From lace-making to mushroom-foraging, Arca has the course for you

Have you always wanted to spin your own wool or carve yourself a country-style stool, immerse yourself in Chopin's works, or master that digital camera you got for Christmas? If so, then there may well be somewhere nearby offering a course that fits the bill.

The Adult Residential Colleges Association (Arca, www.arca.uk.net) is a network of around 20 independent colleges spread around the UK, all providing short courses aimed at those long out of school uniform. Some colleges are run by local authorities and others by charitable organisations. But what they have in common is a devotion to the pursuit of learning as a pleasurable end in itself, rather than as a means to achieving a qualification.

"We used to do recognised qualifications, but now we focus on hobby-based education, purely for the joy of it," says Sarah Wilcock, business development manager at Alston Hall, a pretty Victorian country house overlooking the Ribble Valley in Lancashire.

Alston runs courses ranging in length from half a day to a week, with subject matter that leans heavily towards hands-on country crafts, such as lace-making and silversmithing, but with a good mix of music, dance and creative writing as well. Course fees range from around £20 for half a day to £200 for the longer, residential courses.

Janet Fearn, 54, typical of many regular Alston students, attends a monthly, day-long wool-spinning course. "I work full time in accounting in the NHS, and coming to Alston takes me well away from my normal daily stress," she says. "The beauty lies in the location and surroundings. As well as the spinning class, I've done courses on mushroom-foraging, edible wild food and neurolinguistic programming. And in August, I'm booked on a weekend course in past life regression: discovering who you were in a former life."

Every year, more than 150,000 people attend courses at Arca's colleges, almost all of which are housed in buildings of architectural interest, set in locations worth visiting in their own right. Knuston Hall in Northamptonshire, which can trace its origins back to the Domesday Book, offers courses ranging from Japanese embroidery to jazz accordion, via the wines of Bordeaux. Missenden Abbey, in the Chilterns, dating back to the 12th century, has an eclectic mix of short courses includes Egyptian belly dancing, floristry and conveyancing.

"Like all Arca member colleges, our ethos is to provide high-quality learning in a wonderful setting," says Rosa Maria Welsh, Missenden's curriculum manager.

The college is currently gearing up for its four-week summer school, which straddles July and August, and is expected to attract 700 students. New this year is a week devoted to Italian landscape and culture, taking in film, opera, geology and Shakespearean works set in Italy. "For the majority, the summer school is a special kind of holiday," says Welsh.

While most Arca courses are no more than a few days, some colleges offer full-time, residential programmes lasting up to an academic year, among them West Dean College, near Chichester in West Sussex. Here, alongside a wide mix of short courses, students can undertake something more substantial, perhaps even leading to a Masters degree validated by the University of Sussex.

David Higgon, 44, is currently following a full-time, residential course on clockmaking and conservation, leading to a professional diploma supported by several august organisations, including the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and the Antiquarian Horological Society. He completed an introductory diploma in the same field last year.

"Having spent 15 years in accountancy, it wasn't doing it for me any more," he says. "So I paid off the mortgage and decided to do something I enjoyed, while still having time in my life to make a career of it."

This year, as part of the course, Higgon is making two new clocks of his own, one of which is based on Jupiter's moons, and has 29 different gears. At the end of the year, these clocks will be sold by the college, to raise money for student bursaries.

Higgon, who remembers making a clock with his first Meccano kit as a boy, has clearly found an ideal activity for his time of life. "When I was working as an accountant, I didn't spend my holidays lying on a beach, but learning engraving or something to do with precious stones," he remembers. "So the last 18 months here at West Dean have been the biggest holiday of my life."

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