Never do it, said W. C. Fields (supposedly – don’t write in), but then being High Sheriff has little to do with show business, apart from the occasional dressing up. There’s quite a lot that can go wrong with holding a goat, but this particular one was very well behaved and presumably used to being handled by strangers, and I was appropriately dressed in tweed rather than velvet. I didn’t catch its name, but it was one of two that we met at Abberton Rural Training in Wormingford, along with ART’s CEO, Jacqui Stone, chairman Paul Roberts, and a number of trustees (see photo above). ART was established 2014 following a Section 106 requirement as part of the extension to the Abberton Reservoir (hence the name), and moved a couple of years ago to occupy the old village school at Wormingford, down a very narrow lane by the church in one of the most rural parts of North Essex, on the slope that leads down to the River Stour and Suffolk. Here a wide variety of people with a range of issues are helped back into the community: in ART’s words, they run courses in rural skills for the ‘long-term unemployed, those with barriers, and wounded and injured service personnel and veterans’. The goats have their part to play in this process (see photo below), working alongside a dedicated management team and number of part-time tutors.
The goats were a one-off. The children (no ‘kids’ puns, please) were equally well behaved, and there were three lots of them. The first appeared at the Essex Community Foundation’s reception at Layer Marney Tower: a group of six from All Saints’ Primary School, Maldon, where the imaginative head, Philip Brown, has come up with a scheme called Maldon Up whereby children in Year 6 make weekly visits to Longfield Care Home in the town, talking to them and playing games, to the great benefit of both children and residents. It’s an initiative that should be widely copied. Mr Brown runs what seems to be the very best sort of old-fashioned village school, in that he went there himself and has sent his children there too; and he cheerfully admits that much of the burden of delivering his wilder schemes falls on the shoulders of his deputy, Mrs White.
The next lot we encountered came from a wide geographical area (including Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Suffolk) and were taking part in the regional finals of the Magistrates’ Court Mock Trial competition. This is organised by Young Citizens for 12–14 year olds; there’s a separate Crown Court-style competition for 15–18 year olds. After what must be a great deal of preparation (with some input from magistrate mentors) the children stage a trial, taking all the parts (magistrates, legal adviser, usher, lawyers, defendant, witnesses) with just a single real magistrate acting as chairman, and more magistrates judging their performance. It is all surprisingly true to life, although it must be said that the acquittal of the defendant in the two cases we watched (assault of a taxi driver) came as a bit of a surprise. But it’s the process, rather than the outcome, that’s being judged. The winners, Sir John Hampden Grammar School from High Wycombe, go through to the national finals at the Royal Courts of Justice in June. What an amazing experience that will be for them! As for the runners-up, they have had the experience of spending half a day in Chelmsford Crown Court, and will have learnt a lot about what goes on in the magistrates’ courts, where all criminal cases start and where 95 per cent are concluded – an aspect of the criminal justice system that is rarely understood except by those directly involved in it. So much work goes into the mock trials, on the part of the students, their teachers, magistrates and court staff, and Young Citizens, but it is time well spent.
Finally, to Harwich, to help present prizes to winners in a ‘Rhyme against Crime’ competition organised by the Harwich and District Community Crime Prevention Panel – a competition run within local schools to highlight crime-related issues and allow the children themselves to express an opinion about them in verse. On reflection I was wrong in what I said earlier about the High Sheriff having little to do with show business: this was an evening of razzamatazz, compered by Nigel Spencer MBE DL, chairman of the HDCCPP, and it included not just the prizewinners and runners-up reading their poems, but very enjoyable and accomplished musical interludes by Harwich Sing (community choir), Nicole Dube and Freya Potticary, and Harwich Rock School. The themes that the children chose for their verses were varied, but all seemed deeply felt and there was a sense of outrage that their elders and not betters are behaving in ways that makes life a misery for other people. Leading themes were graffiti and other antisocial behaviour, cyber bullying, and (among the older ones especially) knife crime: