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Surrey WI: More than just jam and jerusalem...

PUBLISHED: 19:32 09 November 2009 | UPDATED: 13:16 23 March 2015

The Surrey WI pose for their memorable calendar

The Surrey WI pose for their memorable calendar

Hilary roars around the county on her motorbike, Ann is a great campaigner and Geraldine persuades women to pose naked - with vegetables. But these are no ordinary Surrey ladies; this is the WI. What on earth is going on? JANET DONIN finds out...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2008

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The last thing I imagined doing on a cold Wednesday evening was going to a WI meeting. Weren't they the bastion of fuddy-duddy ladies revelling in jam making and singing Jerusalem? Wrong! The newest members of the WI are increasingly young, educated women intent on stirring up some action in their community.

The night I went along to the Ham and Petersham WI, which meets above The Dysart Arms in Petersham Road, the venue was buzzing with attractive women of all ages chatting to new-found friends. The first person I met was enterprising young mum Antje Derks as she grabbed a lager at the bar and fretted about the late arrival of her guest speaker. One half of the dynamic duo who started this new group, her and friend Emma Gibbons have been overwhelmed by the response.

Having grown up in rural Devon, Antje had always been aware of the WI, but it wasn't until she left a career in television to have her children that the idea to form a local group blossomed. "I needed stimulation and a wider network of friends," she says.

And she's not alone. Women from 20 to 80 are flocking to the WI, making it the fastest growing organisation in the county. This year, the Surrey Federation of WIs is celebrating its 90th anniversary and boasts some 171 WIs with over 6,500 members.

Most, like Antje, have a healthy respect for their roots: "I'm a huge fan of jam and cake making," she says, but the more challenging considerations of the environment, the plight of Surrey farmers, and the lack of basic food knowledge in schools are all high on her agenda.

With that in mind, she was thrilled to have as her guest speaker eco warrior and Conservative candidate for Richmond, Zac Goldsmith - who, let's face it, is a bit of a dish! It wasn't long before Zac had the ladies eating out of his hand as he wowed them with fascinating facts and figures on preserving energy and boosting the rural economy. By the end of the night, they were ready to back his campaign to not only put food on the curriculum in schools but for them to grow produce as well. It's an idea that's been taken up by a couple of local schools and certainly gave the members food for thought.

On the campaign trail
Campaigning is not new to the WI, who often address issues prior to government intervention. With the bit between their teeth, the ladies can be a formidable lot making even prime ministers quake with fear. Remember the 'handbagging' they gave Tony Blair when he tried to use their forum for an impromptu party political broadcast?

"This year, the important issue is the WI Carbon Challenge, supported by M&S, which will encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint in the home and their lifestyle."

In 2005, the WI targeted the wasted use of plastic bags and shrink-wrapped packaging by protesting noisily outside local supermarkets. More recently, they supported local farmers with their Great Milk Debate to highlight the low price paid to dairy farmers compared to the higher price of milk in the supermarkets. A campaign that was publicised with a picture of a rather plucky young woman sitting in a tin bath bathing in milk! This year, the important issue is the WI Carbon Challenge, supported by M&S, which will encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint in the home and their lifestyle.

The women of Blechingley WI are great campaigners and were among the first to draw attention to the Great Milk Debate when they gathered outside Nutfield Memorial Hall, complete with plywood cow. This year, their president, Ann Butler, urged her members to attend the meeting concerning the closure of the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill. "We need to mob the theatre and give the council stick," she says.

But the WI is not only about banging the drum; these women like to have fun. Of course, we all remember that infamous calendar created by the ladies of Rylstone, West Yorkshire, which incidentally raised an amazing £1.7million for leukaemia research. Immortalised in the smash hit film Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren, people suddenly began to see the WI in a very different light.

Surrey Calendar Girls...
Keen to show that they, too, are not a stuffy bunch, the president of the Merstham WI, Geraldine Horne, persuaded 12 ladies to strip off for a similar calendar in 2003. Wearing little more than hats and boards decorated with fruit and vegetables, they also posed outside the WI tent at that year's County Show.

"Most women cheered and shouted 'Good on you girls', and some of the chaps tried a bit of bottom pinching, but it was just a joke and we raised loads of awareness for the movement," says Hilary Gadd, PR for the Surrey Federation, who can often be seen roaring around the county on her motorbike.

When Geraldine is not busy persuading members to take their clothes off, she is also a bit of a trouper, being the driving force in providing entertainment for Surrey members. In fact, this month she's hard at work producing a show called Swingtime in Springtime, which promises to be full of showbiz sparkle.

WI's 90th anniversary celebrations
It's all part of the 90th anniversary celebrations, which include everything from the rather bizarre 'make a scarecrow' event at Wisley to coincide with their Midsummer Magic evening - men of Surrey watch out, you could be losing your trousers - to a cruise on the Thames and a variety of celebrity speakers including acclaimed wildlife artist Alan Hunt and pianist to the stars Colin Tarn.

Interesting speakers to entertain and inform members are an integral part of the WI monthly meetings. In fact, regular auditions are held to select suitable candidates. These tend to be rather lively affairs as the ladies voice their approval or not. Merstham member Paula Distin says, "We soon let them know if they're boring or too condescending." In the past, they've enjoyed talks from private detectives, local female entrepreneurs, circus performers, finance advisors, beekeepers, even TV producers, and yes - jam makers as well actually! Of course, a little eye candy doesn't go amiss either!

As Antje Derks says, "You can't get better value: fab speakers, a membership book containing amazing discounted offers, great outings and a bunch of new friends all for £27 a year!"

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