With her hair pulled back in a bun, her full-skirt and blouse, Helen Gilmour looks every inch a sensible, middle-aged woman. It is hard to believe that she once gave up a promising career to join a cult whose members dressed in Victorian crinolines, and hosted dormitory romps for women dressed as schoolgirls. Now she gives advice on cults to people in the Bradford area.

HELEN GILMOUR was a civil servant in London when she spotted an advert in Private Eye. It was publicising a magazine produced by The Church of the Goddess - linked with a cult known as the Lux Madriana or Light of the Mother, and later known as Rhennes, after the Welsh goddess Rhiannon.

Intrigued, she sent for a copy. "It appealed to something in my imagination. I found it fascinating."

She went to a gathering of cult members. She recalls: "I didn't know what to expect. There were only five of us, but it was a moving ceremony. It had an impact on me. I was 29 and until then the only religious experience I'd had was as a child at the local Methodist church."

To the chagrin of her family, Helen, who lives in Great Horton, left her job with the Ministry of Agriculture and joined the 20-strong group full-time. She was initiated as a Lady of the Temple. She says: "It was like a confirmation and involved a 24-hour fast and all-night vigil."

The group settled in a rambling old house in Ireland, and practised a form of goddess worship based on a female creator and female dominance on earth. Says Helen: "It was an organised form of religion but it was in some respects very disorganised. It was stressful."

She puts this down to the policy to reject modern machinery and technology. "It was supposed to be a traditional, rural farming community, but it didn't work. There was not enough land to run a farm and none of us was competent enough. We had a donkey and poultry and we dug the ground, but we weren't achieving anything.

"People had to appear busy, but had nothing to do. There was a spiritual malaise, a lack of discipline and organisation which ruined the community - it filtered down from the leadership."

Television was banned - Helen still does not own one - and washing was done in old-fashioned dolly tubs. There were no electric lights and they cooked on a range or open fire.

The women wore Victorian crinolines, long cloaks and bonnets, and covered up their faces with veils. And when they opened a holiday "school" for women, offering the chance to re-live schoolgirl romps such as picnics, midnight feasts in the dorm and canings, the Press had a field day. Says Helen; "We needed to raise funds so we advertised the fantasy role-play holiday."

Although disorganised, the cult was strictly hierarchial, with a mistress of the house as boss. There were no overtones of violence or self-destruction which have made other groups, such as the Jonestown and Waco cults, so terrifying.

Helen claims she was not brainwashed, but adds: "There was something sinister at the heart if it. The founder was a remarkable person but was leading a fantasy life - we were living in someone else's fantasy."

Helen left after two years. Now 51, and a secretary at Leeds General Infirmary, she recalls her days in Ireland with affection. "I discovered a freedom, and talents that I didn't know I had."

She is a leading authority on cults and helps others through the Cultline, based at St Joseph's RC Church, Pakington Street, off Manchester Road, Bradford, of which she is an active member.

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