Study breaks with a view

Fancy taking a course at a historic house in a beautiful setting? Gareth Rubin shows you how

For many, the words "adult residential college" conjure up images of middle-aged women learning flower-arranging in expensive country retreats. But the 30 colleges that make up the Adult Residential College Association (Arca;
www.aredu.org.uk) have had a lot of success recently in broadening their appeal, and persuading people that learning new skills in what is often a beautiful setting is also a great way to relax.

For many, the words "adult residential college" conjure up images of middle-aged women learning flower-arranging in expensive country retreats. But the 30 colleges that make up the Adult Residential College Association (Arca; www.aredu.org.uk) have had a lot of success recently in broadening their appeal, and persuading people that learning new skills in what is often a beautiful setting is also a great way to relax.

"Adult residential education colleges provide an oasis in which people can pursue learning in a safe environment, away from their busy everyday lives," says David Evans, the principal of Pendrell Hall College and the head of Arca. "Our learners range from young children to people in their nineties. Some may be old but they are still able to take up new learning opportunities, including IT."

The colleges in Arca are partially funded by local authorities, educational charities and other non-profit making organisations, which means their courses - mostly lasting one, two or seven days - are often surprisingly good value. Prices vary a lot, and a two- or three-day weekend course, with accommodation and meals, can cost between £80 to £220, although most are £100 to £150. Day students can expect to pay between £30 and £50.

Some of the colleges are historical sites in their own right, such as Dillington House in Somerset, home to Lord North, prime minister to George III. Or, if you're looking for literary inspiration, perhaps studying in the extraordinarily beautiful setting of Braziers Park, once occupied by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, will help. The grade-II-listed building, set in 50 acres of its own grounds in the Chiltern Hills, dates back about 300 years.

"Braziers is run by a resident community and students are welcomed as into the home of friends," says Jean Robertson, the chair of the college. "Many interesting people attend our courses, like the woman who came for a weekend and stayed for 10 years to cook for the community, or the journalist who came on an art course and stayed to teach creative writing. Braziers has an atmosphere of an extended family; we were set up 50 years ago and we now have the children of former students coming as students, tutors, or as volunteers."

Arca's website now labels its courses "study breaks" to reinforce the idea that they are time off and meant to be enjoyed, rather than being stress-inducing crammer courses for undergraduates who have their finals coming up and haven't read A Tale Of Two Cities. Although courses do tend towards the study of literature and arts and crafts - and some, such as the Benslow music trust, specialise in one area - there is instruction available in everything from employment law to the latest computer software.

Many of the colleges take advantage of local facilities. Pendrell Hall, for instance, will teach you golf at the club situated opposite the college. And it also has an ambitious plan for developing new facilities of its own. "Science in its most general sense is an area of the curriculum that is often left out of adult education programmes," says Evans. "In the forthcoming year, we will be attempting to remedy this by building a small observatory to provide astronomy courses."

Some of the colleges have fascinating stories. St Deiniol's Library in Flintshire is Britain's only residential library. It was William Gladstone's personal library, left to the nation on his death in 1898. "Gladstone was a voracious reader," says Annette Lewis, from St Deiniol's. "He started St Deiniol's with 30,000 of his own books, which can still be found on the shelves, complete with his pencilled annotations in the margins and on the flyleaves. We still use his own systems of cataloguing and classification, and the books are on bookcases that he designed."

In his later years, Gladstone began to think about making his personal library accessible to others. "Often pondering," wrote his daughter, Mary Drew, "how to bring together readers who had no books and books who had no readers, gradually the thought evolved itself in his mind into a plan for the permanent disposal of his library. A country home for the purposes of study and research, for the pursuit of divine learning."

Words that could perhaps sum up the residential colleges of today.

education@independent.co.uk

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