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Monday, June 10, 2013
TV dramas have left many people believing that a Sheriff was a despotic robber baron of the Middle Ages. But they’re still about, and on the side of good, as Sandra Smith discovered.
Every county in England still has its own High Sheriff, but none of us need fear a gang of noble heavies arriving in a thunder of horse hooves at our door, demanding we hand over a share of our wealth. During the passage of 1,000 plus years the role has undergone a few changes.
These days High Sheriffs no longer witness the death penalty. Nor do they have the power of arrest, or privilege of sometimes greedily lining their pockets via taxes officially gathered for the monarch from the local population. Yet, despite such a healthy decline in power, the post is still an active and accountable one with responsibilities bestowed by the Crown.
In Buckinghamshire the latest incumbent, Sir Stuart Hampson, has been sworn-in at an elaborate ceremony in Aylesbury County Court, so we caught up with him at his home in Bledlow Ridge to learn more about plans for his time in office. “Although we’ve lived in Buckinghamshire for 27 years,” begins Stuart, “I’ve been a commuter for most of that time so I see this year as an opportunity to give something back to the county.”
It’s clear where he’ll be directing his energies: “Our community is held together by a whole host of volunteers. The High Sheriff is there to help those people and show them recognition. I will cover a huge variety of events, from royal visits to presenting long service awards or less formal occasions. I hope my presence might make these experiences more memorable.
“I believe we are a passive viewing society,” he continues. “Lots of people like to watch football or listen to music. I would like to support organisations that engage in drama or sport. Organisations that create opportunities for youngsters.”
Just then his wife, Angela, brings in tea and digestive biscuits. The title of High Sheriff belongs to Stuart, of course, but this is clearly a joint venture. “Family life will be put on hold for the next 12 months!” Stuart laughs. “Angela will accompany me to most events, but with both our children expecting babies this year, we hope to get away in August when things are likely to be a little quieter.”
The couple met in Geneva when Stuart was involved in trade negotiations with the European Community. When he finally became disillusioned with the Civil Service because of its lack of financial accountability, it was his wife’s chance reading of the Sunday Times Appointments section that prompted a professional move.
Stuart picks up the story: “I went from Cabinet secrets one week to selling pyjamas in Oxford Street the next! John Lewis Partnership was looking for people interested in a change of career. I hadn’t had an interview since university and thought this would sharpen me up. But, despite having no commercial experience, I was offered a job. Eventually I joined the Board.”
I sense a link here. Stuart readily recounts the affinity he felt with the department store’s philosophy and integrity. This passion for care and treating people with respect is something, I suspect, which will be a driving force during his time as High Sheriff.
MORE THAN REGALIA
Busy as the role is – Stuart is likely to undertake 200 or so functions – it is an entirely voluntary one so each High Sheriff is expected to fund their own expenses. And that includes the court dress worn at formal occasions. “Mine was made by a military tailor,” Stuart informs me. “It consists of a velvet suit with long jacket, knee breeches, waistcoat with stainless steel buttons, tights and court shoes with buckles.” The outfit includes a sword, too.
Beyond the regalia, what does he hope to achieve during his year in office? “It’s a difficult job to set a target. But I have a multiplicity of small things in mind. My greatest challenge will be keeping the energy level going! ”
Fortunately this is a man with lots of interests to help fuel that energy, including a passion for classic cars. He loves opera and wishes he could play the cello. He wants to abseil down County Hall in September to add to the fun. On a more serious note, Sir Stuart plans to visit as many police authorities as possible, as well as prisons and probation services.
Although not specifically a fund raising function, High Sheriffs are allowed to choose charities to support while in office. For Sir Stuart these are the Epilepsy Society, based in Chalfont St Giles, as well as Buckinghamshire Community and Milton Keynes Foundations.
Meanwhile, he’s a regular speaker at business strategy conferences. Stuart is also on Executive Chairman of The Crown Estate. The Estate’s emphasis is on integrity linked to a strong commercial approach. It owns the well recognised assets of Regent Street, Regents Park and St James as well as shopping centres, farmland and most of our coastline and seabed out to 12 miles around the whole country. He says: “They are fabulous assets. We have to make them more valuable to the nation; all money it makes goes to the treasury.”
This is a man with a relaxed manner and gentle enthusiasm. The modern way is to describe him as a ‘people person’, a talent probably not found in his earliest predecessors, such as Godric, recorded in early chronicles as ‘a colourful old scoundrel’, Sheriff of both Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, and thought to have died in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings.