Women of Substance | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Women of Substance

Women of Substance

The Didsbury Dinners Lady

We know Amanda Woodvine well at Viva! – she was once our highly-valued health campaigner and still works with us from time to time. Quiet, ever-smiling and unassuming, Amanda is utterly professional and on matters nutritional can forensically dissect an argument with charm but is as unmoveable as the rock of Gibraltar when she’s in the right – and she usually is.

A chemistry degree from Oxford and nutrition at London’s King College, what was her chosen profession? The law of course, what else. But the lure of nutrition, and its ability to save animals, eventually became too strong and she joined Viva! Health (or the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation as it once was) and a string of consumer guides and scientific reports followed bearing her name – not to mention a marathon or two.

But however great her achievements, I reckon she’ll always be known as the Didsbury Dinners lady. Didsbury, you may know, is a suburb of Manchester and what took Amanda there was an Editor’s job at NICE (National Institute of Health & Care Excellence). But again, the animals demanded her attention and this time she came at it with a community approach – the Didsbury Dinners low-carbon community cookbook.

Recipes were drawn from local people and organisations and all were vegan and low carbon and the dishes beautifully photographed in full colour. How do you practically gather recipes and tap into people’s needs? You stick boxes in shops and organisations across the area? But all this was only a start.

The 80- page book was never seen as a one- off project but essentially set out a template for how Amanda saw the community group, which the book had drown together, would developin the future.

There are sections on eating seasonally, buying locally grown foods and even wild food – yes, there’s wild food even in Didsbury. There’s advice on reducing meat and dairy, cutting down on waste and packaging and even practical information on how to cook.

Now, each of these areas has been given a life of its own, taking it way beyond just advice. Hugely-popular learn-to cook courses are organised, aimed particularly at the most disadvantaged. Doing deals for free land wherever possible has resulted in over 1,000 trees being planted, some with edible fruits such as hazels and wild cherries. There’s a community garden where people have fun growing fruit and veg together.

One particularly innovative idea is the land share scheme where the gardens of student houses or those who can’t cope with gardening, are subcontracted out to Didsbury Dinners so they come back to life with all kinds of gorgeous edibles. And the idea has spread to the adjoining areas of Burnage and Chorlton. Even as I write, the roots of Didsbury Dinners are snaking out into all kinds of areas to help reduce the local community’s impact on the environment and empower people to take control of their own lives. Not really surprising, Amanda has picked up awards along the way – Women Protecting the Environment from Manchester’s International Women’s Day and the Daily Mail’s Inspirational Women of the Year award. But believe me, that’s not the end.

Amanda has won a research fellowship from Glasgow University to carry on her green innovation but with a huge research element and the funding to go with it. And for relaxation? She is about to take over as director of the charity Vegetarian for Life, which supports older vegetarians in care and at home.

A Woman of Vision

I clearly remember my first meeting with Karin Ridgers, in a Colshester veggie pub during the demonstrations against live exports, not long after Viva!’s launch. She was a brand-new vegetarian and bubbling with enthusiasm, determined to do something for the animals. Over the intervening nearly 20 years I haven’t seen that enthusiasm diminish one jot.

A couple of years after that meeting, she had TV in her sights as a way of promoting veggie issues and asked me how best to go about it as I had for years been making TV programmes. Having tried every possible avenue myself to get such programmes commissioned – and failed – I wasn’t terribly encouraging. But she gave it a go anyway.

“I was at that time earning good money in banking, in London’s West End, and trying to expand my interests with acting and presenting in the evenings. Suddenly, the need  to try and influence life in order to save animals became too great and I walked out of my job, with the full support of Glyn, my gorgeous husband.”

Almost immediately, Karin organised a school reunion (with a vegan buffet, of course) which was filmed by Channel Four TV. That was another reminder that there is almost nothing on TV that reflected animal-free lifestyles and strengthened her determination to try and do something about it.

In fact, it was in print that she first made her mark, producing a supplement for the Essex Enquirer called Vegetarian Times. By sheer force of will and (again) enthusiasm, she sold the idea to advertisers even though she had no idea what the supplement would eventually look like. Naive perhaps but successful and 250,000 copies, which included an interview with Viva!’s director, Juliet Gellatley, winged their way around Essex.

But Karin hadn’t given up on TV and her answer to producers’ lack of interest in things vegetarian or vegan was Veggie Vision – her own internet TV station. It shows short clips of cookery, provides information from experts and has had a string celebrity interviews. It has been a slow slog in developing Veggie Vision and to provide the funding, Karin also started her own ethical PR company – MAD-Promotions, which she describes as concentrating on “businesses that are making the world a better place.”

