By Graham Chalmers
The Calendar Girls were in their element in Harrogate yesterday at the launch of the WI Centennial Fair.
Held at Harrogate International Centre to celebrate 100 years of the movement’s existence - and huge achievements - it’s the first event of its kind the WI have held open to the general public and the queues snaked round the corner and down King’s Road from the entrance.
Calendar girl, Ros Fawcett, originally Miss November, said: “The WI is not just jam and Jerusalem. It’s such a wonderful organisation to be involved with. Younger people now have the idea that they can join it and learn a lot.”
This unique celebration of everything WI runs to Sunday and is expected to attract 18,000 visitors.
In theory, men are perfectly free to attend but the nature of event meant the gender make-up of visitors on the opening day turned out to be exactly what anyone might have expected.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony was performed by Janice Langley, National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) Chair who emphasised the event was more than merely the ultimate ‘girly’ day out.
She said: “We’re really excited to be marking 100 years of the WI with the Centennial Fair in Harrogate.
“The WI was originally formed to encourage and support women during the First World War. Now, a century later, it’s about providing women with the opportunity to take part in activities and build new skills, which is what the fair is all about.”
A display section called The WI Timeline section told the story of the movement since it was founded in 1915 in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll in Wales.
Among the exhibits was a photograph taken in 1954 showing its more radical side - WI members in the streets protesting for equal pay.
As a whole, the fair reflects less controversial aspects of the WI’s proud history - its promotion of crafts and skills connected to the home, the garden and the wider world.
With 270 exhibitors from Yorkshire and beyond and a huge range of craft workshops and classes to choose from, visitors are certainly not lost for choice.
For fans of BBC’s Great British Bake-Off, live demonstrations are being offered by several Bake Off finalists in the fair’s Live Kitchen Theatre.
There’s also special events to enjoy in The Create and Craft Theatre, The Travel and Outdoors Theatre and The Lifestyle Theatre.
Event director Shirry Liram of Upper Street Events said Harrogate had been chosen to host the fair over London or Birmingham not only because of its central geographical location in the UK but because of the town’s rural connections which mirrored the WI’s own roots and character.
She said: “It wouldn’t have suited more ‘urban’ locations. Harrogate is the perfect place to launch this event, partly because we have already built up a good relationship with Harrogate International Centre through our other previous events here such as Country Living .”
As well as a wealth of retail therapy with stalls from all over the UK selling everything artisan under the sun, the Centennial Fair also includes a number of talks showing the WI’s engagement with serious issues of the modern world.
Dr Helen Pankhurst, who is the great grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, is giving a talk on Sunday about the Suffragettes and the WI’s role in the fight for female emancipation.
Yesterday saw broadcaster Kate Adie talk about her book about the legacy of women in the First World Wa.
Natural world champion Bill Oddie also appeared to talk about conservation projects across the world.
Looking a little forlorn on the World Land Trust’s stall like a sailor lost at sea, I talked to the former Springwatch TV presenter, briefly, suggesting the show wasn’t the same without him.
“A lot of people say that to me but it won’t make a difference to the BBC,” the puffy-faced ex-member of comedy troupe The Goodies replied before dashing off to catch his train at Harrogate railway station.
After bumping into a couple of the Calendar Girls somewhere between a craft stall and a giant red tea pot housing a Pimm’s concession, I told them I’d never felt so outnumbered anywhere in my life.
Laughing as she replied, Tricia Stewart, who portrayed Miss October and was the driving force behind the famous calendar, said: “We women are a force to be reckoned with.”
And who could argue with her?
The WI Centennial Fair runs at Harrogate Internatonal Centre until Sunday, September 6.
For tickets and information, call 0844 848 0155.
Or visit WI Fair website