HOW lucky are we to have Higham Hall on our doorstep? Adult learners who are interested in everything from woodcarving and jewellery-making to French art and philosophy can find a place at Higham.

The range of course subjects is diverse – I’d defy anyone not to find something to spark their interest. And while you learn, you can also stay in this remarkable Gothic property as a resident, with all meals provided.

Since 2007 when Cumbria County Council handed it over to an independent educational trust, the place, happily, has gone from strength to strength.

As George Cooke, the principal of Higham Hall College, says: “We feel proud that Higham is an example of how true life-long learning can thrive with the support of those who recognise its benefits.”

Located at Setmurthy, north of Cockermouth, and once a grand family home, the hall has an interesting and diverse history. Before it became a centre for adult education, Higham had been a boarding school for girls and also, for a short time, a youth hostel.

Once known as The High, it seems members of the Fisher family ran this flourishing estate with its acres of land and numerous farms for around 150 years in the 16th and 17th centuries before the Senhouses took over.

It was Thomas Hoskins who built the house that can be seen today; his relative Joseph Hoskins had married Eleanor Senhouse at St James’ Church, Whitehaven, in 1775. After they had both died in the 1820s, Thomas, the grandson of Alexander Hoskins, magistrate and landowner of Great Broughton, stepped in to save the farm for the Hoskins family and create Higham the manor house, in the Gothic style, with its commanding views of Skiddaw and the northern fells. Pevsner, in 1967, described it as a rarity in the county.

The Hoskins family occupied the hall for 76 years before it was auctioned off in 1904 and bought by Joseph Fisher, a descendant of a family that had farmed in that area for over 200 years. The place employed a butler, a cook, house and kitchen staff, a gamekeeper, gardeners, a coachman and stable boys. In fact during the 1890s, Melvyn Bragg’s great-grandfather Wilson Bragg had been the coachman there, under Canon George Hoskins, vicar of Setmurthy. It would be almost 90 years later that Melvyn would give a talk at Higham to an appreciative audience on his book about Wigton, Speak For England.

In 1920 a parlourmaid, Elizabeth Cannon, aged just 29, died in tragic circumstances when her clothing caught fire as she dropped a pan of melted beeswax, which was used to polish the floors.

When Fisher’s son George took over at Higham he had the stone balustrading on the terrace installed. It had come from Haggerston Castle in Northumberland which was being dismantled in the 1930s.

It was as a guest of George’s second wife, Rosaltha, that Arthur Ransome, came to Higham. He and Rosaltha were both keen on fishing and she and the author of Swallows and Amazons would fish the Derwent.

In 1926 Evelyn Waugh spent two nights at Higham while travelling to Scotland and wrote in his diary of a house “with turrets and castellations and a perfectly lovely view across the lake to a mountain called Skiddaw” and of going on an otter hunt – “a most indisciplined affair”.

When George died in 1947 the property was transferred to the Treasury and for several years it was left unoccupied, until 1951 when it was given to the Youth Hostels Association but it was only open from Easter till September as it was too cold a house to be used in the winter months!

After closure it was sold to Cumberland County Council in 1955 for £7,500 and re-opened the following year as a boarding school for girls with special needs. The headmistress, Miss Cross, was most displeased to return and find the corridors had been painted “a nauseous khaki” colour which she complained would have a less than positive effect on “depressed and deprived children”. In 1974 the school was closed and Ingwell, near Whitehaven, was enlarged to take girls as well as boys.

Higham’s last reincarnation was as a residential education college, under the then director of education for Cumbria, Peter Boulter, and in 2008 it was transferred from local authority ownership to an independent charitable trust.

People from all walks of life, and from all over the country are drawn to Higham to enjoy its wonderful setting, its special atmosphere and to learn something new. Long may they continue.