How Hampshire's U3As have kept our retired community connected and learning

For most of us, retirement is an inevitability.

Saturday, 5th June 2021, 12:00 am
Coordinator Jenny Bishop at Havant U3A's first physical line-dancing session back at Bedhampton Community Centre. Picture: Habibur Rahman

One day – in the distant future or perhaps just around the corner – we will no longer need to get up, dressed, commute and spend the day at the workplace to earn a living.

The concept of retirement, in theory, is idyllic. No work ties and lack of commitments means you can spend your day exactly how you please. However, in practice, it can be a very different story.

‘When you retire, you suddenly have a huge void in your life which you want to fill. It can be very boring,’ explains Chris Adams, from Stubbington. ‘That’s why I joined the U3A.’

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Francis McQueen and Margaret Stanger from Havant U3A. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Founded in 1982, the U3A – University of the Third Age – movement launched in the UK based on the French model. Pioneered by Professor Pierre Vellas in 1973 at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Toulouse, he created an organisation which provided education and stimulation to mainly retired members of the community – those in their third 'age' of life.

Thirty-nine years later, there are now 1,057 U3As with more than 450,000 members across the UK. The only requirement to join is for you not to be in full-time employment. Annual membership costs less than £20.

On June 2 the organisation celebrated its first ‘U3A Day’ – an event to celebrate the new experiences that come from being in your third age and also raise the profile of groups locally.

For members from Havant, Stubbington and Portsmouth U3A, the organisation has given them a new lease of life.

Portsmouth U3A enjoy an afternoon tea at St John's Catholic Cathedral, Portsmouth.

Susan Johnson, from Portsmouth U3A, says: ‘The Portsmouth group has been running since 1985. We’re one of the longest running U3As in the country.

‘We are based at The Hub in Somers Town but used to work out of Southsea Community Centre. It’s a good space because it is along a bus route and has a space for our members to meet outside their interest groups.’

Every U3A comprises locally-run interest groups that provide a wide range of opportunities for people to come together and learn. This can range from exercise to skilled work and most U3As meet monthly to listen to guest speakers and attend group events.

Susan, 69, speaks to me just as she returned from a Spanish-themed lunch organised by the U3A. She says: ‘There are a range of interest groups, such as patchwork and quilting to tech and architecture. I used to be the head of a languages department at school so I run French, Spanish and German classes.

Stubbington U3A's socially-distanced Christmas Carols in December 2020 with The Odd Wednesday Men and Crofton Lions raising funds for local charities.

‘At the U3A, I have met people from all walks of life. It’s great to have made so many good friends with shared interests. We are like one big support group.’

The Portsmouth branch is partnered with another U3A group in Caen, France, and they have kept in touch throughout lockdown. Susan says: ‘We even visited them a few years ago. We stayed with our pen pals in their houses and next year, we will hopefully be able to return the favour.

‘We video call them on Zoom once a month and they have enjoyed it as much as we have. A lot of our members have said these Zoom calls have been a life saver during lockdown. France has had a tough time with Covid and I know its residents struggled with the 6pm curfew so it was good to chat.’

Susan, from Baffins, joined the Portsmouth U3A seven years ago and loves it. ‘Once you reach a certain age, there is a concept that you don’t have your own life or friends. U3A has changed that for me,’ she says. ‘My husband died a few years ago and the U3A has helped give me another focus in life.’

Portsmouth U3A group outside Caen Town Hall a couple of years ago.

Along the A27 at Havant, the town’s U3A group formed in 2012 and has 250 members. Margaret Stanger, 75, explains: ‘We are based at Bedhampton Community Hall and host some meetings there. We’ve got more than 30 academic groups, varying from languages to history. We’re quite proud of our Welsh history group, not every U3A has one of those.’

Margaret joined the group in 2015 because of her desire to play mahjong. ‘I saw the U3A had a group for it and then I ended up joining other groups too. I find I always have plenty to do and am booked up in my calendar. There are more groups I would like to join in the U3A but I actually don’t have the time.’

Like many clubs in the past year, the U3A has used video-calling platform Zoom to keep connected. However, as some of their members do not have access to technology, each committee has ensured a monthly newsletter is delivered to all to keep them updated.

Fran McQueen, 70, a committee member for Havant U3A, says: ‘At first, a lot of people weren’t quite sure about moving our interest groups online but it has worked so well.

‘Some of those who are 80-85 don’t have tablets and rely on their grandchildren to help them. Some are quite nervous of the internet so it will be good when we can meet in person regularly again.

‘We recently held our first in-person line dancing event a couple of weeks ago.'

Chris Adams is the chairman of Stubbington U3A and says his committee used U3A Day to attract new members. ‘We have around 380 members. We have a small committee but are planning a relaunch in the summer to attract new members and committee members,’ says Chris, 69. ‘In normal times, we have various clubs going on and would meet at Holyrood Church once a month to listen to a speaker.

‘I would say it’s 70 per cent women and 30 per cent men. We would like to engage with more men in the community. There is an interest group for everyone.’

Where is my nearest U3A?

:: Portsmouth U3A: (023) 9229 7867 or u3asites.org.uk/portsmouth/contact.

:: Havant U3A: Email [email protected] or u3asites.org.uk/havant/contact.

:: Stubbington U3A: Email [email protected] or u3asites.org.uk/stubbington/contact.

:: Waterlooville U3A: 07585 558916/07763 799377 or waterloovilleu3a.org.uk/contact.php.

:: Solent U3A: u3asites.org.uk/solent/contact.

:: Gosport U3A: u3asites.org.uk/gosport/contact.

:: Hayling Island U3A: haylingu3a.org.uk/

:: Emsworth U3A: 01243 389983 or u3asites.org.uk/emsworth/contact.