Monday morning, and I am just back from a womb enveloping experience at Denman College, thanks to a WI Bursary won back in November last year. This “gift” came at just the right time in my life, my dear old Dad, aged 90 had been taken ill where he lived in Spain and died in the middle of December. I had been out staying with him as he recovered from a pacemaker operation and all had been going well, enough for me to return to England to prepare for Christmas when he would have been flying home to stay with us for a couple of weeks. Alas, I had not been home long before he suddenly took a turn for the worse and died peacefully after a very long and extremely well lived life.
I decided to do the Flowers in the Home course tutored by Christine Pearce, an exhibitor at the Chelsea Flower Show and holder of a Gold Medal at the RHS Malvern Flower Show. I fall into the supermarket bunched flowers kind of person category. A fairly cheap bouquet will often find its way into my trolley during the weekly shop, to be opened (stalks trimmed and flower food added as per instructions on cellophane) and plonked into jug filled to the brim with fresh water – then ignored until flowers fall over, bad smell is overpowering or a new bunch enters house. After meeting the other 12 participants on course 134.10755 in the Denman Brochure, I know I am not alone in this flower arranging technique.
We arrived on Friday afternoon at around 5.00pm. I say we, as my husband, Phil came too and had been booked onto “Men in the Kitchen” run by Jill Brand. Welcomed by the WI host, we were shown up to our room; the enormous Northumberland bedroom had an ensuite, three working sash windows overlooking the croquet lawn, two comfortable chairs, a wardrobe out of Narnia, desk, chest of drawers, twin beds, power shower, tea making facilities and a selection of books about the region all bathed in late afternoon sun – just heaven. Tea, a piece of cake and a timetable of our respective classes awaited us on the terrace and our first appointment was a welcome talk from Jane Dixon, head of Denman College at 6pm. Three course supper was at 6.45 and our first class was at 8.15pm. Did I mention the bar opened at 6pm too? We were obviously going to be busy.
As well as our course, Denman last weekend was offering “Telling Stories in Photographs”, “William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement” and “Patchwork an Origami Cushion”. There were also ten Federation ladies on a refresher course struggling with the intricacies of Power Point. Denman was busy, but the air of sleepy calm in the Georgian House belied this. There was time for you to be welcomed individually, your name was learnt, your progress was asked after, praise for your endeavours liberal and your wellbeing was their priority.
Over the next two days, I learnt about conditioning flowers when either picked from the garden or in the ubiquitous Tesco bunch. The importance of foliage, colour combinations for pleasing the eye. The evil smell is botrytis and can be avoided by removing all foliage that would sit under the water in a vase and by not filling the container right up to the top with water. Flowers can only “drink” the water from the bottom of the stalk and need only a few inches of water to sit in and this should be topped up daily and replaced completely every couple of days. The arrangements we made had been demonstrated first of all by Chris, who then circulated and gave individual attention as we tried to copy her fabulous displays. At the end of the weekend, we all had wonderful formal table displays, hand tied bouquets, simple dinner table designs and a very glamorous door thing-me-jig, suitable for a church, wedding or special occasion to take home.
I haven’t mentioned the laughter, stories and giggles that also went on in class. The breaks for coffee and shortbread in the morning, and the welcome cup of tea and cake at 4.00pm. The cooked breakfast, the buffet lunch and three course dinner meant that Jane Dixon’s words of abandoning your diet when you enter the gates of Denman were only too true.
Phil too had a good time, the six other chaps on his course all had different reasons for being there, but all tackled the cooking with gusto and wonderful smells drifted out of the teaching kitchen round the corner from the studio where we were immersed in flowers and greenery. He made bread, pastry for his baked cheese cake tart, a complete roast dinner, chilli, lamb burgers, stir fry and rock cakes and watched numerous demonstrations on soup, lasagne and cottage pie. He came home with a tailor made cook book of his achievements as well as Tupperware boxes full of goodies.
The WI can be so very proud of Denman College, my weekend was a joy from start to finish. I have learnt a new skill, albeit that Chris said to me in the phrase used by Bruce Forsyth on Strictly Come Dancing – that I was her favourite when everyone else got gold and silver gilts. Phil has a very smart black WI apron and a lot more confidence in the kitchen. We have laughed, made friends from around the country and been thoroughly spoilt by the Denman staff. We left all our problems at the gate of the college and do you know what this Monday morning – I’m not inclined to pick them up.