“And did those feet in ancient time…”
Mention the Women’s Institute and many will conjure images of ladies of a more, er, mature vintage, twin sets and pearls, jam and Jerusalem.
There was not, in truth, any evidence of the evocative lines by William Blake or, indeed, the stirring strains of Sir Hubert Parry.
There was none of that, last Monday night, or any of the other stuff.
In fact, most of the hoary old clichÃ©s appeared to have been jettisoned and insteadÂ ushered in a new guard. A younger crowd.
On a chilly autumnal evening, the packed rows of the King Charles the Martyr church hall in Warwick Park made the setting seem traditional enough.
There was a stage backdrop of a map of northern France and the English Channel coast, straddled by two painted vertical union flags.
The venue’s sharp lights bounced off the wooden floor boards and the metal tea urn. Long, patterned curtains hung undrawn, revealing clear vases with small posies.
Below them, the constant hum of female chattering; a queueÂ for registration and subs to be paid. Doors opened to scarfed late arrivals, rosy about the cheeks andÂ slightly breathless. One was heavily pregnant yetÂ undeterred.
There was an eclectic array of knitted pullies, far-from-cheapÂ cardies, shoulderÂ scarves andÂ dangly earrings. Some, in almost parodies of fashion, announced themselvesÂ colourfully, ifÂ not loudly.
Average age? About 34, give or take.
So popular is the WI presently, the Wells’ Angels membership stands at 100 and is full. The overspill appears to have gone to the newly-formed St John’s chapter and it’s full, too. And there is still a waiting list!
A no-nonsense lady called Rosemary Pearson used a microphone to cut through the hubbub and got proceedings under way. There followed the election of a committee (so over-subscribed by nominees that volunteers simply dropped out, thus avoiding the need for a lengthy election.)
The freshly-minted committee members gave potted biogs of themselves (quite a few London escapees and ‘creatives’) and most professed no desire to be sent forward to the hat for the Wells Angels’ presidency poll.
That was because Hanna Sorrell (pictured), a 32-year-old from the Wirral, who moved from the gentrified streets of Islington to Tunbridge Wells a year ago, was luminously the winner before the votes were cast. She is one of the guiding influences behind Wells’ Angels.
She seems very popular, too. The enthusiasm in the hall felt so close, you could have touched it.
Would Hanna’s group be averse to jam and Jerusalem?
She told us: “They’re still really important parts of the WI as are things like cake-making, knitting and crochet but so is campaigning for women’s issues.”
Here was a vibrant force to be reckoned with – embodying the WI’s famous and undisputed values yet leaning to a more modern approach.
We’ll watch with interest.
According to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes
- The WI is a non-religious, non-party political and non-sectarian membership organisation.
- The WI is a diverse organisation for every woman regardless of age, political or religious views, or interests, and offers all members the chance to learn new and traditional skills and to influence the world around them.
- It now has over 212,000 members in over 6,600 WIs.
- More than 26,000 womenÂ joined the WI in 2014 and 118 new WIs were set upÂ throughout the year.
- So far in 2015, 62 new WIs have already beenÂ started, and over 22,400Â new members haveÂ joined.