York's St Sampson's Centre is 40 later this year. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

THE story goes that it was the sight of so many elderly, retired men sitting on benches in the centre of York that helped prompt the conversion of a derelict church into a popular centre for the over- 60s.

The then Archbishop of York, Dr Donald Coggan, felt there should be somewhere warm and dry for the city’s retired people to gather.

“He thought it was disgraceful that all these men were sitting outside,” says Moyra Bell, the 78-year-old treasurer of the St Sampson’s Centre.

It was the early 1970s. St Sampson’s Church had been empty since 1968. Contemporary photographs show the interior stripped of pews, and littered with dust and discarded timber.

Various schemes to convert the church to other uses had failed. Dr Coggan and John Shannon of the York Civic Trust decided it would be the ideal location for an over-60s centre.

The Civic Trust took the building over, and with the help of £67,000 from the Hayward Foundation -– and a further £7,000 from the city’s three Round Tables to pay for furnishings – the St Sampson’s Centre as we know it today was born.

The centre was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in November 1974 – and proved an instant hit with the city’s retired people.

Visitors flocked to the centre on its first full day, November 14. “I think we have had all York and his wife in here today,” said the organiser, Gillian Eweiss. “Business has been better than booming.”

The Yorkshire Evening Press, in a leader column on November 16, 1974, described the centre as “one of the happiest and most imaginative of schemes York has seen for many a day... Here is a place where the elderly can meet socially in comfort and above all find friendship and relief from the loneliness which can be the worst affliction of their age group.”

That was almost 40 years ago. Yet to this day the centre remains as special as ever.

“I love this place,” said 90-year-old Elsie Pinder, who popped into the centre for a cup of tea more than 30 years ago and ended up working as a volunteer there for three decades.

Elsie hung up her volunteer’s boots last December, but still plans to be a regular visitor.

“When you’re on your own, it’s a place that you can come to chat to friends, and have a cup of tea or something to eat,” she said. “It’s lovely.”

Helen Kilduff, a mere youngster at 87, agrees. She’s been a regular at the centre for more than 30 years herself. “I’ve met dozens of friends here,” she said. “It’s a marvellous place: beautiful and warm. You can come in just for a cup of tea, or if you don’t feel like cooking you can come here for a nice meal.”

Those cups of tea are legendary. “They are the cheapest in York – and they always have been!” said Moyra Bell, who first came here as a volunteer in 1979.

They were never more legendary than in October 1984 when, almost a decade after the centre first opened, the Duchess of Kent opened a new annexe in what had been the church hall.

More than 250 pensioners were waiting in the church’s courtyard to meet her, having taken part in a draw to earn the privilege. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily that day.

“She was sensible enough to see that they should not be out there,” Moyra said. “She said ‘they will all have to be brought in to get warm and have a cup of tea before we do anything else’.”

There is far more to the centre than just cups of tea, of course.

On a busy Thursday afternoon, the centre is quietly humming. It is cold out, but in here there is warmth and peace. The volunteers behind the long counter running down one side of the former church are busy serving tea, coffee and a selection of tasty, inexpensive snacks. The tables are crowded, and there is a buzz of conversation.

More than 700 people use the centre on a typical day, said manager Malcolm Whittaker, who came here in 2003 after more than 30 years as a railway coach-builder. The number of people using it is not hard to believe, seeing how busy and cheerful it is today.

The centre is open 10am-4pm every weekday, and also holds a range of special events – monthly dances, piano recitals on Friday afternoons and fortnightly jumble sales among them. And while the church itself is no longer consecrated, the beautiful chapel that forms part of it certainly is. Services are still held there every two weeks, Malcolm says.

One thing the centre doesn’t do any more is excursions for clients. “We used to,” said Moyra. “But then we left someone behind once, at Blackpool. There was nobody to check them back on the bus...”

Still, this remains a very special centre – one which, with its unique setting, is the envy of many other towns and cities.

Today is a cold day. But in good weather, one of the centre’s very best features is the courtyard, said Malcolm. It is entirely enclosed, by both the church buildings and other neighbouring buildings - yet on a sunny day is both bright and completely private.

“It is a little oasis in the middle of York,” said Malcolm.

As is the St Sampson’s Centre itself for those of a certain age. Long may it remain so.

• A church is mentioned on the site of St Sampson’s as early as 1154. It was extensively rebuilt in the 1400s, but by 1844, following a fire, had become so dilapidated it needed to be closed. Between 1846 and 1848, the church was pulled down and a new church, designed by the architect Frederick Bell, was built at a cost of £2,000.

The aisles of the church were restored from 1923-25.

The church closed again in 1968, and was reopened by the Queen Mother as the St Sampson’s Centre on November 13, 1974.

There have been a number of characters associated with the centre since: not least Lewis Creed, who was warden between 1980 and 1991. He liked to jokingly refer to himself as the “Mother Theresa of York”, and during his time as warden there was a sign on the kitchen wall that read “Volunteers Go To Heaven”.

The centre is largely run by volunteers to this day: the only full-time employee is manager Malcolm Whittaker, although there are also a couple of part-time cleaners and a caretaker.

Volunteers work morning or afternoon shifts to keep the centre open every weekday from 10am-4pm.

Moyra Bell, the centre’s treasurer, first became a volunteer 35 years ago, at the age of 44.

In the early days, she says, she remembers customers queueing up outside the former church waiting for it to open at 10am. “When in and settled in the place of their choice they were there for the day!” she says.

You don’t get people settling in for the whole day quite so much these days. “Our members nowadays are generally fitter and determined to be as independent as possible for as long as possible,” Moyra says.

But this continues to be a unique and special place for the over-60s.

“It still gives untold comfort and pleasure to so many,” she said.