Friday, 21 September 2012

From Care not Custody to Singing for Joy and the Olympics

A meeting with the Lord Chief Justice in his office in the depths of the Royal Courts of Justice gave the opportunity to explain to him what the WI’s Care not Custody campaign was and how its impetus has resulted in the formation of a ‘Care not Custody coalition’ of the many organisations and agencies that work on the issues of mental health and offenders.

In April of this year at a Westminster reception hosted jointly by the NFWI and the Prison Reform Trust, the then Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to a care not custody approach: “We will make diversion services a staple part of the health and criminal justice system. We will cover all age groups, a wide range of needs. We will open up opportunities for every court and custody suite to have that alternative available to prison when it is appropriate.” Indeed, with substantial monies promised in recent years for diversion and liaison schemes to be put in place, we will continue to hold the decision makers to their commitments.

The variety within the WI is always there to be seen and from the Royal Courts of Justice at one end of the week to the Federation Choir of the Isle of Ely at the other, every member should be thrilled with the diversity of opportunity the WI provides. “Singing for Joy” is the title given to the choir competition, currently in the early sages, to be held in the WI’s centenary year of 2015. I was delighted to hear the Isle of Ely choir, which undoubtedly has great potential. Their closing piece on this occasion was “Let there be Peace”. 

And indeed, the essence of that song is part of what fellow WI member, Maggie Simons found in her summer spent as Games Maker. Maggie is a member of the NFWI Board of Trustees; she shares her experience now:

“I have had one of the best summers of my life - I was a Games maker at both the Olympics and Paralympics. I did not have a high profile role but was, probably, like many other WI members, one of the 70,000 dressed in purple and red polo shirts, to be seen all over London and at the different sporting venues; there just to help in any way we could.

In some ways it was like being a WI member, part of a large organisation offering support and friendship to all. You only had to be in London during both the games to know something was different. As Boris Johnson said in his final speech, people on trains did spontaneously start talking to each other. If you were in your purple and red outfit it was assumed you could answer any questions (and we did our best). Even if you were not in uniform, people talked about what they had seen, what they had enjoyed most... Shifts were long; for early shifts I left the house and 4.15 in the morning and didn’t get back until tea time, for late shifts I left at midday and wasn’t back until 2.00am. 

My Olympics was spent in the wonderful Olympic Park, walking several miles a day visiting other Games makers, who were sometimes in the middle of huge crowds, and others who were on duty in quiet areas around the extreme edges of the park. We took water on hot days, ponchos when it rained, chocolates (which always brought a smile) and generally listened to complaints and helped solve problems. For those who didn’t have a chance to visit the park I must mention the wild flower meadows – they were incredible. Seven years of planning had gone into the development of the design and seed so that these large strips of meadow were continually in flower throughout the summer. As one species finished another would come out to replace it. The good part is that some of the meadow areas will continue to thrive and be managed so that the seeds will self-sow to the pleasure of people living around and visiting the park in the years to come. The only live sport I saw during the whole of the Olympics was one evening in the stadium for which we had tickets, but the cheers when Team GB were competing could be heard all over the park.

My Paralympic experience was totally different but just as rewarding. My role was the same but this time I was based at the Excel Centre so spent most of the day indoors. However, visiting the Games makers included going into the five different arenas which gave me the opportunity to watch some of the truly inspiring sportsmen and women, who ignore disabilities that the majority of us would think were insurmountable, to become the best in the world. Sports at Excel were wheelchair fencing, sitting volleyball, judo, boccia (a kind of very competitive bowls) and power-lifting. I will never forget watching the seated volleyball as the competitors remove any artificial limbs and play, as the name suggests, sitting on the ground – which makes everyone equal. 

My Games experience finished when I was allocated a ticket to watch the final athletes’ parade, together with thousands of other Games makers who lined both sides of the Mall near Admiralty Arch – a truly fitting finale. My memory will be of the atmosphere in London throughout the summer, all nationalities, religions and ages joining in as one people to enjoy a major sporting event. London was a friendly, safe place to be at all hours of the day and night – surely this is how it should always be.”

Friday, 14 September 2012

Baking Champions

While Olympian and Paralympians were winning medals, home bakers around the country have been winning prizes too.  In the numerous village shows many a cup cake, Victoria sandwich and cherry cake has been judged for its lightness, aroma, taste and appearance.

I was invited to judge the “Cakes versus Pies” contest at the first ‘CarFest’ in Hampshire on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday. The magic of motors, the fastness of Ferraris, and all things car related were on show at this extravaganza. The idea of ‘CarFest’ and the two category baking competition apparently came to TV Presenter Chris Evans after giving up bread for Lent- although how I don’t know!

In true British holiday fashion, the heavens opened as I arrived at Laverstock Park where the event was held.  Completely drenched, the sun luckily came to my rescue and I was able to dry out in the intervening two hours before the judging began. The Best of British marquee, housing examples of the best of British foods, also provided the space for the cakes and pies competition. Sixty cakes and sixty pies had been baked by just 120 entrants from the many hundreds who applied.  There were nine judges and between us we did the deed in just under two hours.  The unusual presence of the competitors, and numerous other interested parties stretching at least 12 deep, was just great and very much part of ‘CarFest’.  However, with no categories of entry, how does one pitch the perfect gingerbread against the perfect chocolate concoction? And that was just the cakes.  Fortunately, the overall winner of both the pies and the cakes was chosen on the following day by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, together with the encouragement of the festival goers.

