How to keep your mind on its toes

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The Independent Online
RELAXING ON a holiday beach can damage your intellectual health, according to a recent study. "Switching off" for two or three weeks dulls the brain. If the study is to be believed, most effects wear off on returning to work, but some loss of function is permanent.

It looks as if spending part of our holidays exercising the mind may cut the risks of brain atrophy. If so, the scores of organisations which provide "learning holidays" covering a vast range of topics may have the answer.

The truly dedicated might opt for a holiday which includes a vocationally useful skill - such as improving one's foreign languages. One of the most varied programmes is offered by Caledonia Languages Abroad (tel: 0131- 558 7118). It works with partner schools and universities in many parts of the world and can recommend which are best for a person's particular interests.

These courses, which are taken overseas, range from total beginner to advanced levels. The usual minimum length is two weeks although one can take courses up to six months and more. They can be intensive one-to-one courses with tuition lasting up to eight hours a day to more relaxed courses offering language lessons combined with other activities. So one can enjoy Tuscan cookery with Italian in Italy, skiing and German in Kitzbuhel or Latin dance with Spanish in Cuba or Costa Rica.

For those who want to improve their language skills nearer home, The University of Cambridge Board of Continuing Education (tel: 01954 210636) offers weekend and mid-week courses in French, German, Italian and Russian at Madingley Hall. These need a fair or good knowledge of the language and also cover culture and literature. Of less vocational value, one can learn to read classical Greek or Latin.

The board provides courses on a huge variety of specialist interests - including the archaeology of Sicily and Sardinia, Thomas Hardy's poetry, the railway heritage, volcanoes, genealogy - first steps to tracing a family history, and medicine in the middle ages.

Those seeking a greater intellectual challenge could consider the board's International Summer Programme. Although aimed at students and academics, courses are open to anyone who wishes to undertake an academically rigorous programme. These typically last three weeks and cover a wide range of topics - mainly in arts subjects. However, next July there will be a new science summer school.

Dartington Hall in Devon (tel: 01803 866688) offers what it describes as "an eclectic range of subjects - from innovative ideas in science, philosophy and psychology to languages, the arts and crafts". This autumn's programme includes courses on literature and the environment, Christian mystics past and present, and hearing what the earth says - an introduction to the World's nature religions.

The musically minded may be interested in the annual Dartington Hall violin conference organised in partnership with the British Violin Making Association. On the other hand, those who sing with a choir or choral society might prefer "a choral weekend - from Monteverdi to McCartney". Courses on crafts include calligraphy, stumpwork (for embroidery), printmaking and animal sculpture.

Horncastle College (tel: 01507 522449) combines education (together with Hull, Nottingham, and the Open Universities, the WBA and others) with courses on arts, crafts and leisure interests. These range from an appraisal of James Joyce and popular religion in late mediaeval England through life painting, goldwork embroidery, and furniture restoration, to bridge, and a wine weekend.

Anyone interested in any aspect of natural history will find over 500 courses run at the 12 centres of the Field Studies Council (tel: 01743 850674) in England and Wales. These stretch from general natural history through to subjects like an insect week, dormice, bat ecology, mountain flowers, landscape painting, rock climbing, identifying ferns, and an introduction to geology.

FSC Overseas (tel: 01743 850164) also runs around 40 courses a year abroad. These include natural history tours of New Zealand, lakes and volcanoes in Chile, the high valleys of Andorra, a Ugandan odyssey and the wildlife of Spitzbergen.

West Dean College near Chichester (tel: 01243 811301) specialises in traditional arts and crafts. There are numerous courses under the headings of botanical illustration, drawing and painting, blacksmithing, bookbinding, calligraphy, glass engraving, photography, ceramics, woodworking, making musical instruments, and others.

Another provider, HF Holidays (tel: 0181-905 9388) offers many special interest and walking holidays. These extend all the way from exploring gardens, national trust properties, and historic buildings and railways to dancing, golf, bowls and croquet as well as a wide range of guided walking holidays from the relaxed to very strenuous mountain scrambling.

The more physically active will find a range of energetic pursuits - abseiling and climbing, caving, white water rafting, parachuting or micro- lighting with Acorn Activities (tel: 01432 830083). However, not all their programmes are quite so vigorous. One can go ballooning, car rallying, scuba diving, pony trekking, clay pigeon shooting or even learn dry-stone walling. For the purely sedentary there are courses in crafts, murder mystery weekends and cider - and wine - tasting weekends.

Taking an activity holiday or break, where one learns under the guidance of expert tutors or guides, is likely to be more rejuvenating than the traditional holiday and keep the brain cells in good fettle.

A good inexpensive directory to holiday and weekend study courses Time to Learn is published twice a year by the National Institute of Adult Learning - a registered charity. The 12-page winter edition (October to next March) is available for pounds 4.95 (Credit card purchases 0116 204 4200).