It’s holiday time!

Beach huts at Walton-on-the-Naze on a sparkling summer day. A photo by Matt Mallett from my book on the 25 years of the Essex High Sheriffs’ Fund with Essex Community Foundation.

Many of us, including me, will be enjoying time off in August to spend on holiday, perhaps with family and friends. It can be an important time for reflection and renewal, and I have been reflecting on my first four months as High Sheriff.

The first reflection is that the time has simply flown by, as former High Sheriffs warned me it would. More than a third of my time as High Sheriff has already passed. It has seen me visit most corners of the county for a range of purposes. Visits to charities in Thurrock, Southend, Colchester, Clacton, the Dengie, Billericay, Chelmsford, Braintree, Harlow and many more. I’ve met the military in Colchester and Wimbish and enjoyed concerts including those I am promoting that are supporting local charities in Maldon, Great Waltham and Waltham Abbey. I have also visited schools and colleges to judge competitions and speak about my role.

I’ve been to the new Essex and Hertfordshire Air Ambulance base at North Weald, and to one of our main ambulance stations. The focus for me, however, has properly been on those involved in the criminal justice system.

I have sat with a Judge in the Crown Court on the opening day of a murder trial, met with our senior Family Court Judge and our Tribunal Judges, and visited two of our Magistrates Courts and the teams who administer them. Essex Police have been welcoming and I have met those running the varied volunteer programmes within policing, as well as teams tackling rural crime and those targeting the most serious of the domestic abuse perpetrators across our county.

Presenting the High Sheriffs’ Probation Service award to Sue Taylor

Within the criminal justice arena I have made good contacts with the Probation Service and with the Essex Youth Offending Service. The Probation Service invited me to present their annual awards at a lovely ceremony – the first time it has been held for 3 years. I also joined an ‘unpaid work’ team to understand the value of that both as a punishment and to the communities where the work is carried out. I have enjoyed connecting the Probation Service with groups which might offer additional unpaid work opportunities.

The most rewarding part of the role has to be the visits to charities and voluntary groups working with young people and others with additional needs of all sorts. Over the past two weeks during this worryingly hot summer, I have seen holiday activities in full swing. Some of these are open to anyone and are organised by groups to help fund their charitable activities. Others are especially for those who otherwise would not be able to enjoy a holiday at all.

Some of the team at the holiday club run by UTurn4Support in Clacton-on-sea

But the demand on the charitable and voluntary sector – for volunteers and funds – to support those in need, especially at holiday time, is great. My theme for the year is volunteering and if you have ever thought of volunteering, or perhaps are now considering it for the first time, please do find out how you can help. Help of many sorts is required: as a front line worker; perhaps helping with administration of a group; or offering your skills as a Trustee. There are just so many opportunities, and there has never been a more important time to step forward, as we can be sure the next couple of years will be tough for many people. Your local CVS should be able to point you to volunteering opportunities in your area and there is a Volunteer Essex website that you can refer to.

The other great need, of course, is for funds. Over the years, successive High Sheriffs have build up a fund that offers sustainable funding to groups across Essex that are seeking in many different ways to make their communities safer, often by caring for those who otherwise would be at the mercy of criminal gangs. All monies raised by the High Sheriff are matched by Essex Police, with £1 for every £2 raised, from the monies recovered from criminals under the Proceeds of Crime Act. How satisfying is that?

Bids for grants are invited each year and awarded by a panel including former High Sheriffs, Essex Police, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, and local authorities.

The striking front cover of the book I have edited on the Essex High Sheriffs’ Fund

You can donate to the Essex High Sheriffs Fund here. I would also be delighted to post a copy of my book about the Fund, which contains more than 40 wonderful new photographs of Essex taken by Matthew Mallett, as well as chapters about Essex, Essex Community Foundation, the Fund, Volunteering and the High Sheriff! There is also a fascinating chapter on Police Crime Scene Investigation and ‘The Essex Camera’. What was that?

Order a copy of the book to find out – available in return for the ‘promise’ of a donation to the fund, by emailing essex@highsheriffs.com with your name and address.

It is a real privilege to be High Sheriff, and I am looking forward to the rest of my year. Please now enjoy the rest of the summer, taking care in the continuing heat. Let’s also keep in mind those who are not in a position to enjoy a holiday – and those whose voluntary and charitable work supports them throughout the year. They need our support.

Volunteering and Partnership

Exploring and encouraging Volunteering is the main theme for my year as High Sheriff. Over the past few weeks I have seen at first hand how volunteers, of many different sorts, are essential not only to the effective operation of the criminal justice system, but also to helping in organisations that encourage young people and others lead fulfilling lives, and to enriching the life of our communities.

The hugely successful, Essex Police organised, ‘Community Goals’ football tournament at Great Baddow on 9 July supported by Chelmsford City players and many others, volunteering their time.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a day visiting the magistrates courts in Colchester and Chelmsford. Magistrates deal with over 95% of all criminal cases but it is easy to forget that they are all volunteers, giving typically a couple of days a month to their court duties. They are well supported by the professional staff of HM Courts and Tribunal Service, and this partnership between well trained volunteers and professionals within the statutory or community and voluntary sector is replicated in many parts of the criminal justice system and beyond. If you are interested in finding out about becoming a magistrate you can do so here.

