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Instead of going on holiday stay in a Gothic mansion and study

Holidays are usually defined narrowly as an escape from work, but, an increasing number of people are seeking something constructive to do in their free time and signing up for a residential course instead of a lazy beach break, according to the Adult Residential Colleges Association (ARCA).

Over 150,000 people take a residential adult learning course in the UK each year. "People used to take several holidays each year, now they spend the money on residential courses." says Janet Dann, ARCA's secretary.

While a proportion of those taking a residential course want to learn new skills to help them to add value to a business or career, the majority do it for personal development.

ARCA's 25 colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are not run-of-the-mill learning institutions. Many are in beautiful period buildings you would not otherwise be able to stay in, such as Missenden Abbey, a former Augustinian abbey rebuilt as an impressive Georgian mansion in the Chiltern Hills.

Missenden Abbey is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its summer schools this year. Knitting, sewing and all types of creative and crafting pastimes are back in vogue, and Missenden Abbey offers a range of creative courses in textiles, embroidery and lace-making.

"Arts and crafts enthusiasts of all ages and ability levels can benefit from the unique and inspiring environment and from the huge range of courses offered," says Rosa Maria Welsh, the centre's curriculum manager. Some of the courses can lead to a City & Guilds qualification, and every course, says Welsh, is taught by "first-class, highly inspirational tutors of national and even international reputation". Weekend courses typically cost £239 and week-long courses £669. Over 2,500 learners passed through Missenden's doors last year.

Most ARCA colleges are run by local education authorities but Higham Hall in the Lake District has established itself as a charitable trust. Higham Hall's principal Alex Alexandre welcomes 3,000 adult learners to its Gothic mansion each year. Owing to Higham's spectacular Cumbrian setting, walking, drawing and painting courses are favourites, particularly the Botanical Illustrations course which regularly has a waiting list. Some of the more unusual courses include Japanese ceramics, and Japanese calligraphy, taught by renowned Japanese artists.

The cost for an all-inclusive two-day break is usually £180 and Alexandre says they work hard to keep the prices down. Once you have arrived at Higham Hallwith its view of Skiddaw and the Lake District's Northern Fells, all the food and tuition is provided.

George Cooke, the development manager of Burton Manor in Cheshire, which is near Ellesmere Port, says that residential colleges have thought of their courses as "learning breaks" for many years, a concept that has been popularised by travel companies and magazines. "We have learners who go abroad for a big holiday but come to Burton Manor two or three times a year as well," he says. "Some have been coming for over 10 years."

"The residential nature of learning is quite important – the social side, the food, ambience and gardens. It is much more than just the course." Cooke knows of a couple who met while doing a course at Burton Manor and others who met there and later took holidays together. They struggle to attract male learners, and are introducing a new art course in painting ships and aircraft in an attempt to remedy this. The standard rate for weekend courses is £150. Accommodation is extra, with bed and breakfast from £16 a night.

They also struggle to attract younger students. Alexandre suggests this is because they are often still engaged in formal education or training. Staycations – holidays where people stay at home or nearby to avoid the stress and expense of travelling – are predicted as the holiday trend of 2009, so perhaps a greater number of younger learners will be attracted to a course this summer. An ARCA college might be one of the few "adult only" spots left in the UK.