Treat your mind to a weekend trip

Pick mushrooms, paint pubs, taste wines or learn eco-DIY – all in a country setting

It is little surprise that Plato saw a sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity as the foundation of thought and civilisation. Perhaps more surprising is that the Government often seems not to, eschewing learning for learning's sake and instead focusing resources on training, at the cost of education.

But intellectual curiosity may be making a comeback. "We give people a little bit of learning in a great wealth of topics," says Lisa Railton Jones, the chairman of the Adult Residential Colleges Association (Arca). "Rather than spending time waiting at airports and clocking up air miles, you can go away for a two-day short break with like-minded people doing something that inspires you."

There are 25 Arca colleges spread across the UK, many set up after the Second World War in country houses falling into disrepair. The idea was to open up the collegiate environment of Oxford and Cambridge to everyone, and many colleges have an Oxbridge aesthetic: Dillington House is a 16th-century manor, Pyke House is made up of medieval cottages, and Pendrell Hall is a Victorian country house.

To get in, you need no qualifications, just enthusiasm. For popular courses it is best to book ahead, but even at the very last minute some places may be available. "We do have people ringing up on the mornings of the courses," says Alison Savitsky, the centre administrator at Missenden Abbey. Most courses last from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, but there are also day- and week-long courses. Most weekend courses cost less than £200 for bed, board and tuition, with longer summer schools costing a little over £300.

"Learning should be enjoyable," says Bob Tidman, the learning manager at Alston Hall, an Arca college in the Ribble Valley. "With their wonderful setting, peacefulness and surroundings, the colleges allow space and time among like-minded people to do their learning." And nobody could accuse the colleges of being narrow-minded: this summer, Alston Hall is offering courses on Mozart in Italy, ballroom dancing and French polishing, among others; at Hawkwood College, July's programme includes a talk by the musician, voice healer and author Susan Elizabeth Hale on the acoustic mysteries of holy places.

To get a full idea of what is on, it is best to look online, but courses include Wagner, bridge or stained-glass-making at Missenden Abbey, wine tasting or map reading at Lancashire College, and photography and Chinese brush painting at Dillington House. At Urchfont Manor College you can spend a week in July painting, and perhaps patronising, the pubs of Wiltshire; at The Hill College, students can learn more about Jane Austen, gardening for bees, or the Black Mountains.

It is not all history, arts and gardening. The Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham builds on Quaker do-it-yourself traditions with courses on environmental sustainability, or on getting involved with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which monitors human rights and supports non-violent direct action. At Plas Tan y Bwlch, in Snowdonia National Park, you can spend a weekend learning about birds or picking mushrooms; Benslow Music Trust in Hertfordshire specialises in performance classes.

Val Valentine of Tewkesbury took "Painting for the Terrified" at Farncombe Estate, and now both paints and has mastered digital photography. "I thought it was about time I learned what all those funny little sunbursts and zigzags all meant," she says. It was not just what Valentine learnt, but how she learnt it that mattered. "What an eye-opener: if my professors at uni had been half as engaging I would've graduated magna cum laude [First Class]." And, she adds, the food is not half bad either.

To find out about residential courses, visit the Adult Residential Colleges Association at www.arca.uk.net

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