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100 years of the WI

PUBLISHED: 15:59 27 June 2015 | UPDATED: 15:59 27 June 2015

West Kent WI members and Scarecrow at Lullingstone

West Kent WI members and Scarecrow at Lullingstone

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Two important milestones are celebrated together this month at Lullingstone Castle in Eynsford, and it's the WI that connects them

Celebrating ‘100 years of inspiring women,’ 2015 is a very special year for the Women’s Institute. Formed a year into the First World War, the original aim was to rejuvenate rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food to help combat German naval blockades.

A centenary baton started its journey in 2014 in Wales, where the first-ever WI opened, and it has since been passed around every Federation within England and Wales for a week at a time.

On 2 June the baton went to the National Federation of WI Garden Party held at Buckingham Palace and hosted by the Duchess of Cornwall, a member of Tetbury WI. Two days later it was at the Royal Albert Hall, where the centenary Annual Meeting was held and the Centenary Choir Competition winners performed.

In typical 21st-century NFWI style, the event was streamed live so members could arrange their own celebrations to watch the proceedings and is available on YouTube and on a dedicated centenary website.

Not quite the image you might have had of ‘jam and Jerusalem?’ Exactly – as I am to discover. Representing West Kent at the AGM was Federation Chairman Sheila Miles, with whom I am enjoying coffee and delicious biscuits at Lullingstone Castle.

West Kent County is one of the larger Federations, sharing its borders with East Kent, East Sussex, Surrey and London, and was formed together with nine WIs in 1918; today there are 180 WIs in West Kent towns and villages and 7,000-plus members.

Sheila has good reason to remember the arrival of the baton in her area.

“We got it in West Kent in the first week of December. I collected it from Tilbury in Essex in a lifeboat – I was seriously frozen – and brought it over to Gravesend, where we were welcomed by some of our members.

“From there we went on to our 26 Districts in West Kent, each with five to 10 WIs – which meant we went to quite a few carol concerts that week! But we also took a portable centenary display to Maidstone Shopping Mall, Bexley Shopping Mall and Coolings at Knockholt. And to finish off, we handed the baton over to East Kent at Rolvenden, where we had a soup and sandwich lunch and the church was filled with WI-decorated Christmas trees.”

Sheila adds: “Baton week was very busy but it was a lovely entry to the centenary year. We wanted to have a celebration in the summer too, so we’re having a walk around Shoreham and in September as a Federation we are supporting our Districts. There is also a big national Centennial Fair from 3-6 September at Harrogate. To finish the year off we will have our main carol service in Rochester Cathedral.”

So, you are wondering, why am I here at Lullingstone Castle with Sheila, West Kent WI trustee Annette Smith, plus Guy and Sarah Hart Dyke and their son and heir Tom, the renowned horticulturist?

Tom Hart-Dyke explains. “There are lots of WI connections through the family – granny (the late Mary Hart Dyke, aka ‘Crac’) was President, and the WI came here in 1960 and there is a massive group photo of them all in front of the Gatehouse when they handed over a cheque. They also held a pageant here even earlier.”

And 2015 is also Lullingstone’s 10th anniversary of The World Garden, the idea for which was born in the Colombian jungle, where Tom and his travelling companion Paul Winder were taken hostage while trekking through The Darien Gap on a plant-hunting expedition.

Three months into their kidnap ordeal, the two captives were told to prepare to die that night. Paul spent the afternoon in prayer, but Tom decided instead to design his dream garden and spent the time drawing plans in his diary for a World Garden – containing the plants he’d collected from across the globe, planted out in their respective countries of origin.

Luckily, the boys were spared and after Tom’s return to his ancestral home, the man affectionately known as the ‘plant nut’ has been busy building the ‘World’ in his back garden to create his jungle dream.

Annette takes up the connection: “Tom is a great hit with the WI!” she laughs. “We first met him at Snodland WI when he did a talk, and it’s wonderful that we can share our two anniversaries here at Lullingstone.”

You can read on the facing page about the celebratory events taking place this month, but in the meantime I am keen to know what the WI might have to attract someone like me – and why the organisation is thriving more than ever.

“In West Kent we are opening more WIs than we are suspending any,” says Sheila. “We border London, and there is a lot of interest there among the 
younger women who all want to learn crafts, cooking and gardening skills.”

