How the Women's Institute in a village in the North York Moors has brought a community together in a challenging year

The Women’s Institute has been a mainstay in the small North Yorkshire village of Appleton-le-Moors for more than 90 years and this year the community it supports has needed it more than ever.

Zoom meetings with gin instead of tea have become the norm during lockdowns

Throughout lockdown the ladies of the WI have been conducting virtual Zoom meetings and former branch president, Carolyn Frank, said their choice of tipple has also changed along with the way they meet.

“There are not too many teacups,” she said, “which are usually the hallmarks of our village hall meetings.

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“Obviously we wouldn’t advocate too many tipples but we’re all having to get through this time in our own way and let’s just say there are more glasses with alcoholic contents on show when we are all on a Zoom meeting than would ever have been the case at our regular meetings.”

The ladies of Appleton-le-Moors WI

Carolyn said the online gatherings have helped members connect and, she feels, have maintained a sense of togetherness among all age groups. It has also meant the group has been able to organise and hold some of its usual activities.

“We’ve held virtual coffee mornings and an online talk in October by pearl expert Frances Carlaw has been our best attended so far, with members from our neighbouring rural branches of Helmsley and Sinnington joining with us.”

And when lockdown restrictions eased earlier in the year, the group was also able to hold a socially distanced meeting at Helmsley Walled Garden.

The small rural community of Appleton-le-Moors is situated in a relatively remote area of the North York Moors and with loneliness and the feeling of isolation, an issue in many rural communities which impacts on mental health and wellbeing, online is a vital way to stay connected. Carolyn said she believes the WI membership has a vital role to play right now, in keeping people in touch with one another, as well as the use of virtual meetings providing a positive source of enjoyment and fulfilment.

“We know it’s not the same as being able to meet up normally, but it is really helping and is keeping that spirit of friendship going.

“We are now finding that even those who would previously not have joined virtual meetings are realising the benefit of being able to talk together online.

“I think the whole experience is proving fascinating for some, and it is certainly entertaining some of our members who hadn’t previously even gone online but have had their daughters and granddaughters set them up so they can use it properly.”

And like many of us the ‘new normal’ is gradually becoming a way of life.

“In some ways it is starting to become just like any other WI meeting, but with a glass of something handily placed nearby,” Carolyn said.

One of the branch’s former presidents, Gill Humphreys, is also writing blogs incorporating Appleton-le-Moors WI members’ thoughts and experiences.

“What Gill is doing is proving another of those fantastic ways in which we can all help each other with the often unseen difficulties of mental health and wellbeing,” Carolyn said.

“I’ve always felt all of those normal everyday pressures can disappear when you are part of the WI.”

There are already virtual plans for Appleton-le-Moors members over the festive season with online meetings scheduled for 2021.

“We’re having what we call our ‘Meeting in a Bag’ in December,” said Carolyn. “It’s our Christmas social. All our members will receive a bag containing a quiz and some kind of small gifts, delivered to their homes and we will have a joint opening of the bags online.”

The group has also been holding its own lockdown book group.

“Earlier in the year we purchased a number of books from a store in Malton and we’ve all been passing them on as we’ve finished reading them. We’ll have our own Lockdown Titles book reviews meeting where we will share our thoughts.

“And our next expert speaker is a man with personal experience of life in Berlin when the wall was standing, that is on January 22.”

Nationally, the WI has also been virtually connecting with its members with a series of Denman at Home courses, run by its national college.

These have included ‘cook-alongs’ with culinary experts, craft workshops, lectures on a broad range of subjects, yoga classes and photography.

Carolyn said the courses had been really valuable during the lockdown.

“They have proved excellent throughout these past nine months and have also brought the WI to an even wider audience,” she said.

“For me the core of the Women’s Institute has always been about community, friendship and the education of women, and those values have probably never been more important.”

Carolyn, who has been a member of the WI for 15 years since returning home from working overseas, said she believes that particularly through the grassroots level support of the local branches’ activity and the Denman at Home lectures and courses, the organisation is providing its members with vital support in the comfort of their own homes during the current challenging circumstances.

“I joined with my mum and a couple of friends as I was looking to build new friendships and a woman’s network appealed,” she said

“I know from my other role with the Federation of Small Businesses that attending meetings which are male dominated can be daunting for some ladies and the WI meetings are much less intimidating.”

Carolyn said the organisation spanned the generations, providing an opportunity to try new things.

“The WI is a brilliant way for women of all ages to do something different and meet together safely. We still suffer, at times, from the stereotypical image of a lot of women getting together to make jam and scones, and we still do that, but to me it is so much more.”