New year, new challenge: Add another string to your bow

From rock'n'roll to calligraphy, it's time to enrol on a course that will fire you up for 2008, says Nick Jackson

What better way to recover from the festive season than by signing up to one of the courses that start in the new year? Almost 30,000 courses begin in January, many designed to fit around even the busiest schedules.

Many of the big names in culture offer programmes. London's Royal Opera House (www.royaloperahouse.org) has free pre-performance talks and insight events, costing from 14 to 17, around its performances, starting with a talk on Rossini's La Cenerentola on 4 January.

For more breadth, Christie's auction house runs classes on art, opera, and wine. A new term of history of art classes, spanning the Renaissance to contemporary art, begin next month. The cost is from 120 for two hours a week for four weeks. "Anyone who has a passion for learning will enjoy this course," says Allan Pope, 50, an investment banker and Christie's student. "It's a great way to relax. You're intellectually challenged but it's something totally different from what you normally do."

Pope discovered the Christie's courses after a casual interest in antiques became a passion for art and design. "The thing that keeps me coming back is the quality of the teachers, it's really amazing," he says. "They leave you wanting more. No one ever leaves those classes bored."

A good place to find out what is on in your area is the UK-wide site www.hotcourses.com, which has more than a million courses on its database covering everything from accounting to pole-dancing. Two hundred and seventy courses are listed in knitting alone or, if you are looking for something more lively, there are 58 courses in rock'*' roll, mostly dance. Prices range from less than 25 a week to more than 100.

And indeed, a quick browse of Hotcourses shows that study does not have to be sedentary. Many listed are perfect antidotes to Christmas bingeing.

When Londoner Trischi Ward, 33, bought herself a chic pair of rollerblades, she hoped they would keep her trim. "I wanted to look cool, but when I went to Hyde Park to try them out, I just looked like a dippy cow," she says. "After a few months they'd become an art installation in my hallway."

Ward took a 10-week evening class course with Citiskate (www.citiskate.co.uk). "It was absolutely brilliant," she says. Unlike some classes .After a disappointing digital photography course, Ward started checking the Hotcourses customer reviews before parting with her cash. It is, she reckons, the key to finding a good class.

Most students will be looking for courses close to home, but for those who fancy a break while they study, there are the residential colleges, the country clubs of the quietly curious. There are 26 members of the Adult Residential Colleges Association, from Somerset to Birmingham, offering students a chance to live it up in a country house while they learn. At Farncombe Estate, Broadway, Worcestershire (www.farncombe estate.co. uk), there are courses in string chamber music and Gypsy fiddle in 2008, as well as in drawing and jewellery-making days, calligraphy and creative writing.

The oldest hands at quenching our curiosity are the universities. Many imagine they only cater for young people, but many now offer shorter courses or standalone modules in the evening to fit around busy schedules.

The most famously adult-friendly universities are the Open University and Birkbeck, University of London, both of which specialise in part-time courses for busy adults. But other universities are getting in on the act.

Bucks New University (www.bucks.ac.uk; 0800 0565 660) has a 12-week 165 ceramics course starting in February. Christopher Riggs, 60, took the university's upholstery course after retiring from a career as a researcher in the photographic industry. "It'd been a thing in the back of my mind for a few years," says Riggs. "It just seemed to fit. I get satisfaction from making things and repairing things."

Riggs has upholstered at home and spots dilapidated pieces to use as projects. "Starting something new is very valuable," he says.

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