During my chairmanship Deepcut, the village in which I have lived for over 30 years, has changed beyond all recognition. Gone is the army, who were stationed here for over 100 years, and in place of the barracks we have the first tranche of 1,200 new houses.
The marketing of this huge development describes “a rural location…in the heart of the Surrey Countryside”, and yet it has been responsible for the felling of hundreds of mature oaks, beech and chestnut trees, and the occasional contamination of the nearby Basingstoke Canal, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as water pours off the stripped landscape.
The land is now covered with bricks, mortar and tarmac. The result, hectares of mature Surrey woodland and rare heathland have been destroyed. Its only saving grace is that the estate formed a fire break in the recent substantial heath fires that laid waste to a large area of Chobham Ridges and displaced its wildlife — evidence of global warming?
Surrey is experiencing a significant loss of green space as it is replaced by gated developments, private roads, houses with miniscule gardens and enumerable trees felled. The only acknowledgement of the village’s military past is in its name, Mindenhurst. Ironically, other names used in the area, i.e. Wildflower Meadow indicate what has also been destroyed.
During June very many of you celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, with stalls and street parties, postbox toppers, knitted corgis and even knitted Queens. I was struck however by the lack of community celebrations in our village. With parents at work, children at school and an often negative social media commentary this is not surprising.
Sadly, developers pay little heed to what constitutes and creates community. In Deepcut there is no general store or inside social space. The church is closed and has only a congregation of bats and a newly built school stands empty for the foreseeable future. But this is our opportunity to recruit, to wave the WI banner, to make the WI name known to all women, to ensure its future.
In recent years, although the WI has been successful in recruiting new members, it is a sad fact that overall membership has fallen. What is the position in your WI? Numbers at Bagshot WI have remained steady, but only because we have benefited from the arrival of members from Windlesham WI which sadly closed on its 50th birthday. Retention is therefore key!
The identity of WIs depends subtly on the demographic of their locality. The age of housing developments significantly shapes the nature of the population and consequently poses differing recruitment issues.
At the NFWI Annual Meeting Ann Jones reminded us of the 2020 vision for the organisation. It promised a ‘bright and limitless future’. It expounded four vision statements: ‘Bold and Inspiring’, ‘Growing and Relevant’, ‘Inclusive’ and ‘Flexible’.
Two years on, and we are challenged as to how to realise this vision within our own communities. Again I dipped into the WI objects to remind myself of the parameters that define our ethos as a charity and endeavoured to identify activities and initiatives which can be realised by both the Federation and WIs, and that will meet the expectations of new members. It can be difficult to widen the demographic of our WIs, although there are many ways we can be inclusive. Try broadening your choice of speakers, address challenging issues and look beyond your WI’s skill set for crafts.
The biggest challenge that I see in a village such as mine is the impact of developments that encourage ghettoism rather than community. Our Surrey Heath Borough Council local plan confirms this. On the surface it is forward thinking, but it fails to focus on residents, people, community. This is a serious challenge for us all.
What I miss most in Deepcut as new housing has replaced the army is military music. Formerly this drifted across the village, accompanying Passing-out Parades, Remembrance Sunday and other formal occasions. I recall one such event. I was playing in a paddling pool in the garden with my young family when we heard a band.
We quickly donned our sandals, swimwear being our only other clothing, ran up the road to the garrison church, and sat on the wall outside. A band played as men marched at the salute past a small female figure. We watched intently. On enquiring its significance we were informed that this was the Normandy Veterans Parade and that the woman was in fact the Queen!
Developers are excellent at selling a lifestyle. Can we not learn from this? How can we market our organisation? Ann Jones so eloquently asked us in her speech to wave the WI flag. We were invited to ask any women we know who isn’t in the WI why? and then to reflect on their answer. Change can be difficult, challenging, but it is vital if we are to be as successful in the 21st century as in the 20th.
In the words of the author Mimi Novic: “Sometimes we can only find our true [new] direction when we let the wind of change carry us.”
We are inspiring women. The word ‘inspire’ means to breathe in. Let us all gain energy and impetus from this action to make change happen
Carol A. Gartrell
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