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Past Groups

These are some of the groups we have run in the past. They could be run again if there is sufficient interest and a facilitator is available.


How is it that the human race has developed a seemingly limitless physical and cultural diversity? From our tree-dwelling primate ancestors to today’s globally connected citizens, anthropology looks at Homo sapiens to find out why we are the way we are. Anthropologists use multidisciplinary methods to explain this and trace the development of religion, agriculture, money, language and other aspects of human experience.

This group was based on Anthropology and the Study of Humanity, a set of 24 short talks by charismatic lecturer Scott M. Lacy, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he teaches anthropology, environmental studies, and black studies.

East to West

Discussion in this group was based on an exciting seven part series charting the birth of a flourishing civilisation in the Near and Middle East and its dynamic influence on the West. The series follows the spread of civilisation across the globe from the first cities of Mesopotamia. For crucial phases in world history the key place was the Middle East – an extraordinary region that was a political, economic and cultural centre and a bridge between the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. The series was produced by Lion Television (UK) in association with Bahcesehir University, Turkey.

History of Scotland

This group used a variety of sources but was based on A History of Scotland, a documentary series produced by BBC Scotland and the Open University and presented by Neil Oliver, a charismatic Scottish archaeologist, author and broadcaster.

The series charts the journey from the tribes who united to fight back the Romans to the reopening of the Scottish Parliament. It reveals fascinating struggles, incidents and characters from William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Sir Walter Scott to the Covenanters, the Darien disaster and the tobacco lords. The series is a sweeping and insightful chronicle of an often turbulent nation. By placing Scotland’s story in the wider context of British, European and global history, it explodes myths and reveals a Scotland which forged its own destiny.

History of Ireland

We took a guided tour through Irish history, led by our facilitator who researched each topic and shared what she discovered. Slide shows, segments of TV documentaries and videos of lectures by Irish experts were used. We travelled from around 8,000 BC to the middle of the 20th century when most of Ireland became an independent democratic republic.

Finally we learnt about more recent history, including the Civil Rights Movement and The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and the Celtic Tiger.


The two opera groups met to view and discuss a different opera or a different production of an opera each month. The operas varied from light-hearted comedies to serious drama.

Those who were not already familiar with the opera usually read the synopsis in advance. Then we sat back at our meeting and enjoyed the sheer pleasure of watching world-class opera together. We loved the complete experience – the synthesis of glorious music, wonderful singing and acting and spectacular staging. There was a 30 minute coffee break along the way and we usually finished around 5 pm.

Natural History

Members watched the excellent BBC Natural History Collection 2. The Life series travels to the frontiers of the natural world for 130 stories of fauna. Life in Cold Blood reverses the notion that cold-blooded life forms are less interesting than hot-blooded ones. Ganges, set in India, looks at how that river has shaped the culture and wildlife of its parent country. Wild China reveals a land of huge complexity, from the Himalayas to the barren steppe, the sub-Arctic to tropical islands with many mysterious, beautiful and rare creatures to discover. Galapagos takes us to an area where the creation and extinction of species are more intertwined than anywhere else on the planet.

Understanding Greek and Roman Technology

Ancient Greece and Rome produced some of history’s most creative engineers. In a series of DVDs we learnt how technologies developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans  had a lasting impact on the development of civilisation.  Dr. Stephen Ressler, a former professor at the US Military Academy and a civil engineer, made his subject very easy to understand by creating models to show just how the technologies worked.  Here is a small sample of the topics covered: siege machines, arches and concrete, roads and bridges, water supply systems, transportation, cranes, grain mills, and the beginnings of urban planning. We enjoyed learning about the techniques used in the building of temples, the Pantheon, Roman baths and the Colosseum.

