A Focus on Young People

My theme for the year is volunteering, with a particular focus on those who work so hard and willingly to make their communities safer and more caring.

Almost all the conversations I have had in these first few weeks of being High Sheriff, have highlighted how important it is to try to ensure our children and young adults get the best possible start in life. Many who face early challenges go on to do really well; but investing in young people, without question, brings huge benefits. Many organisations I have met regret the decline in the provision of council-led youth services, but the voluntary sector has a real focus on young people.

The stories I have heard have often been inspiring – such as the fabulous work done by the members of the Essex Boys and Girls Clubs, which are mostly run by volunteers. Right across the county, affiliated clubs offer a wide range of activities for young people. With the expertise and resources EBGC have built up over many years, many of these activities can be made available to those who otherwise could not afford the excitement of adventurous holidays; and some can be delivered especially for those who might otherwise find themselves in trouble.

Commending Rita and Ray Williams, mainstays of the Thaxted Youth Club for 30 years, at the Essex Boys and Girls Clubs annual dinner

But spending time with a group of youth leaders from different organisations in Chelmsford highlighted for me the risks that young people can face, particularly when excluded from school. The grooming of young people into drugs gangs is a reality, despite the innovative work of Essex Police, working in partnership with many others, for example the Essex Violence and Vulnerability Unit. Those organisations and individuals working to provide safe spaces for young people and to offer a sense of ambition for their future is commendable.

I was pleased to recognise the initiative taken by Luisa Di Marco to set up ‘Keep it 100′ and to help bring the Knife Angel to Chelmsford recently.

Presenting a High Sheriff’s Certificate to Luisa Di Marco

Support for our children can sometimes be necessary even from the earliest days. In Billericay I visited Baby Basics who provide baby items such as clothing and other essentials, all in a ‘Moses basket’ , for new parents in need to see them through the first few weeks. They share a community hub that also acts as a base for the Schools Pastors, yet more volunteers who provide a listening ear to students in local senior schools.

Visiting the Billericay Community Hub where the
Baby Basics charity is based

Sadly, things don’t always work out for families and children. Hearing about the work of our Family Courts from our Resident District Court Judge was sobering. Domestic abuse has significantly increased over lockdown and many children have been affected as a result. Other youngsters have themselves found lockdown hard to handle, and it was distressing to learn of the considerable difficulty of finding safe and secure places for those in greatest need, and at risk of harming themselves.

On the more positive side it was wonderful to hear how satisfying it can be to place children successfully into adoption and to see them flourish. Our Family Court judges have an exceptionally difficult job and I fear their work is undervalued and their work not sufficiently well-known. I look forward to spending more time with them.

Engaging young people as early as possible in positive activities is recognised by everyone to be the best solution to many problems. Giving children the skills to have self-confidence is an important step. A delight for me was judging the Might Oak public speaking competition for Year 4 children in Essex schools. The final rounds were held at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford and I was hugely impressed, not only by the children’s high standard of public speaking, but also by the commitment and enthusiasm of their teachers and those organising the competition. (If the public speaking was slightly nerve-racking for the children, judging wasn’t a doddle either!)

The winning team from Our Lady Immaculate school in the Mighty Oak Public Speaking competition

There are many organisations that offer teenagers and young adults the chance to learn new skills, disciplines and enthusiasms. I’m looking forward to seeing the work of the Volunteer Police Cadets later this year, but was pleased this week to visit the Headquarters of the East Anglia Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Across the Eastern region (so wider than just Essex) there are 338 cadet units where nearly 2,000 officers and instructors, almost all volunteers, take responsibility for and train 12,500 cadets. This commitment from volunteers to our young people is so valuable. Thank you all!

With Col Ray Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the East Anglia Reserve Forces and Cadets Association

Possibly most impressive are those organisations run by young people for young people. The hugely successful Essex Young Farmers Show highlighted what can be achieved by dedicated and hard working volunteers showcasing their skills and promoting farming, still so important to Essex, and offering a really great day out to the local community.

Meeting the National Chairman of the Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, Ed Gaitland, and Essex Clubs Chairman, Ellie Gemmill

There are of course, many other groups, some large and some small, offering similar support for our children and young adults. I’m looking forward to meeting many of them over the coming year, and especially those who work with children who might otherwise be led into anti-social behaviour or crime.

I have learned it can be tough work for the staff and volunteers who run those organisations; but also how rewarding it can be. The testimony of those whose lives have been turned round – for the better – has been compelling and heart-warming.

If Music be the Food of Love

Orsino may have been wanting more music simply to cure his love for Olivia, but music of all sorts plays an important part in the lives of many, if not most people.

I have grown up with music; a piano in the house, record players and radios; and from an early age singing in choirs. At King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford and at church and Chelmsford Cathedral I sang, and I also played ‘cello in the school orchestra. Wonderful teachers set me on a path of amateur music-making that I still enjoy.

Across Essex, amateur music groups of all sorts; choirs, orchestras and bands large and small of every variety, week by week practise and prepare for the concerts, church services and shows that add so much to our community and cultural life. Enabling and supporting this great wave of amateur music making are the many dedicated professional musicians who teach, train and lead.

Hutton and Shenfield Choral Society performing recently.

The COVID pandemic presented huge challenges to music professionals and to volunteers on the committees who organise all these groups. It was a hard struggle for everyone. As ‘volunteering’ is the main theme of my year as High Sheriff, I thought, as regular concerts resume, I would help promote some of them across the county, to give me the chance to say ‘thank you’ to those who have worked so hard to keep alive this important aspect of community life.

