Described as the jewel in the crown of the Women’s Institute, Denman College has an uncertain future, unless £2million is raised by 2018 to maintain the Georgian building set in 17 acres.
Opened as a residential adult education college in 1948, it embodies one of the aims of the Women’s Institute, to advance the education of women and girls. Hilda Jones, Principal of Denman, 1977-1981 had a dream “that the educational work we are doing for the college will not be in isolation, it will not benefit just the individual but will filter through to little and large institutes all over the country and so play an important part in the work of the movement as a whole.” Today, Denman welcomes members, non members and men to courses from one to four days in arts, crafts, music, sport, technology, cookery and lifestyle. Denman College is also the home of the WI Cookery School, a finalist in the Cookery School Awards in 2014. As a tutor of Preserves, I value outstanding teaching facilities and working with a team of staff who are consistently professional.
The house, originally with 100 acres of land dates from the 17th century. It was bought by the Women’s Institute in 1947 for £16,000. Members contributed to the purchase and many donated items to furnish the college. Denman College opened its doors in September 1948 during a period of post-war austerity, a shortage of labour and materials to adapt a Georgian building into an educational facility; a fine example of women working together. In 2015 the building was added to the National Heritage List for England.
A recent article in WI Life celebrated the history of the gardens at Denman, lovingly cared for by Head Gardener, John Towler for the last eight years. There are trees dating back to the nineteenth century planted by Emily, the grand-daughter of John Elwes who built the house, first known as Marcham Park. There are approximately 60 species of tree including Atlas Cedars, Yellow Buckeye and Japanese Cherries. A similar number of birds have been spotted, notably Red Kite, Little Grebe, Nuthatch and Tawny Owl. A kitchen garden is sadly no more but fruit trees remain, Apple, Pear, Greengage and Mulberry. The courses at Denman are designed with time out to enjoy the gardens and whatever the time of year, there is always something new to admire.
The Denman Experience
With over 500 courses to choose from, around 11000 adults experience Denman each year. Students have individual accommodation either in the main house or in purpose built cottages in the grounds. Many of the WI County Federations have adopted bedrooms, maintaining the furnishings and decoration. I have fond memories of staying in a Nottinghampshire bedroom with local lace featured in the furnishings.
As a new mother and WI member, I had my first experience of Denman in the 1990’s, a cookery course called ” Farmhouse Fayre ” was so inspirational, it fired an interest in cookery to last a lifetime. More recently, Petrina Weddall from Broxton and Bickerton WI in Cheshire found her experience of Denman unforgettable. ” I attended a Beginners’ Crochet course and found the whole experience fantastic. As a mother of two young boys, the peace of Denman made for a refreshing couple of days. I made new friends, learnt a new skill and came away feeling like a new person.”
Without significant outside sources of funding Denman has to look to WI members and the general public to fundraise. The last appeal in the 1980’s raised £1million, the equivalent today would be £10million. Launching an appeal to raise £2million over two years does not sound impossible and the Save Denman Appeal was launched in March 2016, led by Christine Hounslow, a Denman Ambassador from Wiltshire. At a meeting of ambassadors and members in Birmingham in April this year there was overwhelming support for an appeal. Such was our enthusiasm, we raised £1000 that day. Fundraising ideas for the next two years include open gardens, an Icelandic Triathlon, raffles, silent auctions and in Somerset, an Abba Tribute Night, aiming to raise £4000.
Jam for Denman
As an organisation, the WI is famous for jam and this summer I have made many jars of jam(around 100lb) for the appeal, using recipes from First Preserves and WI books. Boxes of jars will be on sale at Taunton Flower Show, Dunster Show in August and other events in Somerset in the coming months.
I would mourn the passing of Denman as it has enriched my life both as a student and a tutor. It is a unique place with opportunities to learn new skills, make new friendships, and have time to relax and rejuvenate. I wish the appeal every success, so that my daughters and future generations can have their Denman experience.