If it's Tuesday, it must be tennis. Or is it geology?

Alone or with the family, learning something new can help you relax. Judith Palmer finds the best late-booking options

"After you've been busy all term, suddenly stopping and doing nothing isn't as restful as people might imagine," suggests Hilary Webster of Sunny Banks Tennis Farm. Formerly head of girls' PE at Bodmin Community College for 21 years, Hilary now runs the family business, offering residential tennis holidays in north Cornwall. "Having an organised day when you haven't got to think, 'What are we going to do today?' is a great way to de-stress," she says. "It's terrific role-reversal. Someone else is structuring all the sessions, and you can just relax into it, relieved of all responsibility."

HIlary's tennis weeks give visitors two hours of professional coaching a day, with plenty of free time to explore the countryside, visit the nearby Eden Project, or follow the cycle trail to the coast. Take advantage of the three floodlit all-weather courts and ball-machine to improve your tennis, swim in the pool or lie in the garden. Sunny Banks provides all the ingredients for an old-style Enid Blyton summer idyll, fuelled by good home cooking, but with the advantages of a bar and baby-sitting service. Some weeks are adults-only, others set aside for families, and some mixed. "When you're teaching flat-out, you're often not spending much quality time with your family," Hilary says. "It's nice to have an activity all the family can do together."

With more than 80 courses running between July 28 and August 24, a summer school at Missenden Abbey might suit a group of friends or family with differing interests. Set in magnificent parkland, the Victorian abbey is on a 12th-century site in the Chilterns, offering high-quality accommodation on site, local bamp;b options and tuition-only packages. Available courses include portrait painting, bridge, graphology, sculpture, or the chance to "be a theatre company for a week" - taking on roles in set-building, lighting, costume design, acting and directing roles, for a final public performance. In the evenings, play croquet, have a massage or attend a free talk.

If you've come to associate learning with rusty windows, untended patches of damp and views over an inner-city car park, inspirational settings for summer schools mean a lot. "Dartington is such a special place, with its 14th-century buildings and some of the finest gardens I've seen," admits bassoon tutor Laurence Perkins, director of wind chamber music at the long-established music summer school at Dartington Hall in Devon. Laurence says the setting is perfect for informal outdoor performances, such as a rendition of Thomas Tallis's motet for 40 players in a medieval tilt-yard surrounded by poplars. Join a massed choir every morning, then cross a courtyard and you might hear a gospel choir, a gamelan workshop, a piano concerto or a didgeridoo duet.

As well as the expert tuition, a huge buzz comes from that hot-house atmosphere of collective experience. "Soak up everything," Laurence advises.

With its masterclasses, and stars such as Keith Tippett, Emma Kirkby, Joanna MacGregor and Herbie Flowers giving concerts, Dartington might seem a daunting environment for the enthusiastic amateur, but Laurence insists there is no need to be fazed. "I am happy to accept anyone willing to play. I had one woman last year who could only play 'Ivor the Engine' when she came, but within 10 minutes she was making the most incredible sound."

Activity or study-based breaks are the salvation of many holidaying alone. "I know there's always the danger of an irritating individual disrupting your precious holiday, but I've never had any bad experiences," says Tina, an arts administrator in her 30s who regularly chooses study holidays. "I've always had fun, and enjoy the opportunity to widen my horizons and learn something new."

The mixed backgrounds of those attending summer schools can enhance the experience. "There will often be people who know about local history, botany or architecture, for example," explains Con Gillen, tutor on Edinburgh University's non-residential Rocks and Talks course. Dr Gillen's geology course is made up of daily field trips to places such as Loch Lomond, the Ochil Hills and difficult-to-find sites such as Siccar Point. "It suits keen walkers and 'outside' people, who will be able to see the countryside with different eyes once they have learned to interpret the landscape."

"A teacher of science may want to do a literature course and open up another door," suggests Susan Rawlings, warden of Madingley Hall, the restful 16th-century house that is home to Cambridge University's continuing education programme. "Or you might want the latest thinking, or a different thinking on your own subject. A summer school is a wonderful opportunity for freshening up the mind."

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