Then I moved to bread, this time with categories: white, brown, novelty and children under 12!  This was at the Open Day for the Countryside Restoration Trust in Cambridgeshire just last weekend.

I always admire anyone who puts themselves through the ringer of such competitions.  Yes, all entries should be full of flavour, look good, have the right texture, melt in the mouth and be cooked to perfection; but to produce the prize winning article on cue for your slot on the competition table requires talent, enough ingredients for several attempts and determination – even at midnight the night before. I have been there at that time, with the third attempt at a lemon drizzle cake in the oven, and just putting the finishing touches to the asymmetric triangle for the flower arranging exhibit comprising of garden flowers only. All this going on whilst you can’t for the life of you remember why you said you would enter anything!

There has been a huge resurgence in home baking lately. What with the Hairy Bikers, Rosemary Shrager, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood to name but a few. Only a few days ago, I read a comment from Paul Hollywood regarding the Great British Bake Off: “When it first started [we] just thought it’ll appease the people at the WI who want to do some baking.”

I am not quite sure what he might have meant by that, but the WI is delighted to welcome Mr Hollywood to demonstrate at its third Real Jam Festival at Denman, near Abingdon, Oxon on 2nd December.

And yes, jam is a hallmark of the WI; and of that I am very proud. There are 12 categories in the competition (click here to view the schedule) so do give it a go. We’d love to see you there for a weekend of festive fare and entertainment, stalls and eats, and a good time. You can even enjoy bed and breakfast, either in the delightful Georgian house or in one of the modern en-suite rooms in the grounds.

But the baking goes on, for of course it’s not just a summer activity. Anne Harrison, NFWI Vice Chair, is currently busy recording Food Glorious Food for ITV.  Anne is not only a WI cookery judge; she is also a superb cook who makes the ultimate scone, and a wonderful character.  Do watch out for her in the new year.

And while we’re talking of food, I will mention drink – and beer in particular – because also on the increase are the numbers of breweries springing up and some are producing truly top quality beers.  I mentioned the Countryside Restoration Trust open day above, and one of the stands there was taken by a local brewer with his Black Bar ale. But of course, the WI and beer are no strangers; “Harmston’s Heavenly” was developed by a microbrewery in Lincolnshire to celebrate the 90th anniversary in 2010 of Harmston WI of Lincolnshire North Federation. And coming soon to Denman will be a course on brewing your own beer – book your place now.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Lessons for a new land army

The Women’s Institute (WI) movement in Britain began in wartime. Established in 1915, the movement encouraged countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation.

By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the WI was a well-established and expanding network with an independence that the then Chairman, Lady Denman, was keen to maintain. Many WI members went into uniform, some joined the Land Army, others met the need for workers in the armaments industry. Tens of thousands of WI members, especially older women and young mothers, responded to the need for increased agricultural production by working on farms whenever and wherever help was needed. Many WI members became air raid precautions (ARP) wardens, firewatchers or joined such services as the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance Brigade.

At government request, the headquarters of the WI drew up a detailed plan for the evacuation of mothers and children from cities under the imminent threat of bombing. The evacuation was organised by the newly established Women’s Voluntary Service and children arriving in villages were largely housed by WI members. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) went on to publish a report based on a survey carried out amongst WI members: Town Children through Country Eyes. The report stimulated a national debate about support for families ultimately leading to the setting up of family allowances after the war.

WI members also initiated a number of projects designed to help the war effort. A War Savings group was formed, which among other activities organised house-to-house collections of rags and bones for government. Cotton reels were collected and surplus vegetables sold to the Navy. Lady Denman was asked to take charge of the Women’s Department of the Ministry of Agriculture. Together with Mrs Inez Jenkins, a former WI National Secretary, she devised the plan for the Women’s Land Army with her house at Balcombe Park as the headquarters. Lady Denman organised correspondence courses on aspects of agriculture – ensuring that the women of the Land Army were qualified for better jobs once the war was over.

As the war continued, WI members were taught how to grow fruit and vegetables more intensively in their gardens and allotments. Fruit bushes and packets of vegetable seeds from WIs in Canada were sold through the newly established Guild of Produce. The Ministry of Food gave the National Federation a grant to administer the National Fruit Preservation Scheme. Five hundred home canners, oil stoves, preserving pans, and other equipment were sent from America to be distributed to WIs who ‘fought on the jam front with pans, spoons and weighting sales and sheer stickability’. About £1400 worth of sugar for preserving was distributed to the Federation offices, and teams went from village to village canning what fellow WI members had picked. By end of 1940, the WI had cooked, bottled, and canned 1630 tons of fruit and vegetables in preserving centres set up in village halls and sheds, kitchens, or mobile canning vans. WIs also continued their musical, dramatic, handicraft, and other cultural activities ‘to relieve the strain of war’ and maintain health, strength, and good spirits in the village.

This spirit of participation survives to this day, the WI is once again growing and the organisation continues to be actively engaged in campaigns and projects around local food, growing and preserving vital preservation and cooking skills. Our war-time heritage is an important, and overlooked, national resource, demonstrating just how much can be done by a network of dynamic and well-organised women called to action.

The New Home Front

This week the WI has been revisiting the home front.  The second New Home Front report, published earlier this week includes a proposal for the nation to help us meet the challenges of climate change.  The report, launched by Caroline Lucas MP, brings together a range of commentators and experts on climate change, food and community organisation.  Taking World War Two as the start point, we look at what the lessons are for the urgent threat posed by climate change.