Have just returned from a full-on and enjoyable weekend at Denman, the WI’s residential college, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire. Went with three friends from Hastings, read some poetry and spent my days on a singing course – I learned that I sing low, rather than high, and also that a random group of women can be turned into a passable choir in two days… impressive stuff.
Denman is a fine old Georgian mansion (formerly Marcham Park) in the village of the same name. It was purchased by the WI in 1947. The house is set in 100 acres of garden and park land. The most famous previous resident of the house was the 18th century politician and miser, John Elwes, said to be the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge….
There are cottages/Halls of Residence in the grounds, as well as the Learning Centre – new university 70s pale brick low-rise style. I stayed in one of the cottages, in the Lancashire Room. All Federations have a room named after them, and all contribute to the decoration/upkeep of their room. The dining room in the main house served plentiful and yummy food… no Denman cook would be able to hold their heads up if they didn’t do it properly. Excellent cakes at coffee and tea breaks… I ate far too much. In the main house there is also a bar and a lounge.
The grounds must be a real job to keep up. There are some beautiful old trees and a lake.
It was the East Sussex WI Federation’s Centenary Weekend, and we all travelled up by coach – one of the reasons us Hastingas had decided to join the trip. Abingdon is not the easiest place to get to by public transport, and it is a long drive from here, including a long stretch on the M25. I was with friends Jan, Shirley and Jean. Jan did a mixed media crafty course, and the other two did cheese making in the vast WI Cookery kitchen.
The event was organised by our Federation Chairman, Gill, and the Federation Secretary, Vicky. It was a big task – selecting the menu of courses, getting us all there, and then looking after us. We had a special celebration Centenary Dinner on Saturday night, which involved decoration of the dining room, laying on of entertainment etc.
Although I am a Trustee I had resolved to try and stay out of the organising, to hang out with other women and just enjoy my stay. Being at Denman brought back so many memories of working life….
How many residential training colleges/mid-range country house hotels/university halls did I work in? It started in the 80s at the Cadbury’s Avoncroft College, where I did management development training for Birmingham City Council. I can’t believe they’d put one relatively inexperienced woman in charge of a college full of maintenance/direct labour supervisors sent on a two-day diversity course against their wills… but they did…
Then later, working in housing, facilitating team building events, senior staff and board away days. I often found myself arms akimbo, glaring at hung-over groups in the morning of Day Two, castigating them for their bad behaviour, failure to set an example etc. There was the Board Chair who emptied the contents of an ice-bucket down the front of the CEO’s trousers. Drunks swimming with their clothes on at midnight. Stripping, shouting, absconding to find kebabs at 2am… and at the very least, competitive drinking and staying up as late as possible, then endless boasting about it the next day.
At least WI women aren’t like that – well, not WI women d’certain age, who mostly go to bed at 10am after a daring Amaretto and a cup of decaff tea.
Denman felt so familiar, even though I had never been before. In Birmingham, Philosopher was Chair of Governors of another Cadbury Foundation residential college, Fircroft. Oh, the endless shortage of money – maintenance, upgrading the accommodation, the tutors, up-keep of the gardens, attracting students…
In the early days, mid-century housewife WI members would have relished possibly their first-ever opportunity to go away on their own. I think, for that reason, Denman acquired a special, charmed mystique. Among older WI women, this mystique still survives. Denman is working hard to widen its range of courses and to attract more students.
So, what did we do? I read some of my poems the first night, and had signed up for singing because I hoped it would help with breath control, voice projection etc for poetry readings, which indeed it did. I also discovered I have an alto voice – I can follow a tune …ish, but find myself singing high and low – sometimes at the same time… Our tutor, Jo Sercombe, was disturbingly energetic and enthusiastic, but an excellent teacher. She welded us into a servicable choir by coffee time on Sunday – we performed a short concert, with three songs, including a Zulu water-gathering song complete with clicks. All had three-part harmonies. We had to work very hard, and it was tiring to use different bits of our brains… but I enjoyed it, and it was great to hear the results….
Other courses we could have opted for were cheese-making (which my friends enjoyed but found very hard work. They produced so much cheese! There is a stinky blue cheese and garlic Boursin sitting in my fridge right now…), mixed media, watercolour painting, something to do with mistresses and their houses… I do think everyone had a good time.