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Golf's out but studying's in

From a milk round job at 12 to a student at 100, Ngaio Crequer meets a centenarian who delights in learning new skills.

Archie Brown's earliest memory is bunking off school at the age of six and slipping into the local racecourse. Hiding his small frame between other people's legs, he witnessed an early suffragette throw herself onto the course in protest.

Nevertheless he liked school and wished he had more of it. Now he is making up for lost time. At 100 years old he has signed up with Northampton College of Further Education and is already a shining example to other students; he has won the Senior Learner Award of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education.

Archie got a "thorough reprimand" for his truancy but the experience came to be invaluable. He left school at 12, "but in the last 12 months I was an errand boy for the teachers. I had to go round the houses to find out why others were not going to school."

His first job was on a milk round. He had to wash the milk churns, then put them on a barrow and take them round to the houses, ladling milk into jugs brought out by the townspeople.

Then he graduated to delivering live yeast to bakers on his bicycle. Tuesday was his busiest day; he had to cycle up to 82 miles, and would not get back till 10pm. "My parents loved it - I was out of the way, earning money."

His father worked for a local brewery for 45 years "and I never saw him drunk". Archie has never touched the stuff, but he did smoke until he was 80, when he decided it was time to give up.

He served as an ambulance driver in India during the First World War, travelling vast distances. "They had promised me my old job back after the war, but you join up as a youth and you come back a man and they said they could not afford to pay my wages."

It was back to the milk round for a bit and then he secured the managership of a greengrocers, which he ran for several years. Too old to serve in the Second World War, Archie supplied produce to the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes and messes in town. "I got the stuff other people could not get. Oranges were the hardest, because of the rationing."

He next headed the stock control department of a large show warehouse, supplying shops over a large area. He retired at the age of 70.

"I was too tired to play golf; I tried it but it was not for me. So I went part-time cleaning and vacuuming for Debenhams." Some 25 years after he had "retired" Archie was still working: three days a week at Northampton market. He finally stopped at the age of 95.

Having spent so much of his life working, Archie now has time to wind down and think about more recreational issues, and here Northampton College comes in. In 1992-3, the college got a contract from the county council to deliver adult education in the community.

Gerald Porter, in charge of Open Campus Learning at Northampton, said: "We have been developing initiatives that touch people in the local community where physically coming to college is not appropriate. Their needs are different, either because of age or social isolation."

As part of its "Older and Bolder" initiative, the college has researched local needs to discover which classes would be welcome. They consulted residents in old people's homes and those in sheltered accommodation, and with wardens and private tenants.

Archie now lives in Eleanor House, a purpose-built complex of 24 small flats for the frail elderly which is run by the borough council - "but it is more like a hotel" says his son Ken, aged 66. Residents have their own living room, bathroom, kitchen and bedroom, as well as use of the communal rooms. The college also provides a hairdressing service.

The management personnel of the house consulted the college, after suggestions by the residents. The college provided 10-session courses in crafts, which then led to an idea that the activities might be upgraded on a formal educational basis. So the college financed the supply of a qualified and experienced tutor.

Sessions include carpentry, clay modelling, paper flower-making, wine- and beer-making. Archie has produced high-quality plaster decorations for his flat, a candle holder and a wooden stand for glasses.

John Reeve, who teaches at Northampton, said that many of the residents came from a generation which received little or no education.

"Some may have been taught the utilitarian knowledge and skills necessary to perform their work in the trades and occupations in which they were involved. For most, the daily reality was long hours of work in order to survive and earn a living which left little or no time for other pursuits, not least in the broader areas of culturally enriching educational opportunity."

The students' work is discussed and evaluated, and finished work is appraised. Mr Reeve says that the students set high standards for the quality of their own workmanship, and dissatisfaction or rejection was not uncommon. "They - towards the ends of their lives - are learning fresh and exciting things that so many of a younger generation sadly disregard or take for granted."

Archie is proud of the work he has produced at college. "They have helped me a lot. I could go on forever as long as I feel how I do now. I like learning new skills. I'll do anything that comes along - but I'll have nothing to do with writing."

Archibald Septimus Victor Brown is known locally as "Pop", but the warden frowns on nicknames and prefers actual names. But Archie says, "I don't care what you call me as long as you don't call me too late for dinner."

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