Ask most men about the Woman’s Institute, and the chances are their eyes will glaze over, and they will mumble a few sentences about Jam making and Jumble sales.
Unfortunately, this stereotypical image is almost universal, and not confined just to the male population. Many women will also be dismissive of the WI, regarding it as “a bunch of little old ladies”
It’s a shame that the WI can’t seem to shake off this somewhat unfair picture.
Yes, it is true that many of the branches of the WI have a high percentage of older ladies, but this doesn’t mean that they are all in the final stages of decrepitude – quite the opposite in fact.
This was proved to me when SWMBO (at the extremely junior age of an early forty-something) joined our local branch of the WI. Within a few months she was involved in all sorts of activities, and for many years she was the editor of the county magazine.
She became expert at editing, proof-reading, composition, photography and graphics handling – not the sort of thing that one would normally associate with a member of the WI.
But the thing that really shocked me, was the day that she came home after one of her regular meetings, and sat down with me to enjoy dinner (Yes, folks, I really do cook!).
Over a forkful of home-made lamb curry, she said “Are you still interested in learning sword fencing?”
I had always harboured a longing to fence, having been fascinated by the swashbuckling of Erol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks in black and white pirate movies from way back in my childhood. More latterly Johnny Depp slugging it out in Pirates of the Caribbean caught my imagination.
In 2002, Pierce Brosnan gave a fantastic performance as James Bond in the movie Die Another Day, with a fencing match that developed into something much, much more. This four-minute sequence had me enthralled.
“Sure” I replied, wondering what would occur next
“Well……Denman College is running a fencing weekend in June, and I wondered if you would like to go?”
I must have looked a bit sceptical, because she followed this up with “Its being run by one of the English National Fencing Team coaches.”
“OK” I said, without giving it too much deep thought. “Count me in”
And that’s how I found myself driving up the A34 towards Abingdon, where Denman College is located.
Denman College was formerly RAF Marcham Park, until it was bought by the Women’s Institute in 1947. A large, elegant mansion standing in acres of wooded grounds, it enjoys an air of peace and tranquillity, and is now the home of the educational branch of the WI.
Normally men aren’t allowed into the premises, but as the husband of a member, I was welcomed enthusiastically by the lady in reception.
We were staying in a first-floor room in the manor house, which was reasonably well appointed. but decorated in the way your maiden auntie would have done her guest room – lots of velour and brocade. Not my taste, but comfy anyway.
Having checked in, we went down to the bar to enjoy a pre-dinner drink. As this is a women’s college, there is not a great selection of Boy’s Booze, but I was impressed to see that they actually had 5 bottles of Old Speckled Hen hidden in the bar chiller.
So, after quaffing 40% of the stock, we headed for the dining room, where we were treated to a fabulous meal, which I later discovered had been cooked by some of the ladies attending a cookery course.
After dinner, we met up with Monique, our instructress, who took us to the spacious conservatory where we were to undertake the course.
I studied my fellow students; in addition to Sue and I, who were the youngest amongst the class, there were about thirty women, whose ages I judged to be from early sixties to about mid-seventies.
I was just a little unsettled to discover that I was the only male on the course. Deep joy.
They appeared to enjoy varying levels of fitness, from the quite obviously athletic to the plainly lethargic, but all were incredibly enthusiastic and keen.
If I had any illusions that this would be an easy course, they were shattered when Monique announced that we would all be learning how to wear the protective equipment and how to hold our weapons – and the time was approaching 2130.
I have to make it clear here, that I have been a lifelong shift worker, and am normally at work by 0600. The alarm goes off at 0445 every day, so 2130 at night meant that I was fast approaching shutdown.
I was struggling to concentrate on the rules of fencing, which were complicated by the fact that the commands and salutations are all conducted in French. However, I did pick up enough to be able to correctly wear the glove, hold the sword, and adopt the correct stance for commencing combat.
At the end of the introduction, we made our way back to our room to get some rest.
