The more the merrier

Jo Buckley of the Merry Wives in Solihull reflects on her time as a group organiser, in particular her decision to introduce a programme of day trips for the group’s members, as well as friends and family. Carrie Drage learns more.

The Merry Wives club has been going since 1960 and originally was a way for young mothers and their children to get out of the house and socialise. The club took its name from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor as, initially, the mothers all lived in Windsor Drive, Solihull. Over the years, however, as the children grew older and the mothers started to move back into the workplace, the make up of the group changed. It was no longer just a mother and baby group but rather a social club open to anyone in the local area. Jo explains, “Although some of the original mothers are still members of the group, we now have a lot of new people who have discovered us through friends and family.”

Jo has been with the Merry Wives since 1963 when the members would meet on the first Wednesday of every month in the Assembly Rooms in Solihull. She says, “We still meet once a month but now get together at the United Reformed Church in Solihull instead.” It was when one of the founding members unexpectedly died about 20 years ago that Jo was asked to take on the responsibility of arranging the monthly meetings. She explains, “There is no joining fee; however, each person pays £3.00 to attend the meetings, where we offer refreshments and a speaker.” Although she still helps to organise the speakers for these, most of the arrangements are now made by the club secretary, Norma Jones, who took over from Jo about a year ago.

It was also around this time that Jo instigated the day trips. She reveals, “Years ago I worked as a courier for Johnsons Coaches based in Henley-in-Arden so I had some experience of the industry. I was keen to get out and experience new places and asked the other members if they would be open to the idea of regular coach trips. There was a lot of interest from the group so it grew from there really.” She now organises roughly one outing a month and these are open to friends and family as well as group members, although it is mostly retired women that make up the numbers. She explains, “We’re a relatively small group with about 40 members and we get an average of 25 people for each trip.” She adds, “I try to do a recci beforehand to make sure that the destination is suitable as, now that we’re all getting older, there are a lot more factors that need to be considered.”

On a boat ride with Severn Leisure Cruises.

On a boat ride with Severn Leisure Cruises.

Jo puts her programme together at the beginning of each year and produces a flyer with all the details, which is passed round at the monthly meetings. She reveals, “It’s certainly a very demanding role being a group organiser. I do everything single-handedly, spending hours making bookings, double checking arrangements, taking deposits, banking money and everything else that comes with the job. I get a lot of enjoyment from it though.”

She arranges transport for her day trips through her old employer, Johnsons. Jo comments, “They are a local firm and we’ve gotten to know them very well over the years. I’ve always found them to be very efficient.”

On the move

Steam train rides and river cruises are always a big hit with the group and their popularity is reflected in Jo’s programme. She says, “We tend to do at least one of each every year.”

Severn Leisure Cruises, which operates boat trips on the River Severn, is one of the companies that Jo has used on many an occasion. She says, “These have been very enjoyable on the whole, except the one time in 2005 that we had to turn the boat around because there was a gunman on the loose in the local area. It was all over the national news!” Jo last used the company in 2008 for a return boat ride from Upton to Worcester and remarks, “The River Severn has some beautiful scenery so my group absolutely loved it. Severn Leisure Cruises is a family-run firm and their boat trips are always enjoyable. The commentary they provide is very interesting.” She adds, “We always stop for lunch at the Diglis House Hotel in Worcester, which overlooks the river. It has a lovely ambience here.”

Boarding a cruise with the Kennet Horse Boat Company

Boarding a cruise with the Kennet Horse Boat Company

The group also enjoyed a boat ride on the River Wye three years ago with Kingfisher Cruises, operating out of Ross-on-Wye. This was paired with lunch at The Paddocks Hotel nearby. Jo says, “The three-course lunch here was very, very good and the cruise was also lovely. There is a very good commentary as the boat makes its way down the river.”

A couple of years ago, meanwhile, saw the group take a ride on the Kennet and Avon Canal with the Kennet Horse Boat Company based in Hungerford, Berkshire. Jo remarks, “I would highly recommend this trip. Because the barges are pulled by horses in the traditional way, it’s such a peaceful ride. We had a super time!”

From one historic mode of transport to another, Jo has also organised a number of steam train excursions for her group. She says, “These always go down a treat with the members.” Three years ago, she booked a train ride from Toddington to Cheltenham Racecourse with the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway. She comments, “The volunteers work so hard here to ensure visitors get the best possible experience. It’s a lovely scenic journey through the Cotswolds and groups can also arrange tea and coffee, lunch or afternoon tea enroute.”

The Kennet Horse Boat they sailed on

The Kennet Horse Boat they sailed on

The Severn Valley Railway, which runs between Kidderminster, in Worcestershire, and Bridgenorth, in Shropshire, is also a favourite destination for the group. Jo says, “There’s plenty to do here with train rides and also a museum to look round. They also organise a lot of special events like 1940s Weekends and Santa Specials.” A couple of years ago, Jo paired a train ride with a visit to the West Midland Safari and Leisure Park nearby. She says, “We’ve been here about four times but we never tire of it. The giraffes stick their heads through the bus windows on the drivethrough safari! It’s an amazing experience seeing the animals so close up.”

Ladies wot lunch

Jo’s members aren’t keen to venture out much during the winter time so, during this period, she tends to organise lunches instead. She says, “As the weather gets better, the group becomes more adventurous and will travel further afield.”

As a regular addition to the programme, every year Jo organises a day out around lunch in the Cotswolds, visiting Bourton-on-the-Water, Chipping Campden and Broadway. The group normally stops for lunch in Bourton-on-the-Water, an attractive village with a river running through the centre. She remarks, “We usually eat lunch at the Duke Of Wellington Inn, which does very good food.” She adds, “The Cotswolds is a lovely part of England, with some really beautiful places to visit.”

