Kingston Maurward (there’s even a uniform), it doesn’t feel like your average college. As much is learned with dirty hands as with clean and whilst entry standards are rigorous, the prospectus is structured to present clear progression routes for students to extend their studies to higher levels.
But while the expanding body of students and the college’s many alumni do much to spread the word about Kingston Maurward and what goes on there, those involved in marketing its broader facilities report that many local people are still finding it for the first time. ‘It never ceases to amaze me, but unless someone in the family has studied here over the years, or been to a wedding here, or maybe a conference, then Kingston Maurward has been a complete mystery to lots of local people,’ Esther confides. ‘However, that has changed a great deal in recent years and as well as the gardens and animal park we are becoming something of a business hub – Dorset Food and Drink is based here now, as are the Young Farmers, and the Royal Veterinary College has an outpost here as well, all of which means more people are coming here and seeing what’s going on. There’s more of a buzz about the place.’

Despite the diversification of courses, lambing is still a major event at the college

Despite the diversification of courses, lambing is still a major event at the college

Since it opened some 25 years ago, the Animal Park with its popular handling sessions has been a hit with parents and young children – especially during lambing weekend (4 and 5 March) – and with manager Tom Reynolds at the helm, there are plans to broaden the range of animals. An approved Conservation Farm Park accredited by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, it is home to Bagot goats, saddleback pigs, Portland sheep, Cayuga duck and other rare poultry and game fowl, as well as donkeys, alpacas and rabbits. A new soft play area in the café means there’s something to do for younger visitors even when it’s cold or wet outside.
Whatever the time of year, the 35 acres of formal gardens are impressive. The landscape was laid out in the 18th century in the style of Capability Brown, but most of the grade II listed gardens date from the early 20th century, having been established by the last private owners of the estate, Sir Cecil and Lady Hanbury. ‘We have National Collections of penstemons and salvias, but the gardens as a whole are extremely popular, as there’s always something new to see,’ says Esther. Head gardener Nigel Hewish has been at Kingston Maurward since the early 1990s and has overseen the gradual restoration of the Hanburys’ vision, working mainly from old photographs in the absence of original plans.
The nine garden ‘rooms’ have many points of interest and the charming Temple of the Four Winds, a folly created by masonry students from Weymouth College in the mid-1990s, affords marvellous views of the surrounding countryside. In season, from April to September, the picturesque croquet lawn is home to Kingston Maurward Association Croquet Club; while the Elizabethan walled garden – complete with skewed brickwork – close to the original 1590 manor house is now open to the public, having been a demonstration garden for many years.

Military preparation at RNAS Yeovilton

Military preparation at RNAS Yeovilton

Kingston Maurward House itself was completed for George Pitt, a cousin of twice-Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, in 1720. Originally it was red brick, but legend has it that during a visit in 1794, George III is said to have commented: ‘Brick, Mr Pitt, only brick?’ Mortified, the then owner, William Moreton Pitt (George’s grandson), duly encased his home in Portland stone. His son, William Grey Pitt, sold the house in 1845 to Francis Martin MP, whose wife had taught the young Thomas Hardy, who turned to Kingston Maurward as the inspiration for Knapwater House in his novel, Desperate Remedies.
Further changes of ownership followed before wealthy businessman and noted gardener Cecil Hanbury bought the estate in 1914 and set about establishing the formal gardens. The Hanburys entertained many of the leading politicians of the day, as well as Thomas Hardy. Following her husband’s death in 1937, Lady Hanbury continued to live at Kingston Maurward, even during its requisition during World War 2, when it served as an important base in preparations for the D-Day landings.
After the troops relinquished the property, Lady Hanbury sold it to the county council and it has been a place of learning ever since, with the college currently graded as ‘good’ by Ofsted. But now, perhaps more than ever, Kingston Maurward is also forging closer connections with the wider community by hosting key local events such as Dorchester’s Race for Life in May and on 30 April, for the first time, the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival – and it doesn’t get much more local than that!

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