Take a break - and learn something

Belly dancing, using the internet, or arts and crafts? Enrol on your dream course
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The Independent Online

You're never too old to learn something new, whether Egyptian belly dancing, dry stone-walling, or finally working out how to use that digital camera you got for Christmas. If any of these appeal then it's time to investigate the thousands of study breaks offered by the Adult Residential Colleges Association (Arca). You don't need any academic qualifications, just fill in a booking form and pay your fee.

Each year 150,000 people in England and Wales sign up for a residential course; weekend classes are the most popular, but there are a lot of day and week-long courses too. The emphasis is on what Arca calls "a liberal approach to learning" where enjoyment and personal development is paramount. And it's not just women in their fifties - the so called "silver market" - who sign up. "We had a 93-year-old doing our Japanese embroidery course, and there are plenty of 20-year-olds on our courses too," says Jan Hooper from Burton Manor in Cheshire.

Burton Manor offers day and weekend breaks, including a selection of history courses covering national, ancient, local and family history. It has two new courses looking at the history of Liverpool in the run up to its becoming European Capital of Culture in 2008. Other courses include astronomy and aromatherapy, and how to use a digital camera, which lasts one day and costs £40.

Arts and crafts are the most established adult learner courses, but you could also take a personal development class in sign language or meditation, improve your computer skills, or explore a love for ecology. There are also courses in traditional skills like the one-day dry stone walling course at Alston Hall in Lancashire, or the basket-weaving course at West Dean College in Chichester.

Janet Dann, the Arca secretary, stresses the health benefits of study breaks in terms of being able to socialise with others, especially if the learner lives alone. But a major challenge is funding and courses are now harder to find and more expensive due to the Government's focus on 16- to 19-year-olds and those acquiring basic skills. But there has been a growth in more technical courses for adults, whether digital imaging or using the internet. "Our colleges are keeping the more traditional courses like arts and crafts but also introducing new ones that are relevant to today's society," says Dann.

An average weekend costs around £200, which includes food and accommodation, ranging from simple to grand. Some of the colleges are historical sites in their own right, or set in stunning locations like Plas Tan y Bwlch, the Snowdonia National Park Environmental Studies Centre, which runs courses for countryside lovers. The centre overlooks the valley of the river Dwyryd in the heart of the National Park; the raw materials upon which the courses (such as photography in Snowdonia and drawing the Snowdonia landscape) are based. Sarum College is another study centre with an impressive setting, situated in the Close of Salisbury Cathedral.

Denman College, a Women's Institute college near Oxford, is a Georgian house set in 17 acres. Its courses last for two to four days and Jennifer Adshead, the head of Denman, points out that you don't need to be a WI member, or a woman, to enrol. Belly dancing classes are popular with younger women. The three-day course costs £200 for non-WI members. A weekend course called Bridget Jones's Diary dance weekend has also proved popular among younger learners, while next year there is a new basic household maintenance course. As at many other Arca member colleges, there are facilities for those with disabilities.

While most learners take a course to meet people and develop an interest, others have a more vocational reason; perhaps they want to start their own business as a florist or caterer. Whatever your reason, this week's celebration of Adult Learners' Week means it's a perfect time to sign up and learn something new.

For course details see www.arca.uk.net or www.timetolearn.org.uk

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