REAL LIFE: WI is not all about jam and Jerusalem
Rowan MantellToday they are still known for jam, Jerusalem and naked calendars. But ROWAN MANTELL discovers there is much more to the Women's Institute than cookery and craft, rural patriotism and slightly risqu� fundraisingIf they are making jam it becomes the glue that helps hold countless communities together.Rowan Mantell
Today they are still known for jam, Jerusalem and naked calendars. But ROWAN MANTELL discovers there is much more to the Women's Institute than cookery and craft, rural patriotism and slightly risqu� fundraising
If they are making jam it becomes the glue that helps hold countless communities together. And when their voices are heard, they are as likely to be campaigning against domestic violence as singing Jerusalem.
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Rooted in the rural and grounded in tradition, Women's Institutes are neither confined to the countryside, nor consigned to the past.
Today they are springing up in cities, suburbs and even universities.
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And their expertise in craft and cooking means they are at the cutting edge of the revival of interest in all things hand-made and locally sourced.
In Norwich a city centre lunch-time WI, aimed at working women, was set up just four years ago.
But another modern, thriving Institute was one of the first wave of Norfolk WIs. Opened in Old Catton, in 1919, it is still leading the way.
Back in 1925 the ladies of Old Catton WI heard from a speaker about almost impossibly distant and exotic Japan.
But in 21st century Old Catton there is no need for a speaker to be booked to describe life in Japan because 33-year-old Hiroko Collins joined the WI when she moved from Tokyo to Norwich.
'I didn't know anyone in Norwich and my husband's mum is a member of the WI in Cambridge, and her mother belonged to the Cringleford WI. My husband suggested I carry on the family tradition,' said Hiroko. 'I thought that wasn't a bad idea. I was able to gain a real insight into English people and culture.'
She particularly loves spotting 'Englishness'.
'Like the other day, in between chats, this lady wiped her face with a cloth and it disappeared into somewhere around her breasts. Tissue paper is another thing which makes an appearance quite often then fades away up into ladies' sleeves!' said 33-year-old Hiroko.
'Most of the members are my mum's age or older but they look after themselves really well and are fashionable and very attractive. I didn't like the thought of getting older when I was younger since I didn't know many mature and attractive women (it might be a cultural thing) but I don't mind so much now. They are caring and thoughtful as well. I appreciate their kindness which helped me settle in to the area.'
In 1919 the ladies of Old Catton WI learnt how to make gloves out of a rabbit's skin and competed in a 'best pair of ankles' competition.
They even invited men to the occasional meeting.
Today, despite being one of the oldest WIs in Norfolk, they are known as a lively group. Doreen Reeves, the longest serving member of Old Catton WI, has been involved for half a century. She joined because it was the closest place to go and meet friends and still enjoys the friendship.
Most of the women are old enough to be Hiroko's mother or grandmother but Hiroko said: 'I think it is more to do with what you like doing rather than an age thing.'
And can she do jam and Jerusalem?
'It's a shame that a lot of people think that's all we do,' said Hiroko. 'My view is, the WI mostly does fund-raising for charities and comes up with sensible resolutions every year.'
Sally Paramour first joined the WI as a young mum in the 1970s. Today she is the chairman of the Norfolk Federation of WIs.
'At first it was a chance for me to say to my husband, 'You're babysitting!'' she said.
But she found she thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet other women and be part of a community that was both very local, and international.
She took a break during her teaching career but is now a very keen member of Taverham WI.
And she is proud of the reach of the WI - from small groups of women in village halls, taking tea together and learning about the plight of the honey-bee, to delegates meeting politicians and heads of state.
'That's what picks the WI out from any other afternoon tea group. We have a national voice and we campaign on things that make a difference,' said Sally.
Bowthorpe WI grew up in a new settlement - but could hardly be more traditional with members renowned for their craft, cooking and gardening skills.
Pam Bugg moved to Bowthorpe, aged 40, 15 years ago. Keen to make friends she joined a local mother and baby group.
'They thought I was granny!' said Pam.
'My neighbour invited me to go to WI with her. I thought I might be too old for a mother and baby group but surely I wasn't old enough for WI!
'But I went and they welcomed me in like an old friend and the rest as they say is history,' said Pam.
The WI gave her the confidence and skills to return to work, where she is now finance officer for the Norfolk Federation of WIs. She also co-ordinates Bowthorpe WI's formidable catering team.
So does she make jam?
'I can make jam because I can read a recipe and I have done so, but as a working mum with lots of other interests I don't have the time!' she said.
'I know the words but my husband maintains that I can only carry a tune if I have a big enough bucket!' she said.
A completely different WI, possibly the only one of its kind in the world, was launched in Norfolk less than a year ago.
Around half the members of Reedham's Joseph House WI, based in a care home, have learning disabilities.
Mary Barth-olomew, who works at Joseph House, said: 'It's a way of getting out into the comm-unity. There is a trem-endous amount out there which we can be a part of.'
For more info on Norfolk's thriving WIs visit www.norfolkwi.org.uk