IT CAN be difficult making new friends when moving to a new town, especially when one is retired.
The joys of meeting people in a work or school environment may be a distant memory for one couple who have arrived in Mid Devon from Aberdeen in Scotland.
But forging new relationships has proved to have been a breeze, thanks to Exe Valley University of the Third Age (U3A).
The daughter of Sarah and John, who would not give their surname, said she thought they had joined "some sort of hippy group."
But the U3A is actually a self-help organisation for people no longer in full time employment which provides educational, creative and leisure opportunities.
Sarah said: "The idea is that it keeps the mind going in the third age by keeping it active and learning in different ways because you may not think that an activity like country dancing is academic but you have to remember the patterns, so it's good for the brain."
Exe Valley U3A was set up four years ago when the Tiverton branch was in such demand it couldn't accept new members. The group now boasts a growing membership of more than 200 people from the Mid Devon area, and with activities like creative writing, French conversation, local history, rambling and music on offer, as well as hosting monthly meetings with guest speakers, it caters for most tastes.
John, 66, runs the rambling and is part of the table tennis group at U3A. He said: "It's encouraged me to do activities that I haven't done for years and things that I have never done. Sometimes it does more than fill the day; if you look at our calendar it's hard to fit things in. It offers as much or as little as you want but there are a number of groups and people just fill in as they wish."
The U3A and the groups within it are run entirely by volunteers. The monthly meetings held at Tiverton Rugby Club are organised by 70-year-old committee member Sue Dark. Organising 'tea ladies', people to greet new members and those keen to write up news articles for the local press, Sue plays a key role and has been involved in Exe Valley U3A since its conception. She said: "I was on the steering committee that started it all up. The group's very popular – we have a great response.
"The U3A has changed life for my husband and I. It's just given us a new perspective on life and lots of new friends and interests; it's brilliant, especially when you're retired, it's nice to come together."
Talking to the members of the Exe Valley branch, it is apparent that the social scene within the group is key for many. For Sarah and John, it helped them to integrate into the community when they moved to Devon a few years ago. John said: "As newcomers to Tiverton we've certainly found friendship and associations with people and that's been worthwhile.
"We came from Aberdeen so we really didn't know anybody here and U3A was a good opportunity to start to meet people. We've been very fortunate as we've met some nice people here. It's been very beneficial for us."
A common misconception people may have when they hear about the U3A is that this is an academic group or a group that only allows university educated members. Sarah, 64, was keen to dispel this. She said: "People do think from the name that it is some sort of Open University. U3A was started on a university site in France and the idea was to keep the mind going in the third age, so you don't have to be academic. Some U3A groups are more academically minded than ours, and if people want a more academic group and they're willing to set it up, there's the opportunity to so here."
Exe Valley U3A chairwoman Margaret Wallwork echoed this. Margaret joined the group with her sister just a few months after it started and became chairwoman earlier this year. She was expecting to find a more academic side to the group when she joined but said she has enjoyed the social scene she discovered. "I think because it's called the University of the Third Age I expected something a bit more learning oriented, whereas I think our group probably tends to be a bit more towards the social side.
"I think with most of us that's a nice thing. My sister actually joined a month before I did, but I decided what groups I wanted to join and I joined several without my sister; it's the best way of meeting people."
Margaret has joined a wide variety of groups since starting at U3A including scrabble, art appreciation and French conversation. She said: "occasionally I go to the craft group if they're doing something I'm interested in, and I go to the discussion group."
Having studied maths at Manchester University, 72-year-old Margaret is enjoying the third age university as much as she did the first time round. She said: "I loved my time at university. I would like to improve my Latin here and I did ask if anyone was interested in starting a group.
"I could organise a group but not run it.
"I went to the National AGM for U3A last week and they are trying to get things like that online for people like me who want to take learning further than they can through their own means."