WHETHER you are a motorbiker or a ukulele player, a photographer or a writer, a dancer or an archer, the U3A offers an extraordinarily wide range of activities for people who have retired from full time work.

In fact, from Monday to Friday, morning and afternoon, you could be busy in a whirl of cultural, social, musical, creative or sporting activities with other like-minded and friendly enthusiasts – all for the less then princely sum of £32 a year. Roll on retirement!

U3A stands for the University of the Third Age, but management committee member Martin Preston is not keen to emphasize the university element of the name – he doesn’t want potential members to feel it might be too academic for them. The Swindon U3A has more than 2000 members in Swindon and growing: it isn’t hard to see why. It offers an amazing range of activities, an opportunity to make friends and a chance to cultivate new skills.

Bez Suter, 76, from Haydon Wick, is the host of a German language group and a member of the Simply Singing group, which meets monthly. She has been a member of U3A for five years.

“I saw it advertised in the local paper and joined from there – it’s fun,” she said. “You could go to ten different things throughout the week if you wanted to.

And of the Simply Singing Group: “There are so many benefits to singing. You meet so many people.”

The Simply Singing group is not a choir, but a singing for fun group. Musician Bill Eteson, who plays all his music by ear, puts together a list of songs – including hits from the 60s and songs from the shows – along with the lyrics projected onto the screen and everyone sings along. After the session, refreshments are served.

Around 130 people are signed up for the activity and 70 people fill the hall on the day of my visit. The list is full, and they can’t take any new members for the activity – and it is easy to understand why it is so popular. The singing is a joy and by the end of the session the hall at the Western Community Centre is full of smiling people and buzzing with energy.

For Marion Kiley, this was a first visit.

“It’s been really, really wonderful,” she said. “A friend dragged me along. We love to sing, and everybody was so friendly.”

Beryl Beint, 82, from Old Town, said she had been a U3A member for a couple of years.

“It’s absolutely super,” she said. “I’m a member of a travel group. We meet at Gorse Hill Community Centre and we go on trips. We’ve been to the Royal Albert Hall, to museums. And there’s lots more you can do.

“When you get older you need something, and we all love it. We love it.”

Stratton resident Sylvia Collins, 76, said: “You can come along to the singing feeling really fed up, and by the end you feel amazing.”

The U3A movement was founded in the UK in 1981, with the aim of encouraging groups of people in their third age to come together and continue their enjoyment of learning in subjects of interest to them. The movement is made up of self-help interest groups, and the ‘third age’ is defined by a time in your life when you have the opportunity to undertake learning for its own sake. The U3A has no minimum age but is designed for people who are no longer in full-time employment or busy raising a family.

It is a self-funded and peer-led movement, and members can be teachers, learners or both. It has grown very quickly with membership hitting the quarter million mark nationally by 2008, with around 400,000 members now.

Wendy Greaves, 71, from Liden, enjoys developing her foreign language skills through the Swindon U3A. You can choose from Spanish, French, Italian, German, Welsh and Latin – at various levels of competence.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “Education keeps your brain alive and stops you stagnating. It gets me out of the house. And it stops me quarrelling with my husband as he goes too!”

U3A newcomer Linda Ridley, 70, from Coate Water, said she was going to join the Tai Chi group. She is looking forward to new activities after spending years caring for her mother.

“I retired ten years ago. My mum had dementia but has sadly passed away now. Now I am getting out and about and get involved.

“Everybody seems really nice, and you can chat to anybody. I want to do Tai Chi and try a yoga group.”

Martin retired seven years ago and said that after a year without a full time job, needed to get involved and do something. He joined the management committee of the Swindon U3A.

“It’s like a youth club for wrinklies,” he said. “Each group runs itself. The ethos is that we all teach other people. We’ve got walking groups, a railway group, an aviation group, discussion groups, bell-ringing, sports, bird watching – so much.”

Members may pay a small sum for refreshments or for materials used in individual sessions, and people share responsibility for their learning, and host meetings in their own homes. People with specialist knowledge or skills are an asset to groups but many groups have no particular expert and encourage and help each other, which is one of the reasons the U3A is distinct - it is a cooperative, grassroots enterprise. Members are responsible for their own learning.

When you join, you receive a handbook with all the groups listed, and you can ask a group organiser if there is a space on an activity you are interested in joining. As well as the groups, Swindon has a monthly meeting at the Ellendune Centre in Wroughton with a speaker. The speakers address all sorts of topics, such as how the Queen's Bodyguard works and the Air Ambulance Service.

“When you retire, it can take time to realise you miss your work and colleagues. At first I thought it was great that I could do what I liked, but after 12 months, I didn’t know what to do. That’s the situation we try to solve," Martin said.

Nationally, U3A members reported major benefits to being part of the U3A in terms of confidence, combatting loneliness, feeling supported in new communities, learning new skills, feeling valued and enjoying life. So if you fancy trying your hand at web programming, petanque, sequence dancing or embroidery – or donning your leathers and heading down the highway, looking for adventure with the motorcycle group ( which has ride-outs of 40 miles or so to a pub or place of interest) why not sign up for the Swindon U3A? For more information on Swindon U3A, visit swindonu3a.org.uk.