Making friends with the Dales WI

Craven Herald: Rylstone WI president Mary Wilkinson and secretary Sue Magoolagan Rylstone WI president Mary Wilkinson and secretary Sue Magoolagan

If the media are to be believed, the WI is currently having something of a resurgence. With stories abounding of burlesque nights and pole dancing lessons, Victoria Benn felt the need to find out more about what is happening at our own Dales WIs

Before anyone gets too excited, I can confirm that there wasn’t any pole dancing or burlesque classes taking place anywhere in the Dales; nor are there any plans to do so. That said, I did however attend a fascinating talk about ‘forced marriages’ by former Keighley MP Ann Cryer at the Grassington WI.

I also had an entertaining evening at the Rylstone WI making a Christmas card and chatting to members over a delicious ‘Jacob’s Join’ supper, and I was thoroughly impressed by a Christmas flower arranging demonstration at the Bolton Abbey WI.

Topics such as these may not make the headlines, but what is worth writing about is the fact that on all three evenings I was in the presence of intelligent, charismatic and very friendly women.

There are in fact nine WIs in the ‘Upper Wharfedale Group’, covering the villages of Addingham, Bolton Abbey, Embsay, Gargrave, Grassington, Kettlewell, Rylstone, Skipton Dalesway and Threshfield. For an annual subscription of £34.70 women can take part in the events and activities of their own village WI, and also benefit from group activities, as well as federation activities which take place across North Yorkshire.

The WI started in the UK in 1915, with the aim of uniting and educating women in rural areas, whilst also providing food for the war effort. Indeed, the WI has always been a quietly crusading organisation and has campaigned at a lobbying level about many important issues over the years.

Key campaigns at the moment are the national shortage of midwives, and an ‘SOS’ to all members about practical steps they can take to help save our high streets and town centres. Rylstone WI is the oldest in the Upper Wharfedale Group, dating back to 1926.

Quite astonishingly their longest serving member, Kathleen Carlisle, has been in regular attendance for the last 56 years.

Kathleen joined soon after marrying and moving to Cracoe in 1957.

“It was totally different for women then, we didn’t really have our own social lives; we didn’t drive and we didn’t go into pubs,” she said. “The WI was unique, somewhere I could walk to, to meet other women. “I also learned lots of important skills I needed at home, such as cooking, making jam and handicrafts. There wasn’t television to show you how to do those things then.”

Motivations for joining the WI now are, of course, somewhat different to what they were several decades ago. Many of the women I spoke to at the Grassington meeting had come for professional reasons, working in such areas as education and domestic violence, they valued the chance to engage with someone like Ann Cryer, and listen to the experiences of fellow professionals. At the Rylstone meeting one lady I spoke to had been encouraged to join in the months following the death of her husband.

She disclosed that she hadn’t been getting out much and that joining had in fact helped her enormously.

For others, it was simply a case of being new to an area and seeing it as a way of making friends; which it evidently is.

So what of the stereotypical cliché of the WI being all about ‘jam and Jersusalem’?

Much to my surprise and delight, everyone did stand to sing Jerusalem at the Rylstone meeting, however, I certainly detected the twinkle of jocularity in everyone’s eyes as they did so. Beryl Bamforth, one of the original Calendar Girls, summed up the attitude of the Rylstone group by saying: “We’ve always been idiots and not taken ourselves too seriously. A bit of serious is good; but too serious and the fun goes.”

And what of jam? May 31, 2014, will see the annual WI Show being held at Grassington Town Hall, at which there will, of course, be all kinds of jam presented for the testing of taste and texture, along with other produce and handicrafts.

Mary Wilkinson, President of Rylstone WI, whilst suggesting that they do take the show seriously, also concedes that: “It’s really just about encouraging everyone to have a go at something. To be honest, we’re never too disappointed if we don’t win.”

Having been along to three WI meetings it is easy now to see how the phenomenon of the Calendar Girls happened.

The WI isn’t a ‘fuddy duddy’ or a feminist organisation. It’s simply a place where women can go to meet other women, have some fun and perhaps even be inspired to learn something new.

However, today, instead of learning about jam making or fruit bottling, it’s more likely to be anything from belly dancing to creative writing to millinery. And my ‘top tips’ on Christmas flower arranging? Try spraying some large blooms with glitter spray and use plenty of foliage in different shades of green. You heard it here first...well, at the Bolton Abbey WI actually!

* The Upper Wharfedale Group of WIs will be hosting a carol service at Hetton Chapel on Sunday, December 15, at 2pm. Tea and mince pies will be available. Everyone is welcome to attend.

For more information on joining one of the WIs mentioned in this feature please contact the Group Convenor, Mrs Maureen Heseltine on 01756 760371, or email


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