"Do you do a course on Perl?"
I suppose the question was a natural one, asked of me way back in 1996. After all, I was a trainer teaching subjects such as C Programming, Introduction to Solaris, and Silicon Graphics courses such as Irix for Users and GL programming. And I was using Perl to provide web server applications through the Common Gateway Interface. But I answer that question with a question - "Who's going to pay for a course on a piece of free software?".
The second time I was asked, I simply replied that I didn't do a course. The third time, I said "I keep telling people - there's no demand
" ... then I stopped myself. If three people had asked me when there was nothing in print or on any website to even hint of the existence of such a course, then there might be thirty who would be interested. And open source is free at the point of distribution
- there's nothing at all to stop people taking gainful employment by programming in it, or by writing books on it or teaching it to others.
And so the first "Well House Consultants" course was born. At the time, I was giving courses under contract for a training company in Oxfordshire, and I suggested to their proprietor that he might like to add a Perl course to his brochure, provide a room and the equipment, print the manuals, take the orders and collect payment. Those were all making use of facilities he had in place, and with spare capacity. I would write, maintain and present the course and we would split the takings. The initial course was short - just a couple of days as I recall to get already-experienced programmers going in a language that was new to them, but it grew fairly quickly into a three then a four day course, as topics could usefully be expanded rather than rushed. And we soon added a separate "learning to program in Perl" element which allowed us to meet a further training requirement - that of people who have never programmed before, but who need to learn how to do so, and in Perl.
Three or four years after my first Perl course, I was still based up in Harwell, but no longer presenting any of the Solaris or Irix courses. The "Well House" range had been extended to add in Java - a natural with our heavy programming and Sun background - and my time was too much taken for so much operating system stuff.
A major change came in autumn 2000. Perl and Java were no longer just required in a Solaris environment, and so a training room equipped with very expensive kit running an operating system that many delegates weren't familiar with was becoming increasingly illogical. Couple to that the 100 mile round trip I was driving each day, and the need to split the income on every course (making running of courses for smaller groups somewhat unattractive). So we moved to our own, purpose-fitted, training centre.
404, The Spa, Melksham is a Georgian building; it dates from around 1814, and sits on the outskirts of the town of Melksham, in Wiltshire - about 100 miles from London. Originally built as a lodging house for people coming to take the waters of the recently opened Melksham Spa, the four storie semi-detached had been through a variety of uses - including a home,
officer's accommodation for RAF Melksham during the second world war
(We're not sure what happened between ... the "Officer's Mess is likely to be just an incorrect rumour
), and flats. It had been "listed" - placed on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest - but had also fallen into disrepair, to the extent that it took us six months of work before we could move in.
Courses in Melksham proved to be a huge success. Melksham's far enough from London for the pricing to be sensible, but near enough for people to travel out in just a couple of hours. It's a friendly town where visitors are welcomed with open arms, and there were plenty of places for people who came from far and wide to stay overnight. The historic building gave a magnificent backdrop to the courses, and the previous lodging house nature of the organization meant that the customer-facing end of the business naturally separated from our own life there - with a set of imposing steps up to a tall front door, a magnificent conference room, library, lounge and other facilities all self-contained on one of the floors, with offices below and living quarters above. [more]
Courses in Tcl were added to our repertoire soon after we opened in Melksham. Another niche subject, we identified a market and gave in to gentle pressure from Perl customers to provide a course. Tcl tends to be learned by larger groups, so public courses are quite infrequent and very small, but over the years we've run a significant number on site - from Maastricht to Dublin, from Newbury to Edinburgh, and from Nottingham to Bristol. Subjects such as PHP, Python and MySQL followed, and I added C back into the subjects I taught, writing a new course for what had become something of a more niche requirement.