Photographic Expeditions

Have you noticed the wonderful colours in a rusty panel, the patterns made by shadows, the texture of peeling paint? Are you fascinated by the shimmer of light on water, the way lichen colonises a fence post or the intricacy of the centre of a flower? This group helped us to appreciate the beauty around us. You don’t need to travel to the other side of the world to take really interesting photos. Members shared their knowledge and there was lots of support as we went out each month to capture some images from the local area. A phone or a simple camera was required.


We watched a collection of some of the finest dramas in the English language on DVDs made by the BBC in the 1980s. The plays feature the cream of the 20th century’s acting talent and we found it interesting to see many young actors “fresh out of drama school”. Some have faded into obscurity, but others are still seen today, some only in TV roles but others in films and some stage work. We saw Helen Mirren as Cymbeline, John Cleese in the Taming of the Shrew, Ben Kingsley as Shylock etc. We enjoyed the subtitles and found them extremely helpful.


Nobody was expected to be a master chef in this group. Participants rolled their sleeves up and had a lot of fun learning to cook simple, tasty dishes in the facilitator’s home kitchen.   Sometimes they shared the meal they had cooked but sometimes they prepared a dish which could be finished off at home that night or stored in the freezer. The aim was to enable members to expand the range of dishes they were confident to prepare at home on their own.


Members watched the BBC series, The Rise of the Continents which demonstrates how their formation fundamentally shaped each of our continents’ characters – transforming evolution, forging their economic riches and changing the course of human history. Professor Iain Stewart revealed how the world around us is full of clues – in the rocks, the landscapes and even the animals.

This series was supplemented by Wonders of the Solar System, an award-winning series of five episodes, each focusing on an aspect of the solar system.

Local History Opua

This group was based in Opua. Members visited sites of local historical interest usually with guest speakers. For instance Bishop Te Haara of the Maori Anglican Church spoke at  St Michael’s Church about the battle of Ohaeawai , Bill Cherrington talked about the history of Taumarere at St Andrew’s Church in Taumarere, and Dianne Paterson of Purerua enriched our visit to Marsden Cross.

Political Ideologies

We may not all be political activists or even think much about politics but we all believe certain things about how we should treat the sick or deal with crime or share resources. Political ideologies offered answers to the questions of how we ought to live together in society.  However, as we well know, there is no universal consensus on the ideal form of government.

Through discussion, reading and video clips, members of this group explored the differences between democratic, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and developed an understanding of the core beliefs of the world’s mainstream political ideologies – liberalism, conservatism, democratic socialism, communism and fascism.  The only restriction on their lively discussions was that they do not try to promote any one ideology as superior to others.

Creative Writing

This was a friendly, supportive group with members spending time on both “creative writing” and on units from the U3A Online course, “My Life Story”. Each month a topic was chosen and members developed the idea in their own way. We all read our writing to the group for comment and helpful suggestions. Sometimes we did short, fun exercises to sharpen up our creativity or we critiqued a piece of writing from outside publications.

Sketching for Beginners 

This group was primarily for beginners but those with more experience were catered for. The aim was for participants to achieve the ability to create drawings in six sessions using a simple still life study. They learnt about hand-eye co-ordination, how to ‘see’ objects objectively, perspective without tears, how to place groups of objects convincingly on the page and how to complete the ‘optical illusion’ with tonal graduation.

Carry on Sketching

This was a continuation of the Sketching for Beginners group.  The original group, of mostly absolute beginners, was taken through the basics of representational drawing and they made significant progress culminating in a complete still-life study. We then moved on to landscape drawing with an emphasis on vegetation and picture composition. Most of the work was in pencil with the group also introduced to charcoal and pen wash techniques.

Western Civilisation

This group watched episodes of Kenneth Clarke’s TV series, Civilisation. This title is somewhat misleading as it only covers Western civilisation and does not include Asian or other civilisations. We intersperse Simon Schama’s videos on the Power of Art at some of the meetings. After viewing we had a general discussion amongst members; this was often very interesting with different views expressed.

