They may be the last of their kind: Imogen Edwards-Jones meets a group of women who depend on each other for company

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'I SUPPOSE if you were naturally extrovert, you'd be going out and would not need groups such as these,' said the woman in her forties with red slacks who was knitting in the hotel's sitting room. 'A lot of people misinterpret all-women's groups, they are more for comfort than anything else, much less threatening than those singles' groups.' She leant forward to pick up her cup of milky tea and cream cake.

Maureen divorced five years ago. She works in the health service, lives alone near London and has an inactive social life. Since her husband left, she has found it hard to get out and meet people with similar interests.

She joined Company, a group that specialises in putting older single women in touch with each other, when it was founded three years ago. 'Someone told me about the group and it seemed to be an interesting option. It organises weekends such as these and you can choose to join in or not.'

Sixteen women had paid about pounds 65 for the weekend in the country organised by Marilyn Bishop, director of Company. There had been activities such as country dancing and shopping, and a Christmas dinner and present-giving on Saturday evening.

Maureen had been walking in the Upper and Lower Slaughters in the Cotswolds that afternoon; another group had gone shopping by coach in Cheltenham or in Bourton-on-the-Water, where the hotel was.

Company has about five thousand members who pay pounds 15 a year for a quarterly newsletter and invitations to various events. 'We try and do things that will interest the ladies and will help them at the same time,' said Mrs Bishop. 'We have done financial weekends because many of them have little or no idea about money - their husbands always took care of that and now the women are a bit lost. We have people who advise them on shares, pensions and investments.'

The group also organises events such as style and beauty days.

Mrs Bishop started Company after her sister-in-law and a close friend were both widowed in the same year. About three quarters of the members are widows and most of the others are divorced. She believes the members are typical of a generation of women who were not brought up to take care of themselves, and who never had a social or professional identity outside their marriages and inevitably became dependants.

'I have one member who never had her own passport and didn't know how to go about getting one. Now she has one and is never in the country,' she said with a laugh.

She hopes that they are the last of their kind. 'Women of your generation are not going to end up feeling so vulnerable in their old age,' she told me. 'You have been brought up to be able to look after yourselves.'

However, she added: 'These women are so strong. They often don't realise how much they can cope with. It's harder for them to cope with rebuilding their lives than men, but they set about it in a businesslike way and society often doesn't credit them for it.'

Angela has short, grey hair and is in her fifties. She is a widow and a member of many groups and social clubs. Her husband died 11 years ago. Later she moved to Harringay in north London after failing to find a job in Essex, where she lived before. She will be spending Christmas alone. 'I do have two cousins whom I've never seen, but I don't know where they are,' she said with a smile.

She was animated and amusing, obviously enjoying the chat. She talked of a recent trip to an exhibition in London about the suffragettes with another women from Company, during which they had been stopped by a security alert. 'If I didn't get out of the bath for the German bombs, I'm dammed if I'm going to change my social life for the IRA,' she laughed.

May, dressed in a purple shirt and wearing turquoise glasses, explained that since her husband died seven years ago, she had tried to keep busy. 'You've got to keep one step ahead of yourself. I have organised Christmas and now I have to sort out New Year. Sundays are the loneliest day, you have to be very organised then.'

May collects glass and travels around antiques fairs; she also trekked around Malaysia with a friend from the group and is planning to go to Jordan.

'What you really miss, being alone, is someone who totally understands you . . . and, of course,' she said, going pink with embarrassment, 'a big cuddle.'

Company can be contacted on (0303) 814200.