Most High Sheriffs have a summer party of one sort or another. We’ve just got back from Norfolk’s, which took the form of drinks and nibbles followed by a circus show in the wonderful Yarmouth Hippodrome, Britain’s last surviving circus building (as opposed to tent). It was built in 1903 by the legendary circus showman George Gilbert (designed by R. S. Cockrill of Lowestoft – his Hippodrome there, also for Gilbert, was later converted to a concert hall and demolished in 1999). The arena can be flooded for water spectacles, rather in manner of the Colosseum in Rome.
In Essex we still stick to the traditional teatime garden party with marquee, although who knows what future High Sheriffs may choose to do. Flooding on these occasions is usually due to rain, and one has to plan accordingly; but this year the rain had come a week or so ahead, enough to ensure that the grass was as green and flowerbeds as colourful as they ever get in our little patch of Essex, and the day itself was sunny and hot.
It’s as well to ask from time to time what the point of these occasions is, and there’s more to it than laying on a good tea for the ‘usual suspects’ and giving them the opportunity to nose round somebody else’s garden, important though these aspects of the occasion are. For me, the point of the garden party is to thank those who, in their daily lives, devote much of their lives to public service, without which society as we know it, and which we perhaps take for granted, simply could not function. Public service takes many forms. It may mean doing voluntary work, for no financial reward. It may mean doing a job, often poorly paid, that most people don’t want to do because it is unpleasant or stressful in one way or another. Or it may mean taking a job that is less well paid than another job that you might be qualified for, because you believe that the less well paid job is more worthwhile.
Most of the guests at the High Sheriff’s Garden Party fit into one or other of those categories. Moreover, for every guest it would be possible to invite a hundred more, equally deserving, and the hope is that those attending, when they next see those they work with, will let them know how much their efforts are appreciated.
Two good examples of public service were provided at our party by the Essex Marching Corps, and Castle Point & Rochford Volunteer Police Cadets. This particular group of police cadets is the largest in the county and their leader, PC Steve Judd, has put in an extraordinary number of hours of his own time to get them to that position. Without the cadets’ help, our temporary car park in an adjacent field would undoubtedly have been the scene of considerable chaos, and they did a splendid job.
The Essex Marching Corps is the only remaining independent marching band in Essex, and their mission is to enable all young people regardless of ability, financial means or family situation, to make music. Instruments, training and uniform are provided free of charge; the band meets in a hall in South Benfleet that the volunteers and parents literally built themselves, and which they can hire out to supplement the income they receive in grants and donations. They made a huge contribution to the afternoon, and in spite of the heat managed to look very smart in their new uniforms.
The afternoon was rounded off by the bell ringers of St Peter’s Church, who rang melodiously as guests were departing. As many guests commented afterwards, it put the seal on a quintessentially English event.