Annette adds: “TV programmes like The Sewing Bee, where one of the judges is a WI member, and The Great British Bake Off, have had a huge effect on us.”

Sheila, who has been a WI member for 40 years, chips in: “We are still fighting to overcome the image of jam and jumble and a lot of old women sitting around drinking tea! Then they see the calibre of speakers we attract and are amazed. And you don’t have to bake – lots of us don’t.

“We have lots of evening meetings now to meet demand, many of the London members meet in the pub and they all communicate via Facebook. We discuss current affairs all the time – last year we had ‘Women in Today’s World’ about how the world has changed for women; this November it’s Dementia Awareness.

“And it’s hugely sociable; we get many members who live in a village, have commuted for years and don’t even know their neighbours until they join their local WI. But if you go out to work, where else are you going to meet like-minded people when you come home? If you mention the WI wherever you go in the country, there is an immediate common link. There’s something for everyone in the WI.” n

Find out more

Lullingstone Castle, Eynsford DA4 0JA

01322 862114 or info@lullingstonecastle.co.uk

West Kent WI Federation HQ, Ethel Hunt Lodge, 
4 Hawkwell Business Centre, Maidstone Road, Pembury TN2 4AG, 01892 823813 www.thewi.org.uk

ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

1 July: WI Centenary Day

Taking place at Lullingstone Castle, from 10.30-6pm, when it is hoped that as many as possible of West Kent’s 7,000-plus members will attend, this special day will enable them to view all the many displays that have been created, plus visit the World Garden (see below).

A ticketed event (to include tea or coffee and a slice of home-made cake), there will be two large marquees set up and four different service points.

There will be a big display around Lullingstone of WI-created scarecrows, as well as craft memory boxes and scrapbooks, some more than 50 years old.

Scarecrows can be collected on 3 August, when some will end their days on WI allotments.

3-31 July: WI Scarecrow Festival

To celebrate the centenary of the Women’s Institute, Lullingstone Castle and The World Garden is playing host to the West Kent WI Federation fabulous Scarecrows throughout July.

Visitors will have the chance to see 70 different WI-themed scarecrows, from suffragettes to flower power hippies, created to reflect its 100 years of history.

A culmination of the creative talents of the West Kent WI members, scarecrows will be located all around the World Garden continents and grounds.

Perfect for a family day out, children can take the Scarecrow ‘just for fun’ quiz and explore the World Garden to try and find them all.

Normal opening times apply, 12-5pm.

25 and 26 July: Plant Hunter Weekend

To celebrate The World Garden’s 10th Anniversary, a special Plant Hunters’ Weekend will take place on 25 and 26 July, 11am to 5pm.

The World Garden celebrates the lives of some of Britain’s most intrepid plant hunters who heroically discovered the far-flung botanical delights of the world and have inspired Tom Hart Dyke, as a modern-day plant hunter, to travel all over the world.

Tom will lead free guided tours of the World Garden at 12 noon and 2pm (no prior booking required) on both days. The house and St Botolph’s church, in the grounds, will also be open.

The celebration includes a new Plant Hunters’ expedition camp - complete with plant presses, roaring fire, porters, canvas tents and authentic dress of the period.

Visitors will have a unique glimpse into the past and see what it was like during the Victorian era of plant exploration. Everyone can get into the spirit with the opportunity to take part in flower pressing and collecting seeds (plants sourced from World Garden) and there will be lots of stalls and country markets.

Light refreshments are available in the marquee (there will be a big cake with, naturally, a world map on it). Tom adds: “When everyone has gone home we will have a massive barbecue in the evening for everyone who has helped out with the garden over the last 10 years.

“Almost everyone involved is a volunteer – the garden is built on goodwill and it’s our way to say thank you. Ten years have just whizzed by.”

FIND OUT MORE

Lullingstone Castle,

Eynsford DA4 0JA

01322 862114 or info@lullingstonecastle.co.uk

West Kent WI Federation HQ

Ethel Hunt Lodge, 4 Hawkwell Business Centre, Maidstone Road, Pembury, Tunbridge Wells TN2 4AG

01892 823813

www.thewi.org.uk

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