WHEN Alan Kay and the Rev Sam Walden decided to set up the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Ilkley 20 years ago they were confident it would be successful but they could never have imagined it would grow to be one of the most popular, enthusiastic and vibrant U3As in the country. With a membership of more than 1,500 drawn from as far afield as Ripon and Wetherby as well as towns and villages in Wharfedale and Airedale, Ilkley & District U3A is one of the largest U3As in Britain.

Alan said: “Without the slightest doubt, the lives of our members have been enriched and enhanced by membership of the U3A. From that very first meeting it was abundantly clear that we had all the makings of a very successful and vibrant U3A – it just needed a lot of work by the steering committee to turn it into reality.”

Alan added that he believed U3A given him personally a tremendous amount, including the “enormous satisfaction” of seeing a successful outcome to their endeavours.

“Other benefits include meeting lots of enthusiastic people and making many new friends,” he said.

The name University of the Third Age suggests a seat of higher education but the reality is far from that. There are no entrance requirements to join or qualifications at the end.

Based on the principles of self-help and shared learning, the U3A is for everyone. While meeting together for activities such as discussing the news, playing badminton or walking the Dales, members have the opportunity for fun, exercise, and friendship as well as learning something new.

Often when people retire from work, lose their partner or move into the area knowing nobody, there is a huge gap in their lives. For many learning a new skill or just getting fit with the U3A can be a welcome challenge and just what is needed.

There is no age restriction on membership although members are usually in the ‘Third Age’ of life. The youngest member is a mere 48 while the oldest was born in 1919! Many of the founder members who joined 20 years ago are still going strong, now the senior cohort participating actively.

From comic opera to croquet, Ilkley & District U3A offers members a huge range of interest groups. There are more than 140 and the number is still growing. Almost every taste is catered for in the regular get-togethers.

Members looking for a mental challenge can get to grips with French conversation or philosophy, while those with a sporting bent may choose popular table tennis or recently formed boules. There is plenty for the keep fit brigade too, from fell walking to circle dancing and tai chi. Arts and crafts, literature, music, films all have their devotees as do specialist groups such as aviation, bird watching, motorbikes and railways

The U3A’s special quality for bringing people together has even worked its magic on some members. Widower Dr Steve Walker and divorcee Chris Lynes, met in the Hike to Lunch group. Both joined after retirement, Steve from a career in the pharmaceutical industry and Chris after selling Calders Jewellers in Ilkley town centre.

"I missed the camaraderie of work and joined the walking group to meet people," said Steve who confessed to being incredibly lonely after his wife died. “Chris and I just hit it off."

Our paths would not have crossed but for the U3A,” said Chris. “Steve’s friends are now my friends and we have both made many new friends in this wonderful organisation.”

Twenty years on and Ilkley & District U3A is becoming more aware of its social responsibilities and reaching out into the community. Issues such as loneliness, dementia awareness, cyber awareness, and being good neighbours are all being tackled.

The U3A is linking up with nearby universities to help with research projects and members are volunteering to go into schools to help young children with reading. Through giving talks to potential retirees and local groups and participating at local community events, the U3A hopes to spread the word about what a brilliant organisation it is and what it means to so many people.

To mark the 20th anniversary, Bradford City Council dedicated the summer flowerbed outside Dale Eddison estate agents in Ilkley to the U3A.

In November members are invited to celebrate the “tea (20-year) anniversary” by coming along to an afternoon tea party where cake donated by Booths supermarket in Ilkley will be enjoyed over a cup of tea or coffee.

If you, or anyone you know, might be interested in finding out more about the Ilkley and District U3A visit www.ilkleydistrictu3a@wildapricot.org or come along to the Wright Wing in the Clarke Foley Centre, Ilkley, on the first and third Fridays of the month between 10.30am and midday.