Every summer, overseas students come to Shaftesbury to learn English. The teenagers stay at Wincombe Park, an impressive 19th-century house set in 375 acres of park and woodland.
Former actress Phoebe Fortescue told Alfred’s Keri Jones why she started her language school in her home, and she revealed what surprises her students during their Shaftesbury stay.
Phoebe Fortescue doesn’t take her views for granted. Every day she takes time to appreciate her landscaped gardens and rolling lawns, which slope down towards the lake and woodland that separates her estate from the eastern side of Shaftesbury.
“The lakes were historically the Abbess of Shaftesbury’s fishponds,” Phoebe explained. “It is a Shangri La. It’s got a very special atmosphere. My husband loves it more than anything in the world,” she added.
Phoebe’s in-laws bought the impressive house and rescued it from an advanced state of disrepair back in the early 1960s. “It was built between 1810 and 1820. It is Queen Anne and it is in the villa style. We’re the first family that has had a second generation live here. It has changed ownership every generation up until us,” she said.
Phoebe describes herself as the ‘current custodian’ of the house and gardens. “We used to live at the end of the drive when we moved here full-time sixteen years ago. We moved into the house fourteen years ago, but we had to re-roof it. There was no heating or hot water boiler. It had broken down three years previously, so we lived here for a year with no roof because the planners wouldn’t let us put different slates on. We just moved from room to room, doing it slowly. It was a bit like the Forth Road Bridge,” said Phoebe.
Grand old houses and their grounds are expensive to maintain. Phoebe decided to start the summer school five years ago when a large bill loomed. “It was the lake – the dam was breached and we had to dredge it.” But it wasn’t just money alone that motivated Phoebe to start language courses. “It is much more fun if we fill our house,” she said.
Phoebe’s children had grown up and gone to college and although she’s not on her own in Wincombe Park, it is a large property and she loves the buzz of a busy home. “I was brought up in a vicarage. We had lived in Africa. When we came back to England, we always had Africans living with us if they were coming to university in London or training to be priests. We always had a house full of people, which I loved as a child. It is always interesting learning about other people’s lives. That’s why I thought about a language school.”
Phoebe’s brother in law asked if she would take in a French girl who wanted to improve her English. Phoebe enjoyed the experience, so she decided to advertise her opportunity on a website that targeted French people seeking better English skills. “I looked online and found a site called Lingu. It was a great success. I had French, Danish and Dutch students. I also had an Omani, through the British Council. We all really enjoyed it,” said Phoebe, before she corrected herself. “I really enjoyed it, I think I had better say,” she laughed.
And since then, the students have come year after year. “I just think young people are so nice. They’re such fun. My children laugh, but I do all the things with them that my children don’t want to do with me anymore. We spend a lot of time on bike rides or walking up on the downs. We muck about on the lake where we have kayaks.”
Other members of the Fortescue family have played their part in the business’s success. “It is a family enterprise,” said Phoebe. “My eldest son, who was at university then, did all the taxi runs to the airport. They have really bought into it because it’s not easy to find jobs around here when you are a student. For the last five years, they’ve worked for mum.”
I asked Phoebe whether she’s a hard taskmaster. “Yes, probably, but they know what the standards are. I can trust them. They just use their initiative. They help with the outings if we go to Bath, Salisbury, Stonehenge or the beach,” she said.
The students arrive at the end of June. Phoebe takes up to seven pupils at a time and normally has around fifteen young people staying with her during her summer season. “Over five weeks, some of them will stay for three weeks, some for two weeks, some for one.”
The programme of study is intensive. “They call it total immersion. You’re talking English all the time. It is full on. You’ve got them 24/7,” explained Phoebe. And she strictly enforces a ‘no native language’ rule. “I have to be quite strict about that, because otherwise, they do just chat to themselves.”
Phoebe has developed a schedule for teaching that appears to work. “I take the students ‘one to one’ for half an hour in the mornings, and when they are not doing that, we will be cooking or playing tennis with them,” said Phoebe. “In the afternoons we have croquet, badminton or they walk for miles. They’re mostly children who’ve come from cities, so they can’t believe the freedom they have just to be outside. They get to understand country life as well. We’ve got lots of animals, they can ride the ponies and they walk the dogs.”
Phoebe believes that it is important that the students use English during meal times and downtime. “We play a lot of board games and card games, and that’s how they really learn. They are constantly interacting,” said Phoebe, who makes use of Wincombe Park’s walled fruit and vegetable garden in teaching sessions. “I get them digging the potatoes. I still feel every time I dig potatoes that I’m finding gold. They love that. I get them picking the fruit, too. They can take home a pot of jam that they have made.”
Phoebe teaches her students to bake scones, but she doesn’t indoctrinate her guests on whether it is better to put the jam or the cream on top of the scones. “They can do it the way they like, it doesn’t matter,” she laughed.
Many of the Wincombe Language School’s students are in Britain for the first time. “I think that we are doing our little bit for international relations. When people come and have a really happy time and meet other English people who’ve been kind, they will go back and say what a great place Britain is,” said Phoebe, with some pride.
Phoebe always takes students on at least one tour of Shaftesbury during their stay. “They love Gold Hill,” she confirmed, adding that students from France are surprised that British retailers don’t gift-wrap purchases. “They are really shocked when you go into a shop, particularly when they’re buying presents to take home to their parents. On the continent, they always make everything so nice. Here it is shoved in a bag and people aren’t terribly friendly in some shops. They aren’t necessarily trying to help them,” said Phoebe.
She makes a point of taking her students to village stores in Ludwell or Semley. “If we go to our village shops, they love going in there and they’re incredibly friendly.”
The visitors are sometimes surprised by the lack of youth facilities locally, too. “The fact that there’s nowhere that young people really hang out. On the whole, most of the students are aged between 14 and 17. I do tell them before they come that if they’re interested in playing video or computer games or want to go shopping or to visit nightclubs, then they don’t want to come to us,” said Phoebe.
Phoebe trained and worked as a professional actress, appearing in TV and radio drama. She maintains an interest in the local arts scene and says her pupils appreciate what is on offer around Shaftesbury. “We went to Shaftesbury Arts Centre last year and they really enjoyed ‘Mack And Mabel’. I take them to ‘Rain or Shine’, which is a visiting theatre company that comes to the farm in East Knoyle. They love that too.”
I had interviewed Phoebe previously in her voluntary role with Read Easy, the charity that teaches reading skills to local adults. She is well suited to teaching because she is clearly a patient person who is proud that her students quickly improve their English skills. “The Danish girl came the first year, then came back a second year, and at the end of her second year she said she was thinking in English. When she first arrived, she couldn’t speak any English at all,” Phoebe said.
This personal approach has encouraged repeat business. “I’ve got a girl coming back for the fourth year this year and a few are coming back for the third time. A lot of siblings have come. It has snowballed,” said Phoebe.
But perhaps the greatest endorsement has come from two of Phoebe’s former students from Denmark and The Netherlands, who keep in touch with Wincombe Language School on What’s App. “They’re both coming back this year for a week to help. It is just really nice to be part of their lives,” Phoebe said.