That’s two companies being run by a woman who admits she had no idea of how to start a business, let alone run one. MAD-Promotions does work for commercial organisations but there are others who she has represented pro bono – such as two animal sanctuaries. Karin worked with Heather Mills for the launch of the V-bites restaurant in Hove. It was at about this time that Joanna Lumley said: “And well done, Karin, who was like a dear, black-clad bottle of bubbly.” Perfect description!

Karin is gradually spreading her influence by writing for Vegetarian Living magazine and appearing on other TV shows, such as Sky during the horsemeat scandal and as a Loud Woman on the award-winning Sadie Nines show on BBC Essex.

“The message that I always try to communicate is how a vegan lifestyle is easy, fun, healthy and so much kinder.” Karin also meets with hotel and restaurant owners to impress upon them the importance of catering for vegans. Those who have come under her charm include Centre Parcs, Butlins, the five star Chewton Glen restaurant and Roux at the Landau.

Of all her achievements, I suspect Karin is most proud of her lovely son, Callum. The old saying isnthat you can’t have it all – well Karin’s giving it a damned good try.

And there is something important in the wind involving Sky TV which is hopefully about to come to fruition. We shall see!

The Marathon Woman

In the last issue of Viva!life, I wrote about 44-year-old Fiona Oakes’ extraordinary achievement of enduring the gruelling North Pole marathon, smashing the women’s record by 45 minutes and beating all but two of the men. Believe me, that’s only the first course! Fiona runs marathons – one after another, after another. Geneva, Berlin, Amsterdam, Moscow – despite having been run over and shot with an air rifle by youths. One of her earlier ones was the London marathon, which she didn’t win but it sums up what she has to go through to compete.

“I came 30th in the Women's race in a time of two hours 49 minutes. I was very happy with this result as the timing of London for me is all wrong. It means that all my training has to be done in the winter and clearly the animal work is very, very hard as it means that I am outside in all weathers looking after, feeding and mucking out and having to fit 80-100 miles of hard training in every week, six sessions a week from late November.”

The animals she’s referring to are the 400 or so she has rescued and keeps at the Tower Hill Stables sanctuary in Kent, an asylum she set up in 1993. They are not incidental to the gruelling schedule Fiona has set herself but the reason for it. She knows that the more people who go vegan the fewer animals are exploited and the fewer who eventually need to be rescued. She is tired of the reported claims ‘I went vegan and nearly died’ and her response is to perform extraordinary feats of strength and endurance wearing her Vegan Runners gear.

I suppose the plus side is that running releases feel-good endorphins and people do become addicted to it. “I hate it,” says Fiona with feeling. “I train constantly and run these marathons and people think I’m doing it to raise money for the sanctuary but I’m not, I get nothing out of it. I do it to show what a powerful diet veganism can be.”

Brought up in Derbyshire, Fiona says she was a very funny kid and her mum remembers her pushing meat away at the age of three and then asking where eggs, milk and cheese came from when she was six – and rejecting them.

At school, a teacher who had taught her mum and who was vegan became the reference point for her mother’s concerns, providing reassurance.

Like Karin, Fiona finished up in banking in London but accumulated so many pets that renting a house became a problem. It became an even bigger problem when she acquired eight rescued horses and she and her partner, Martin, bought a cottage in Essex. Shooters in a nearby field caused panic amongst the horses and one was seriously injured and so the move to Tower Hill Stables was the solution.

I could go on about the number of different marathons Fiona has run and won but there is one that tops them all, one that makes me feel exhausted just writing about it, the toughest foot race in the world – the Marathon des Sables. It is set in the Sahara Desert and participants have to carry with them everything they will need, apart from water.

The organisers’ own hype tells you all you need to know: “There is nothing but rolling sand dunes for miles around. When you plough your feet through the sand, a fine dust kicks up. You can’t feel the sweat dripping down your face because it evaporates in the baking heat. Your lungs feel parched and today’s temperature is 50 deg C. Part of your brain is screaming for you to stop. Another part knows that when you complete the Marathon des Sables you will have run the equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons in five or six days, a distance of 156 miles.”

Fiona says she now feels she has faced just about all the marathon challenges there are and it may all come to an end very soon. But she will still have her other work to occupy her – she is a retained fire fighter. Do you know something? I have a desperate desire to go and lie down.