From a feast of places to stay, we saw a reduction to a bit of a famine in Melksham. I can recall when the walk of just over 1km from the training centre to the market place would take you past Springfield, The Spa B&B, The Old Manor, The Town House and the Regency Hotel ... but now every one is gone. The people running these places retired, customer requirements and expectations rose - looking to pay by credit card, looking for en-suite, looking for a room with some space, looking for parking, for internet access, for a good-sized TV, for a decent cup of tea or coffee without having to trouble the landlady, and for breakfast early enough to do a complete day's training. And the B&B owners were faced with increasing red tape at a time of their lives where they were really hoping they could slow down and take it a little easier.
Our customers often stayed at "404" late into the evening. Many was the night when we had a curry in front of the TV, watching the latest DVD release. And we were very much in the business of being their travel agents too - helping them plan their journeys to Melksham, their use of the town's restaurants and shops, and their accommodation. And we noted that some 9 delegates out of 10 selected a place to stay from our list rather than the similar ones that we didn't list. So it felt like a small step to go that extra little bit and provide accommodation too.
"Well House Manor" opened in autumn, 2006. Set in 3/4 of an acre of grounds, it's just a few hundred yards from the town centre - an Edwardian building built in 1906, but much extended since. We've got five - very large - bedrooms, to an exceptionally high standard; when we took over, we gutted the place and spent four months (and a lot of money!) making it fit for courses for not just the short term, but the medium term too. Two training rooms allow for larger or smaller classes, and whiteboard walls, screen projectors, wired and wireless internet (50Mb / sec as I write), bean to cup coffee 24 x 7, etc, make it a facility second to none in the town. [more]
I still train - 4 days this week, 5 days next week, 5 days the week after ... (a little seasonal at times - and this is the busy autumn season). And training is the main business; a quick calculation the other day astonished me - we've brought over a thousand people to Melksham who had never been here before since we opened in 2000. But we also provide accommodation for other business travelers to the town, for tourists, for wedding guests ... really for anyone who needs a quiet "home from home" in which to base themselves while they're in the area.
Recession doesn't hit universally - training budgets get frozen at times of concern, and business travel gets cut. So both of the industries in which we operate have suffered a distinct pause. So we've been at something of a "status quo" with regards to our company and staffing for the last 18 months, with neither departures nor arrivals. That's been partly down to efficiency savings too - when you first open a hotel, there's a lot more to be learned and done that when you've been running one for several years, so as time goes on a smaller team achieves even more than a bigger team used to. But there's a limit to that - in terms of robustness, in terms of development, and in terms of leaving aside those important but long term things that need doing, and concentrating on the urgent and immediate. And we've been working long, long hours. So - an exciting new phase - we're growing again to cover reduced availability from the current team, to catch up, and to provide some deeper coverage for the future.
You won't see (m)any dramatic announcements or sea changes here. But you will read an excitement for the future in my writings. And if you come on on a course or to stay at the hotel, you'll meet a happy, busy and professional team looking to make your introduction to Melksham, your course, and your stay memorably happy. (written 2010-09-23, updated 2010-09-26)
Associated topics are indexed as below, or enter http://melksh.am/nnnn for individual articlesG210 - Well House Consultants - History 
Historic Drawings from near Melksham - (2012-02-28) 
Historic documents for Wiltshire - (2012-02-16) 
The skull above the door in Melksham Town Hall - (2011-11-06) 
Looking back at www.wellho.net - (2011-01-28) 
2999 - looking back - (2010-10-15) 
10 years and counting - (2005-02-23) 
Well House Consultants - review of 2004 - (2004-12-31) 
An update for old friends - (2004-09-03)
Some other Articles
Some more advanced Perl examples from a recent courseShould the public sector compete with businesses? and other deep questionsPerl - doing several things at the same timeWhat does blessing a variable in Perl mean?Well House Consultants - a potted historyMultiway branches in Perl - the given and when syntaxCheap Country Hotel in Melksham, Wiltshire?Testimonials - Well House Consultants Open Source coursesAn introduction to file handling in programs - buffering, standard in and out, and file handlesRemoving the new line with chop or chomp in Perl - what is the difference?