WHEN American poet Robert Frost wrote that the afternoon knows what the morning never suspected, he was more than merely chewing over the wonder of hindsight. He was, rather, making an observation somewhat more corporeal about the nature of growing old, a process which, in theory, brings with it a light seasoning of wisdom.

Enter stage left Swindon U3A (the University of the Third Age), a gigantic social club which brings together older members of the community in an effort to keep body and mind from going stale. It is perhaps Frost’s afternoon to our morning.

Swindon U3A this month marks its 30-year anniversary, and members are encouraging more people with time on their hands to get involved and learn new skills.

It is not exclusively for older folk. But due to most of the classes taking place during the day, it is perhaps more suited to those on whose shoulders the weights of employment no longer rest.

On Saturday, September 2, hundreds of people crammed into St Joseph’s College to attend the U3A Freshers’ Fair. It was the perfect opportunity for potential new members to find out what it’s all about and to take a look at the myriad activities on offer, from foreign language learning, dancing and painting to walking and even debating.

Old Town resident Margaret Groves, a U3A member for the past six years, spoke passionately about the painting class, Painting Together, with which she is involved.

“Ours is a group that specialises in watercolour paintings,” she said.

“We have a lovely time, getting together every other week on a Thursday afternoon for a cup of tea and a bit of painting.”

Margaret’s class is made up of people of varying degrees of ability.

“Some are brilliant and others are still in the process of learning,” she said. “That is, in essence, what U3A is all about. You do not need to be Picasso or Rembrandt. As is the case with a lot of the groups, all that’s required is a keen interest and a willingness to participate – they are a very welcoming bunch.”

Some activities necessarily require more of an aptitude than others; someone recovering from a recent operation may wish to think twice about joining a walking group, for example, regardless of their love for the pastime. But most of the classes are open to everybody.

And although members can take part in any activity they wish, many are subject to availability, meaning there is a slight chance, due to their popularity, that certain groups may not be able to offer places to people straight away.

Doreen Jackson and Kathleen Goddard run a group called Board Games Plus, which, as the name implies, involves people getting together once a fortnight to play a range of popular board games, dominoes and cards.

For Doreen and Kathleen, the best thing about U3A is its facility for allowing people to socialise, and for a subscription of just £32 a year.

“It’s all about getting out the house and chatting to people,” said Kathleen. “We have a really good laugh and it certainly gives you a reason to get up in the morning.

“All the groups have a fantastic degree of sociability about them and it’s wonderful to see so many people getting together to do things they enjoy.”

Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous dictum that Hell is other people is nothing short of anathema to U3A.

“Nobody need be lonely in Swindon. Join U3A and you will find yourself with almost too much to do,” Doreen announced, her passion seeping through. “We teach each other, learn from each other and generally have fun.”

This brings us rather neatly to one of the biggest problems people face in old age — namely, loneliness. If this scourge is the sunset that blackens even the brightest sky, then U3A is the first cock which crows the start of a brand new dawn.

In early July, South Swindon MP Robert Buckland organised a special summit to try to tackle the problem of loneliness.

He said: “Loneliness can be felt by people of all ages. But as we get older, risk factors begin to increase and converge. The impact can be devastating and costly to society as well as to the individual.”

Not for members of U3A languishing at home, trudging through the lifeless desert of daytime TV.

Seventy-seven-year-old Nythe resident Derek Badger attends the Merrifolk group every other Thursday at Gorse Hill Community Centre. This group brings folk musicians together to entertain crowds with a one-hour programme of music, song and comic verse. The group is currently at full capacity, but members have vowed to help set up another group on a different day if more people are interested.

Derek, who has played the accordion for the best part of 40 years and has been a U3A member for the past eight, said: “For me, the best thing about U3A is meeting new people and doing something I love with those of a like mind.

“U3A broadens people’s minds and allows them to keep up with things. There really is something for everyone and I would definitely recommend it as a brilliant way to keep yourself busy.”

One person perusing the stalls at Saturday’s Freshers’ Fair was 69-year-old former office worker Joyce Middleton.

Joyce, who lives in Eldene, was tragically and unexpectedly widowed last year. She has since found it quite difficult to manage on a day-to-day basis but now feels as though the time is right to, as she put it, “get doing things again”.

She said: “When my husband, Richard, died last year, I thought my world had come to an end.

“But you can’t keep dwelling on the past. That’s why I’m here today. I want to meet new people and even try my hand at something I’ve never done before – like learning a new language.”

A few activities had caught Joyce’s eye. She thought the embroidery group sounded interesting, as did the poetry appreciation class. In the end, her desire to learn a new language meant that she was seriously considering signing up for Greek for Beginners.

Driving back from the Freshers’ Fair, I was reminded of a particularly comical moment from the legendary BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave, in which a recently retired Victor Meldrew marches upstairs to use the toilet for the umpteenth time that day, simply “to relieve the monotony” of having nothing at all with which to occupy himself.

If you can relate to poor old Victor’s desperate plight, then there is something you can do about it. That something is called the University of the Third Age.

For more information, call the U3A office on 01793 614629 or email office@swindonu3a.org.uk. Alternatively, log on to www.swindonu3a.org.uk.