Next morning, after a light breakfast, we assembled in the conservatory for our first real lesson in fencing. This was run as a series of small bouts between various students.
In order to ensure that opponents were physically matched, I was paired with Margaret, a tall slender woman in her early 60s.
We dressed in our protective clothing, and watched as others were shown how to lunge and parry.
When it was our turn, Margaret and I hesitantly adopted the correct stance, and then had an opportunity to practice attacking each other and defending. This was very useful, and gave an opportunity to get used to the weight of the sword, and the restricted vision the mesh helmet causes.
Once everyone had practiced in pairs, we were shown how the scoring system works, and we were trained how to judge whether a strike was a “hit” or a “miss”. Again, this would all be conducted in French.
The morning session ended, and over lunch, I found that the women involved were far from being “Little old ladies”. They were a feisty bunch, with wildly differing backgrounds, and far from feeling out of place, I soon felt one of the gang.
I have a sneaky suspicion that some of them were relishing the chance to hack away at me with a sword!
Fencing is quite a physical activity, so the course also included some modules on sports massage. Sue and I spent the afternoon learning how to give remedial massage to relax and release tired and aching muscles. This is actually very useful, and at the end of the session I felt quite drowsy and relaxed.
I should have known better! After dinner we re-assembled in the conservatory, and Monique informed us that we were going to practice some bouts using the electric scoring system.
This system relies upon a small button fitted into the point of the sword blade sending a signal to a buzzer when it is activated. Simply hitting the target triggers the light and buzzer.
The wires connecting the system are attached to a clip at the waist of the jacket, and then fed down the sleeve into the gauntlet, where it’s connected to a jack plug on the hilt of the sword.
As fencing is a very fluid sport, there is a lot of advancing and retreating, so to ensure that the combatants don’t trip over the cable, it is fitted with a spring loaded auto-retract system that keeps the cable taut at all times.
Having all had a chance to become familiar with the system, we packed everything away, and started to filter out of the room.
“Don’t forget – tomorrow, you will be fencing for real with electric scoring and you will be judging each other!” was Monique’s final comment.
I needed to indulge in a little more training, so I went back to the bar, and completed my stocktaking of Old Speckled Hen, and then headed for bed.
Sunday morning was fine and the conservatory was dappled in bright swathes of morning sunlight, interspersed with mauve-tinged shadows.
After a brief warm up period, we were put into pairs, and I found myself selected to fence against Julie.
Julie was much shorter than I, with a proportionally shorter reach when she lunged. I was inwardly relieved, thinking I should be able to place some strikes whilst staying out of range.
With these thoughts echoing in my brain, my reverie was interrupted by Monique’s strident voice calling “Mark and Julie”
We were already kitted out, so we walked out onto the piste, saluted the judge, saluted each other, and then donned our helmets.
On the command, we advanced and retreated, both making exploratory lunges and parries. I lunged, and was surprised with the ferocity of Julie’s counter attack and her parries.
Back and forth we pranced, until I felt a glancing blow on the side of my helmet. The buzzer squawked, and I heard Julie being awarded a point.
The next two bouts saw me successfully stitch two hits to Julie’s chest, but the final bouts were hers, as she first stabbed my sword arm, and then my leading thigh.
I removed my helmet, and saluted the judge, and then offered a salute to Julie, this salute being so much more meaningful as it was offered in genuine admiration.
Chatting to Julie as we removed the fencing jackets and gloves, I discovered that she was 74 years old, and the last time she fenced was as a senior-year girl at her Grammar School.
I was greatly impressed with these ladies “of a certain age” Some of them are no doubt “ladies who lunch”, and some are Jam-makers and knitters. However, they are all alive, and have a passion and zest for life that many youth club members would find difficult to match.
So, after my weekend with the “Silver Swordswomen” of Denman, I have come to realise that there is definitely something different about the WI – It’s not just Jam and Jerusalem!