Appropriately, for a group that takes its name from a Shakespeare comedy, Stratford-upon-Avon is another destination that the group likes to revisit, most recently in 2008. The members are given free time to look around the town with a stop at The Masons Arms in Wilmcote for lunch. Jo says, “Everyone loves the meals here. The pub is also close to Mary Arden’s House, managed by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the group likes to have a look round afterwards.”

For something a little bit different, Jo arranges for her group to visit a duckery in Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, most years. She explains, “The owners are friends of mine and breed ducks at their house – ‘Applegarth’. They put on afternoon tea for us and the money made from these is donated to a children’s charity. A similar thing is done for the local Women’s Institute.”

A time for celebration

As with many groups, Jo’s members like to get together at times of celebration, the most obvious being Christmas. Last year, the group went for dinner at Robin Hood Golf Club in Solihull and such was its success that Jo is considering repeating it this Christmas. She comments, “The food was fantastic, the ambience was lovely and the views from the restaurant were also wonderful.”

Before this, the group used to enjoy Christmas lunch at Melbicks Garden & Leisure near Birmingham. Jo says, “We’ve had three Christmases here and the food has always been excellent. Groups are given a room to themselves in the restaurant and, because it’s a garden centre, the members enjoy having a browse round before and after their meal.”

Another occasion that brings back fond memories for Jo is the Christmas celebration at Bridges Entertainment Venue, in Worcester, back in 2005. She says, “This is a popular destination for groups. We’ve been a number of times outside of the Christmas period and they always manage to entertain us. On this occasion, we had a Christmas meal and then some actors put on a pantomime for us in the middle of the dining area. It was a lot of fun.”

Celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary with a ‘Golden Party’ at the Arrow Mill Hotel.

Celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary with a ‘Golden Party’ at the Arrow Mill Hotel.

On top of the annual Christmas lunch, the group had another reason to celebrate last year with 2010 marking the 50th anniversary of the Merry Wives. In honour of this milestone, Jo organised a ‘Golden Party’ at Arrow Mill Hotel near Alcester, in Warwickshire, in July. She remembers, “I made gold satin bags for every member to take away with them containing a little present inside.” She adds, “The Arrow Mill Hotel is a beautiful little hotel and restaurant set beside the river. We’ve been here on a few occasions because the food is always nice and will be going back in July.”

Purses at the ready

Shopping is also a popular pastime for the group, with a mix of mill stores, markets and farm shops all featuring on the programme in recent years. For example, two years ago, Jo organised a coach outing to the Walsall branch of Boundary Mill Stores in the West Midlands. She says, “This is a great place to shop. It’s a massive warehouse with loads of different concessions and good incentives are offered for groups.” Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet, managed by McArthurGlen, is another destination the group has visited in recent years. Jo remembers, “We dropped some of the passengers here and the rest in Chester. There’s lots of bargains to be had and plenty of nice places to eat as well. Groups also receive discount vouchers that can be used in some of the shops.”

More outlet shopping was on the cards when the group journeyed to Clarks Village in Somerset. Jo remembers, “This is in Street where the Clarks headquarters are. It’s quite a large site with lots of different brands to shop for, including Clarks shoes.”

Evidently, the Merry Wives are always on the look out for bargains and if it’s not outlet shopping, there’s always market shopping to take advantage of. For instance, the group has often visited the open air street market at Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds. Jo says, “This is one of the largest street markets in the area and takes place every Tuesday, selling everything from knickers to meat and fish. I’m considering a Christmas visit this year so the group can pick up some presents.”

As something a little bit different, Jo also organises regular shopping trips to Beckett’s Farm Shop near Birmingham. She says, “I can’t fault their food.” A visit here is often combined with lunch at The Hollybush Inn at Gorcott Hill and sometimes a visit to Castle Nurseries in Studley too.

Keeping costs down

The role of an organiser is never easy and Jo admits that she came close to ending her commitments with the group just last year. She reveals, “At one point I got a bit disheartened because people would show a lot of interest in the beginning stages but when it came to booking, they would make their excuses as to why they couldn’t come. After some thought, however, I decided to stick with it. On the bright side, it gets me out of the house and also keeps my brain ticking over!”

The group in front of the coach at the West Midland Safari & Leisure Park.

The group in front of the coach at the West Midland Safari & Leisure Park.

Jo understands that keeping costs down is an important factor, especially for retirees, and is constantly looking at new ways to raise funds for the club. She says, “I organise raffles at our monthly meetings and the money goes towards insurance for the church hall and the cost of speakers. The money raised from the raffles on the coaches is used to subsidise the cost of hiring coaches.” Jo also tries to keep the prices reasonable for day trips. She explains, “For each outing, I ask the members to pay £10 or £12 for the hire of the coach. Any additional activities are on top of this. If a trip gets a large number of participants, the excess funds are used to subsidise the cost of future outings where there are fewer people and therefore a shortfall to pay.”

Jo has already organised her programme for the rest of 2011 and highlights include a day out in Stratford-upon-Avon with cream teas at the Arrow Mill Hotel in July, lunch at the Fleece Inn at Bretforton, in Worcestershire, in August, and a visit to West Midland Safari & Leisure Park in September.

Despite having a few reservations about whether or not to continue with her day trips, Jo remains upbeat about the future saying, “Although most people are unaware of the effort that goes into getting an outing off the ground, they are always very appreciative after each one. Plus I really enjoy it; I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t!”