Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 22 seconds
Everyone has a story. “Imagine Holloway Road is a river and the roads that feed into it are tributaries. That’s Gothic Valley,” says Holly Peterson, founding President of the newest branch of the Women’s Institute in Islington, Gothic Valley WI. Interview by Nicola Baird
“I’d been in the WI when I lived in Devon. I was the youngest member of that group by a generation,” says Holly Peterson, fizzing energy. “They were fantastic women I’d never had met otherwise. The group didn’t have a website or use email, but they were brilliant. They had so many fun stories, including what they got up to with the American GIs in the Women’s Air Force during WWII.
When Holly moved to London to a flat near The Shaftesbury Tavern, 543 Hornsey Road, she missed her WI ladies. “I was telling a friend, Elin, about it and she said ‘we could start a goth WI’.”
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The WI has very particular regulations, but the Gothic Valley application was one of a “new wave of WIs,” explains Holly. She contacted the Middlesex Federation who visited and gave a nod of approval – as much to the name of this new WI, Gothic Valley, as to the sartorial chance it gave to letting the officials wear more of the black clothes in their wardrobe. “I’ve been surprised by how much they support us. I even ended up on the cover of WI Life which goes to 200,000+ members in 630+ WIs, and Gothic Valley became the poster girls for the national membership brochure,” says Holly with a smile. “We felt embraced.”
Gothic Valley WI had its first meetings at The Shaftesbury Tavern but it now meets at St Lukes Church Hall on Hillmarton Road, N7 near Holloway and the Caledonian Road stations on the third Wednesday of the month. As the film Calendar Girls showed, it’s impossible to typecast a WI member. “Many of us were born in other countries,’ says Holly, “but anyone who identifies as a woman is welcome – the WI is explicitly inclusive of transgender women. You can just turn up at a meeting, or email us for more details.”
Despite the name, the committee and members are not all Goths, but “all our members are Goth-friendly,” says Holly, clearly reliving the pain of her teen years when “it was hard to be a Goth growing up in rural America wearing black and listening to The Cure. Our group attracts feminist and alternative-leaning women of all kinds, which makes us really feel part of the community.”
Current WI campaigns include food waste and support of people with dementia. “All of us became Dementia Friends (a programme run by the Alzheimer’s society). We’ve had talks by a female funeral director, organised a bat walk along the Parkland Walk, and did a corset show and tell when we gave a talk at my partner’s mum’s WI.”
At least a dozen of the Gothic Valley WI have also had a group tattoo – a pretty red heart with the words ‘organ donor’ – applied to their body in support of the WI’s organ donor campaign (read all about it here). “We got the tattoos at Kilburn Original Tattoos,” which Holly says still offers a discount to anyone getting the organ donor tattoo. The group also love Dunn’s Bakery and the Cook Shop in Crouch End, which has supported the group with raffle prizes and discounts…
Have a look at the Gothic Valley WI website and you’ll find modern recipes from wheat free waffles to silver Rivet Cake (served at an industrial club). And in the crafting sections find knitting, cross-stitch and siege weapons… This is clearly a WI reflecting the passions of its members.
Places Gothic Valley WI love locally
- Parkland Walk – we took bat detectors to hear the bats before you see them. We saw a dozen. We’ve also done conservation work to chop back brambles.
- The Shaftesbury Tavern is key to our development.
- We have a real soft spot for Selby’s on Holloway Road. It’s old school grandeur with a great bakeware department.
- We enjoyed the Maynard Street Community Fair at the Old Fire Station where we ran a cake stall with N1 WI.
Modestly Holly makes little of her organisational skills – she’s been elected president three times over the past five years, and is currently a committee member – by claiming that, “the thing I’m most proud of is when I won the Group Meeting Baking Competition with my Granny’s war time recipe for a vegan Mexican Chocolate Cake.” Here’s the recipe to inspire you, and if you do make it let Islington Faces know how it turns out. Photos welcome.
Wacky Cake (vegan chocolate cake – can also be made wheat free)
Variations: to make the Mexican version: add ¼ tsp chili powder and 1 tsp cinnamon to the dry ingredients
- 1 1⁄2 cups (190g) plain flour
- 3⁄4 cup (160g) sugar
- 3 tbsp cocoa
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1⁄4 tsp baking powder
- 1⁄2 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup (80ml) oil
- 1 tbsp vinegar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 cup (240ml) cold water
Mix dry ingredients together. Make three indentations; add oil, vinegar and vanilla. Pour water over all; stir quickly just until the lumps are gone. Pour into a greased and floured cake pan (9”x9” tin or a bundt pan). Bake at 180 C for 35 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
The reach of the Gothic Valley WI now extends across London. Holly, 41 who works at the University of London, is no longer based in Islington. “A lot of our sub group of the Goth community came to live in the Holloway area bordering Tufnell Park and Crouch End because it was close to Camden. But as the property prices have gone up we’ve moved house.” The original founding Gothic Valley women may have to come back from Walthamstow and, in Holly’s case from Southfields, SW19 for their monthly WI meetings, but it’s still a thriving organisation, and new members are welcome.
So, if you’ve ever thought about giving the WI a go, maybe this is the year to do it, right here in Islington.
WI groups in/near Islington
- Gothic Valley (off Holloway Road)
- N1 (near Angel)
- Stroud Green (near Finsbury Park)
- Shoreditch Sisters (near Old Street) – the racy WI group famous for their prowess at making vagina cupcakes and vulva quilts. They are also walking the Capital Ring (around London) and trying to knit 466 scarves.
- National Federation of the WI is based at King’s Road.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.