Our facilitator sent out ‘Notes’ prior to each meeting with a brief summary of the episode to be shown and some links to various subjects contained in the next video. Members used these links to prepare for the next meeting.

C20th NZ History – a personal view

Based on New Zealand documentaries collected over the years, this was an opportunity to relive some of the significant events which established New Zealand as an independent nation. The 1890s saw the first New Zealand-born Prime Minister, Richard Seddon, and the first nation to give women the vote. The 20th century saw us come of age and take our place in the wider world.  This was a nostalgic journey through the period.

Greek Odyssey

The Oxford Dictionary defines an odyssey as “a series of wanderings, a long adventurous journey”. Using several series of DVDs, we looked at the history of Ancient Greece starting with the Minoans, wandering on to Homer and Troy and then travelling further on in time.

The German archaeologist, Ernst Curtius, wrote, “It is irrelevant how many centuries may separate us from a bygone age. What matters is the importance of the past to our intellectual and spiritual existence.” So frequent sidetracks included making our own clay Linear B tablets and watching a French comic opera based on Helen of Troy’s abduction.


A keen interest and a desire to learn more were all that was required for members of this group who gained a good foundation on which to base their understanding of this subject. They learnt about genes, chromosomes, basic rules of inheritance, molecular biology, genetic diseases, genetic testing and forensics, gene regulation and epigenetics, cloning, GM crops and animals, sexual differentiation and development, gene therapy, designer babies and tailor-made medicines. The facilitator for this fascinating topic has an extensive academic and research background in genetics.

Mysteries of Human Behaviour

This group was based on a Great Courses DVD, The Mysteries of Human Behaviour. It looks
at many fascinating aspects of human behaviour in a series of presentations by Professor Mark Leary of Duke University in North Carolina. He explored theories and research to learn why humans act the way they do and discover how some behaviours, which may be difficult to understand today, make sense when considering the problems our ancestors faced. The series answered lots of question , including many we’d never thought about.


The members of this group enjoyed reading and discussing several books over recent years which can be loosely categorised under the heading “Exploration”. This included physical exploration and exploration of the ways in which societies have worked.  Books have included Gavin Menzies’ books on early navigation such as The Lost Empire of Atlantis and Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress”. We took turns reading aloud from these books, stopping to discuss points of interest over our delicious morning coffee. From time to time we viewed relevant excerpts from various DVDs. Members took turns leading the meetings.

The History of Food

Perhaps we are inclined to take food for granted but over the centuries it has had an enormous influence on settlement, migration, politics and much more. This fascinating food story starts with the end of the last Ice Age and deals with food in each location, where higher cultures developed that left some records of their food consumption and agriculture.

It moves through the Middle Ages, the age of seafaring and discovery, touches on history and social history, food fashions, changes in the cost of food items, multiple uses of various food items and lastly, some health considerations resulting from changes in eating and drinking patterns.


This group examined the disciplines of metaphysics and metaethics. Metaphysics is simply everything that cannot be recognised by the physical things known through the senses. Metaethics is the moral properties of right and wrong attributed to these metaphysical things. Central to our enquiries was trying to understand how we seem to know immediately if an action is right or wrong. An instance of this is when we are confronted with an act of wanton cruelty to innocent, sentient beings we have an immediate feeling of horror and disgust.

Stars in Their Eyes

This group will viewed an amazing variety of mainstream English-language movies. The group chose movies from many genres: dramas, historical fiction, westerns, thriller and classics like Dr Zhivago and Bonnie and Clyde. Each meeting showcased a different actor or director, people such as Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Robert de Niro and Clint Eastwood. After watching a movie, the group discussed the movie, the acting style, and other movies of the star or director.

I Spy

The I Spy group visited local habitats to look for, identify, and learn more about the birds, wildlife, trees, plants and geological features of our area.  Visits were tailored to the interests of group members.

From time to time, local experts were asked to speak to the group on their specialist topic. Members were encouraged to share their knowledge with the rest of the group.