In 1984, a small non-profit trust was set up by Dr Frances Alexander in High Wycombe UK, with aspirations to build friendships for women across Europe – Women Welcome Women (3W). The organisation took the simple concept behind school student exchanges and applied it to adult women wanting to experience culture and travel, staying with likeminded individuals in private homes.
In 1999, the organisation expanded to become 5W – Women Welcome Women World Wide – a limited company with an international board of nine directors/trustees. There are currently around 1,560 members from 55 countries, women of all ages and from all walks of life.
How does 5W work?
Membership is available for women aged 18 and above. On payment of a joining ‘donation’ of a recommended minimum £37, access is given to a directory, listing the contact details of all members.
Members can register themselves as hostesses, enabling other members to visit their home for stays of up to three nights without charge. Those who don’t have the facilities to provide overnight accommodation but still wish to share in this kind of cultural experience can register as ‘day hostesses’.
The organisation describes itself as having “few rules”, other than that people show “courtesy, consideration and common sense”. To help to establish a friendship, correspondence is encouraged between prospective hostesses and guests prior to a visit. Guests are expected to fit in with the hostess’s lifestyle and are advised to make a first visit reasonably short, in case things don’t go as expected.
5W: a life-enriching organisation led by its members
In an interview with Sue Coventry, co-chair of the board of trustees and member since 2006, she told me:
“I think the secret of 5W is that, whilst we are an international organisation and have always been looking outwards on travel and cultural sharing, we have always had an office with real people; it has never just been an online organisation. We are not led from the top; it gives members lots of opportunities to meet people on different levels and ordinary members have very significant roles in 5W. I can say it has enriched my life since joining.”
Sue herself has opened her home in West Yorkshire and hosted members from as far away as Australia. She told me how much she enjoys showing her visitors around her local area. She has also organised group ‘get-togethers’ throughout the local area for the Lancashire/Yorkshire group, for example meeting for lunch and a trip to the Leeds Art Gallery.
In 2019 members from Hull organized a six-day group holiday ‘gathering’ in East Yorkshire. It was attended by over 25 members who stayed at the 400-year-old restored Beverley Friary and visited various places across Yorkshire, including the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Sewerby Hall and Gardens near Bridlington. Members came from Germany, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Ireland, UK, Finland and Mongolia.
Adapting to the times
Sue tells me that since coronavirus, membership numbers have declined somewhat, due to lack of travel opportunity and uncertainty. However, the team at 5W have adapted to the current circumstances and are confident that numbers will recover. Interconnection has remained possible and friendships have been strengthened across Zoom and by postcards from across the globe. The organisation provided a beacon of hope for members new and longstanding throughout the pandemic, providing support and actively tackling loneliness throughout isolation.
Moving forward from coronavirus and recognising the environmental consequences of long-haul flights, the team has begun encouraging members not to just look across the globe, but also within their own countries and continents. Within every country there is, in Sue’s words, “vast beauty and sprawling landscape”, which 5W are urging members to come together and discover within their groups, all whilst conscious of safe and environmentally friendly travel.
Sue said, “We want to look to the future and assume we have one. We are in the process of appointing two new trustees from two European countries”.
Commemorating 5W’s inspirational founder
5W’s founder, Dr Frances Alexander died at the age of 85 in September 2020. She led an amazingly full life as a nurse, a teacher, an environmental campaigner, a local councillor and then mayor in her home town of High Wycombe, and of course as a world traveller. The organisation continues to build on Frances’s desire for women to experience other cultures, make friends and gain self-confidence.
A memorial for Dr Frances Alexander will be held in March, and the team will host a tree planting and bench dedication ceremony to celebrate the life of this inspirational founder of 5W.
Remembering Frances, Sue said, “I had a rich life beforehand, but my life now is so much more enriched. If it hadn’t been for Frances, I would have never travelled to Australia and stayed with all these amazing 5Ws and made friends all over the world”.
Membership details are on the website.