Tucking in with the Women's institute
with Mark Davison
Holmwood WI summer garden party
I T WAS with the greatest of pleasure that I accepted an invitation to join the ladies of Holmwood Women's Institute for their annual garden party last week. Many of the members are avid readers of Time for Tea, so it was a privilege to meet them face to face in a charming English country garden.
I motored through Leigh en route to North Holmwood and marvelled at the sylvan scenery despite it being a warm and cloudy day. A little light rain that morning had dampened the ground but it began to brighten up.
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On arrival at Spook Hill, I noticed a large gazebo in one of the front gardens and knew straight away I had reached my destination.
Parking a little further up the road, I climbed out of the motor and heard a loud voice from behind a tall hedge: "I hope they're not parking in front of our driveway!"
I walked a few steps back to the car and checked my parking. Indeed, I was blocking the drive, which was at an unusual angle so I hadn't noticed it. The householder emerged and I apologised profusely and moved the car a few yards. He thanked me and by now his tone was much more reconciliatory.
I walked into the garden party and saw groups of ladies tucking into quiches, cold turkey, apple and walnut salads and mushrooms a la Shirley.
Instantly I was welcomed by the WI president, Gill.
She said that I must be hungry and led me into a spacious bungalow where a whole range of delicious dishes were laid out. A dinner-warming trolley contained a tray of sizzling sausages and chicken breasts.
"Help yourself!" she insisted.
Rather than accepting a glass of wine (provided by Iris, the host) I chose some apple juice and then returned to the garden and took a seat with the committee members.
"You should go and speak to Betty and Edna," I was advised.
Betty, I learned, was now over 90. She had been the WI's secretary for over 20 years in the past and right up until she was in her eighties, she enjoyed helping people decorate their homes. She entertained the troops in the war, dancing and singing with another girl. She was good at Scottish dancing until quite recently.
Gill told me: "We had our branch's 90th birthday a while ago. We were one of the first WIs to start in the area. Originally, it used to be just the gentry ladies who came to the WI in their finery."
I glanced up and saw a black cat creeping across the garden by a row of French marigolds near a pear tree.
As I tucked into the waldorf salad, I was told about Edna. She was president for many years and did a lot for Age Concern and she and Betty were both campaigners for good causes.
A jug of fresh apple juice was brought to the table.
I was then told about Hilda of Holmwood. This was, apparently, the name of a scarecrow the WI ladies had created for the scarecrow competition being held at Wisley Gardens.
Far from being "stuffy", Hilda is a "wannabe famous".
One of the ladies was anxious to fill me in.
"She's not got a straw hat. I had to make her some cleavage out of balloons and put them in a pair of tights. So I suppose, yes, she has got some celluloid. She's all cleavage and curves!"
I gleaned that one of the ladies had a dog which, a few years ago, had ripped up her cushions when she was out shopping. She had gathered up the stuffing, pushed it into large carrier bags and put them in the attic "in case it came in useful". This stuffing had indeed become useful for padding out Hilda.
I was led indoors to select from a wonderful spread of home-made puddings including banoffee pie, cheesecake, trifles and a crunchy sponge tart.
I had my arm twisted to have a sample of each dish.
After thanking Iris for her hospitality, I returned to the gazebo and tucked in. Every spoonful was mouth-wateringly delightful.
I sat back to enjoy the ambience of the English garden in summer.
Some of the party were chatting about holidays in Ireland.
"We were on the mountain road on the last day and the big end went. We managed to find a small hotel but the only person on duty was a boy aged about 12. He couldn't get us any food apart from bread and butter and a cup of tea."
I polished off the last spoonful of banoffee pie.
"They had this springer spaniel and when he was away there had obviously been this visit from a handsome collie. He later discovered she was pregnant. There were nine puppies. A few days later, he got up one night, looked out of the window and saw the shed was on fire. He rushed down to rescue the puppies from inside and was amazed to see that the mother was carrying each puppy by the scruff of their necks to safety and putting them in a hole in the snow. There was just one puppy trapped and he burned his hands trying to rescue it and the pup had burnt paws but recovered."