On the last day of May, the sun was shining down on South Yorkshire when fellow SHWI member, Laura, and I set off nice and early for our road trip. The only cloud on our horizon? Embarking on the journey from Rotherham by the mode of transport most dreaded when faced with warm weather: the coach. Thankfully, sick bags were not needed and we tootled down to Bristol nattering away to women from other WIs from South Yorkshire.
Not being the types to waste a trip, Laura and I decided that we deserved a drink on arrival and found some, errrm, interesting drinking establishments in which we could quench our thirst. The outing served to whet our appetites for dinner back at the hotel with the marvellous South Yorkshire contingent and I managed to bag a seat on Chairman Dorothy’s table.
To say I was a wee bit excited about this would be a huge understatement. Singing Jerusalem with 4,000 members of the Women’s Institute, witnessing history being made, and getting to listen to both Griff Rhys-Jones and John Humphrys address the flock of women was certainly enough to ensure a spring in my step!
When we arrived, the Arena was literally buzzing. Before we took our seats, I spotted the Denman stall, where I chatted to marketing manager Katie, who’d featured pictures from our December trip to the college in this year’s brochure. We were later to be addressed by WI member Anne Harrison (offt’ telly) about why we had to ‘use or lose’ the facilities at Denman.
What I could not have been prepared for was just how FEISTY it would become! The first item to address was proposed changes to the WI constitution, which at face value seemed perfectly reasonable proposals to modernise and reflect current legislation. But WI members saw fit to point out the chasm between the legalese-filled documentation and the top-line explanation we were provided. An emotive and emphatic discussion followed, but the changes were nonetheless passed.
In an unexpected twist, Griff Rhys-Jones brought a serious air to the proceedings and it was John Humphrys who had us in fits laughter with his characteristically playful manner. The main thread of the former’s address was about protection of listed buildings and conservation of local areas in light of government plans to allow large extensions without requiring planning consent. It was left to John Humphrys to impress us with his impersonations, through a potted history of encounters, including the late Margaret Thatcher, Her Majesty the Queen and notably, an insight into Tony Blair’s private life. And when I say private, I mean best kept between him and Cherie! *ahem*
In a more serious vein, each year the WI chooses to campaign on an important issue of the day. Over the decades, the Women’s Institute movement has trail-blazed campaigns leading to significant shifts in public policy on issues ranging from increasing female police officers (1924), equal pay for equal work (1943), awareness of drug addition (1966) and artificially-produced human embryos (1983) to human trafficking (2004).
This year, it was proposed that the WI take action to halt the decline of the high street. We heard from a number of notable speakers, before the discussion was opened out to the floor. Concerns were raised about the gap between those high streets packed full of pawnshops and bookmakers, and those teeming with vintage boutiques and gift shops – neither of which reflect the primary shopping habits of the majority. Again, the debate sought to clarify rather than dismiss the notion, with a significant majority voting in favour of backing the campaign.
One of the best things about the trip was catching up with WI members from other groups. I have a particular soft spot (and suspect I am far from alone) for Jean, the South Yorkshire – North Derbyshire Liaison Officer who some will recall came to our International Women’s Day Event and who gave me a big hug and a kiss when we were reacquainted! We also got taken to lunch at swanky Cardiff eaterie, Chapel1877, by local WI representatives, Becki and Clare from Birchgrove WI (who we first met last December at Denman College), together with members from institutes across England and Wales, including Tea and Tarts, Cookridge Crumpets, Sotonettes, Creigian, Renaissance, Parkstone and Holybourne WIs. The lady from the latter of these, Jean Johnson, was responsible for Channel 4’s A WI Lady’s Guide to Brothels.
Lastly, Laura was well-chuffed to have her day rounded off by being asked if she’d consider training to be a WI Advisor. It’s undoubtedly a feather in the cap of both Seven Hills and South Yorkshire to have her as a representative.
What a fabulous trip all round!
Love Jen x Vice-President
PS Next year, the AGM’s gonna be in Leeds!
*Photos by the wonderful Laura Bainbridge*