Many music groups also perform to help promote or raise funds for local charities. Most of these, too, have had tough time during COVID. To help give those local voluntary groups some extra publicity, I am also inviting the music groups I visit simply to team up with a local charity to help promote their work. This will give me the chance to say, on behalf of all of us in Essex, thank you to those charities for the work they do to care for those in our communities who need a bit of extra support.

The first of these concerts is on June 11th at Great Waltham with the Waltham Singers, promoting the Chelmsford charity, Sanctus which provides meals and other services for those in need in the city. You can read details here. It will be a great concert.

I will give details of future concerts on social media, so do keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter.

Perhaps music can, truly, be the food of love.


Last week I recorded some recollections of meeting Her Majesty the Queen for Basildon’s Gateway 97.8 for broadcast on the Saturday of the Jubilee weekend. I had to choose a song and selected ‘Tapestry’ by Carol King from the album of the same name that I have grown up with since it was released the year I went to university. It was a tough year as my mother died just after Christmas at the end of my first term.

As I reflect on my first three weeks as the High Sheriff of Essex, I might reflect, with gratitude, that my own life has been a rich tapestry, with an ‘ever-changing view’. Rather, I am struck by the extraordinary tapestry – of rich and royal hue – formed by the community and voluntary sector in Essex, working with partners in local councils, the police, religious organisations and many others.

The opening of the ‘Me Myself and I’ unit at the Knightswood Centre at Asheldham on the Dengie.

So far, I have visited groups serving those with hearing loss, those living with dementia, the suicidal, the hungry, the poor, the recently arrived in England, the isolated – and many others in need. Some groups are long established, some new. Some are part of a national network, some very local. Some are faith based; some not. All rely on volunteers who, again echoing Carol King’s words, “have seen suffering among those they don’t know”.

The St John Ambulance Cadets receiving an award at the ‘Heart 4 Harlow Awards’ evening.

Our councils, at their best, support and celebrate the work of these groups, and I have already shared in that cheer too, with presentations in Chelmsford, Maldon, Harlow, Colchester and Southend. There is also much evidence of good coordination either led, or supported, by the local coordination groups – such as Maldon CVS or Community360, in Colchester.

Presenting a High Sheriff’s personal award to the Transport Team at Community 360 in Colchester.

I knew the role of High Sheriff would give me the opportunity to ‘see and feel’ this ‘wondrous woven fabric’; and so it has proved. But there are always clouds. There is much anxiety about recovery from COVID-19, and now the rapidly rising prices of food and fuel. There is also some worry about replacing those volunteers who stood down during the pandemic. Volunteering is the theme for my year as High Sheriff and I have already seen how many opportunities for volunteering there are across Essex and the variety of these roles. Your local CVS  – or Volunteer Essex – are great resources to find openings near to you.

Andrew, a volunteer with Hearing Help Essex, helping fix a client’s hearing aid in Witham.

Again in Carol King’s words, I have met many people in these first three weeks who say, every day, to those they may not know, ‘You’ve got a friend’.

That gives me great hope.

The start of a new Shrievalty year

A view over Harwich – the town where I was born.

Thank you, and well done, for finding your way to this ‘Blog’. I hope to write at least one each month during my year as High Sheriff of Essex, sharing my journey in this extraordinary role. I am grateful to Dr James Bettley, himself High Sheriff in 2019, who created and maintains this excellent website, and who offered to host these articles here. One great advantage for me is that I do not have to retell the history of the role of High Sheriff as there is so much information on this website, and all so much better researched and written that I could possibly have achieved. Do enjoy reading the many excellent articles.

It is a great honour and privilege to have been appointed to serve as High Sheriff of Essex, a role for which I assumed responsibility this week. Essex is the county in which I was born, in Harwich police station, and where I have lived most of my life. I have a great affection for it, and while I think I know the county quite well, I am sure I will learn so much more during this year. As you can read elsewhere in this site, the main role of the High Sheriff now is to support the voluntary and community sector and particularly those organisations working in the fields of criminal justice and community safety.  

As a trustee of Essex Community Foundation for five years, I have got to know much about the voluntary sector across Essex, but there is still so much more for me to learn about the vital work, often unseen, that so many people contribute to making Essex communities safer.  I am also looking forward to learning more about the work of our courts in Essex, the police and other emergency services, the probation and prison services. I know how important the work of the probation service is, and while it is inevitable and right that some who offend serve time in prison, I am keen to learn how that time can be used, where possible, to turn around people’s lives to avoid them reoffending.

My overall theme for the year is volunteering. Volunteers are the lifeblood of our communities, working not only in the charitable and voluntary sectors, but often, and unrecognized, in many organisations on which we rely, such as the police, our hospitals, the fire service, the lifeboats and other essential services. I am looking forward to learning so much more about how volunteers serve their communities, and to encouraging everyone to consider volunteering to enrich their lives, as well as those of others.

If you are involved in the voluntary and community sector across Essex and you think during my year that I could help you, through a visit, perhaps thanking your volunteers or by giving publicity to your work, please do get in touch with me at essex@highsheriffs.com.

One of my own interests is choral singing. During the year I hope to encourage music groups across Essex, who offer so much to our local communities, by attending concerts where local charities can also be featured.  The first on 11 June, is a concert by the Waltham Singers who will be promoting a Chelmsford based charity. More details will follow soon. As we come through this dreadful pandemic it has never been more important to build community links and a community spirit. I hope in a small way that I can encourage this.

During the year I will be organising other events, some to bring together those who volunteer, some those who care about justice in our communities, and some just for fun and to raise money for the High Sheriff’s Fund. You can read about the Fund and the awards it supports here.

Thank you for your interest – and please come back for more! You can also follow me on Facebook at High Sheriff of Essex, on Instagram at Nick Alston (high_sheriff_of_essex) and on Twitter at @Essex_HS