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Britain’s Adult Colleges

There's a way to meet and interact with Britons with interests similar to yours, reduce expenses while enjoying good food and accommodations, and escape other tourists while you catch your breath from sightseeing. The key is to sign on for a minicourse at one of the colleges of the Adult Residential Colleges Association (ARCA),

Scattered about Britain are some 27 residential colleges, each devoted to short-term, adult-only education. They teach, entertain, feed, and house you and do a splendid job of each. A typical college consists of two or three buildings with the look of an earlier century on the outside, but all the conveniences you could ask for inside. Beautiful grounds and gardens are the rule rather than the exception. Forget your experiences with U.S. adult education; this couldn’t be more different.

Courses usually run about 14 hours over two to three days and are for fun and mind expansion rather than degree credit. “How-to” courses include painting, bridge, photography, lace making, ceramic sculpture, picture framing, and belly dancing, to pick a few. Then there are the traditional subjects: history, art and music appreciation, philosophy, astronomy, literature. Whatever your itch, you’ll find the chance to scratch it at one or more of the minicourses.

Many of the courses are held over weekends (often beginning at tea on Friday) but there are also quite a few during the week. Colleges usually conduct several courses during the same period, so if you’re traveling with companions you can learn to belly dance while he or she explores the meaning of life.

My wife and I have taken four courses over the past couple of years and have been very impressed with both the professionalism and friendliness of the teachers or “tutors.” Our rooms included en suite facilities (private baths, etc.) closer to those of a 3-star hotel than a college dormitory. The food was tasty and plentiful. My wife’s vegetarian preferences posed no problem. Each dining room opened a cash mini-bar before and after dinner.

The best news is the cost. We’ve never received better value for travel dollars spent. To be specific, the last 2½-day course my wife and I took (at Wansfell College in Epping Forest, about 30 miles northeast of London) cost less than $145 each. That included everything: tuition, two night’s lodging, six meals, tea, snacks, plus pickup from and return to the nearby tube station. Costs at Wansfell are typical of those elsewhere in the ARCA system.

ARCA colleges are scattered around Britain, so it’s easy to include one or more in your itinerary if you plan ahead. There are eight or so within 75 miles of London, a couple in or near the Lake District, and three in Wales. All are accessible via public transportation.

Each college will send you a catalog describing scheduled courses together with other useful information including how to get there. I’ve always reserved our spaces by phone and followed up with a note. The colleges are so delighted to host Americans I suspect that many would stretch their customary class limit to make room for one or two. If you see a course you like and it’s compatible with your schedule, call well in advance.

For a list of the colleges, plus a map of Britain showing each college’s location, contact the Adult Residential Colleges Association (ARCA),, Wansfell College, Theydon Bois, Epping, Essex CM16 7LF, U.K.; 011-44-1992-813027, fax 011-44-1992-814761.

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