When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
More than jam and jerusalem
Ask most people what they associate with the words Women's Institute' and they will usually come up with redoubtable, middle-aged matrons who pass their time making jam and crocheting.
To some extent, they'd be right, and a flick through the prospectus of the WI's Denman College at Marcham, near Abingdon, lists a reassuringly high number of courses in flower-arranging, cookery and crafts.
But a more in-depth trawl of the 500 or so day and residential classes on offer reveals the college, which first opened its doors in 1948, has definitely moved with the times.
Students can already opt for instruction in belly dancing, reiki, aromatherapy, digital photography, e-mail and the Internet. Next year the curriculum is being widened to incorporate astronomy and rock drumming.
Of the 6,000 people that pass through the college (named after the WI's first chair, Lady Denman) each year, the vast majority are female, as are the 40 or so permanent staff who run the Georgian main house, other buildings and 17-acre grounds.
It is mildly surprising then to learn that a man, Stephen Hackett, 45, took over as principal at this bastion of female tradition a few months ago.
"It makes me feel privileged in being trusted to run the college," he smiled. "Although, on a day-to-day basis I'm not aware of it because the women here make me feel so welcome."
Does he find it strange that at a time when sales of TV dinners and takeaways are at an all-time high, something as seemingly antiquated as a WI college teaching cookery and home-making skills is still popular?
"You have to remember there's a resurgence of interest in many of the things the WI stands for," he countered.
"We have a strong tradition of campaigning on issues of importance to women - ours is the largest women's organisation in the UK with more than 200,000 members."
The WI has indeed marshalled all its traditional matronly authority and turned that formidable firepower onto extremely current issues such as climate change, violence against women and sustainability.
On a more domestic level, Hackett believes an increasing number of women are concerned about food - where it comes from, how it is treated and what the ecological and health implications are.
He cites the fact that TV programmes such as Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites and Kim and Aggie's How Clean is Your House? are a huge hit with female viewers of all ages.
"Twenty years ago, the daughters of traditional WI members didn't want to be housewives. They focused on university and a career," he pointed out.
"That generation's children are now having children of their own and worrying about what they feed their kids.
"They may not have been taught home-making skills by their mothers but they are interested in learning them now," he added.
Sensibly, the WI recognised that in order to tempt this new generation back into domesticity, it needed to undergo something of a makeover itself.
Consequently, it is more flexible. Some WI groups get together in pubs and an increasing number opt for evening rather than daytime meetings in order to fit in around working women.
"We need to make sure that the courses the college offers are responding to modern women's needs," explained Stephen.
"It's not just about content but the way we deliver. For instance, many working women find it difficult to come midweek so we are planning more weekend courses and maybe a crèche," he added.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary in September, the college, which already accommodates 72 residential students, is being extended to house 16 more bedrooms and a 130-seat meeting room.
The principal's wife Sharon, 35, and mother to their three-year-old son, William, is typical of the generation of women Denman is determined to win over in the future.
"Sharon and her friends didn't think the WI had anything to offer them," he admitted.
"Now they all look through the brochure saying I'd love to do this course, and this, and that'," he laughed.
GILL WHEELER Gill, 72, from Guildford (pictured above), is a retired accountant. "I'm on a Drawing for the Terrified course, which is for people who long to be able to sketch but are afraid to begin.
"I've been toying with painting but it's difficult to paint if you can't draw well. The tutor showed us how to use a viewfinder and mark it into quarters, which makes it much easier to draw accurately and in proportion.
"I have been to Denman before on a watercolour course and although last time I came with a friend, this time I was alone.
"Everyone's friendly so you can sit anywhere and someone will come and start chatting.
"The food and the company is good and they have the most wonderful teachers."
DAPHNE ROBINSON Daphne, 69, is a retired schoolteacher from Rutland who has been on seven residential courses at the college.
"There is a completely different aspect of how we all behave and interact because there are no men around.
"My husband travels a lot with his hobby and I used to be stuck at home by myself, but once I discovered this place, wild horses wouldn't keep me away.
"We have a bar so it is not all staid and over the years I have done courses in walking, country houses, aromatherapy, mah-jong (a Chinese board game) and gardening.
"I also did one called Growing Older Gracefully and that was wonderful - we did belly and hula dancing and discussions on how to dress.
"We bonded so well, we were sharing our underwear secrets with each other and waving our magic knickers around!"
SALLY DAPNEY Sally, 68, is a retired housewife and lives in Surrey.
"The first time I came five years ago, I was alone and felt scared but since then I've been back about 50 times.
"On one course I went on called Into The Unknown, about poltergeists and water divining, we found out where all the drains were at Denman, I can tell you!
"The thing about it here is that you laugh such a lot - you get the giggles like you did at school.
"The whole place makes you so relaxed because it feels like home as soon as you come through the door.
"You see people arrive looking nervous but by the end of their week here, they are smiling and relaxed."