On a visit to St Mary’s Church Kelvedon I was able to see the excellent ‘unpaid work’ being carried out by ‘People on Probation’ (POPs) under the experienced supervision of Probation Officers. The POPs are welcomed by church volunteers who ensure the right work gets done!

Last week I was briefed by the team that draws together all those who volunteer with Essex Police to help make our communities safer. These volunteers total nearly 1500 and range from very experienced members of the Special Constabulary, to youngsters who have recently joined the Volunteer Police Cadets. All around the county, there are Active Citizens and Police Support Volunteers and others giving their time to help make their communities safer. You can read more about the work of volunteers within Essex Police here.

Without effective partnership and coordination, however, there is always a risk some of this effort would be wasted. I have been pleased to see those partnerships at work as I attended the meetings of community safety partnerships in a number of districts. I also joined a conference to share learning from the development of community safety hubs. In most districts across Essex, these now bring together many of the different agencies that need to work closely to deliver safer communities. Many of those hubs host regular meetings where local charitable and voluntary sector organisations can contribute both to identifying local problems and, working together, to finding and implementing solutions.


At the Beehive in Thurrock, many local community and voluntary sector groups are co-located; an efficient accommodation solution and one that allows for easy partnership working.

On a visit to Thurrock, I visited the Foodbank at Corringham, and KidEco and Baby Bank at Lakeside, each meeting essential needs of those facing financial hardship. I went on to The Hive, the HQ of Thurrock CVS (Community and Voluntary Services). It was heartening to learn how the CVS encourages both volunteering and partnership working across all the organisations it supports. I was reminded that within the charitable and community sectors there are not only volunteers, but also many highly skilled professionals delivering badly needed and expert services, often commissioned by, and working closely with statutory services.

Abberton Rural Training in full swing (building a new pond among other tasks) where I was delighted to present a High Sheriff’s Certificate to Joe, now a staff member, who has done much to support those, who like him, live with Autism.

I so enjoyed a visit to Abberton Rural Training at Wormingford, which offers a variety of learning opportunities, in a rural setting, to those struggling in many different ways with their mental health or having additional learning needs. This blending of expert professional and volunteering effort within a charity, to meet what would otherwise unmet needs, is deeply impressive.

So too – in a completely different context is the work of the Essex and Hertfordshire Air Ambulance Trust (EHAAT). I visited their North Weald base last week, appropriately with Sally Burton DL, the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire. EHAAT is a charity raising all the funds needed to keep the two helicopters and fleet of specialist road response vehicles operational with crews and doctors. The NHS fund the expert paramedics who work on the crews. Those paramedics also work shifts in the ambulance control room, providing essential coordination between EHAAT, the ambulance service and hospitals. This ensures that those critically injured in our counties get the best help as quickly as possible, and are then moved to where they can best be treated. The voluntary support needed to sustain this highly professional, hi-tec emergency service, working hand in glove with our NHS, is similarly remarkable.

NHS paramedics work not only on the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance helicopters and response vehicles alongside doctors, but also at the Ambulance control room, triaging calls. Here is the Hi-tec simulation suite at the North Weald base where they can practise both on the ground patient care (here in a night club setting), and, in a separate space, continuation care on the helicopter – complete with the noise!

It is a huge privilege as High Sheriff to be able to visit these many different organisations and to learn about, and witness, the remarkable work they do for those in need across our county and to enrich the lives of our communities. Partnership working between them is always important, but the more so when resources everywhere are being squeezed. And I haven’t yet met an organisation that doesn’t need more volunteers: to train as a magistrate or a police support volunteer; or to work in the many charities helping those in need; or in their governance as a Trustee; or as a fundraiser. If you can find a few hours a week – or a day or two a month, perhaps supported by your employer, why not explore the many options?

Celebration

June has been a busy month of celebration. The Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen has been a constant and joyous theme, but interspersed with this have been celebrations with several Essex based charities. Over the past week the celebrations continued as our armed forces moved onto the stage during Armed Forces Week.

Our Lord Lieutenant commenced the Jubilee celebrations with a service at Chelmsford Cathedral, attended by dignitaries from around the county. Red, white and blue flowers added to the occasion which was enjoyed by all those present and broadcast on the Cathedral’s Facebook channel. You can still watch it on You Tube here.

The Cathedral celebration was closely followed by a magnificent ceremony at Castle Park in Colchester where the guns of 7th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery fired a 42 Gun Salute to mark the Jubilee. Such a salute is a rare occasion and we are lucky that the event was hosted in our county by a resident Regiment, part of 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team.

The same evening I joined the Mayor of Chelmsford and many hundreds of Chelmsford residents for the lighting of the Jubilee Beacon at Oaklands Park. The Chelmsford Singers sang – and Jonathan Swan played the specially commissioned piece for the Bagpipes. It was altogether a very special evening.

Jubilee services were held at churches around the county as, town by town, people came together as they have for centuries, to celebrate a very happy Royal occasion. I attended several including one at one of our finest churches, St Mary’s in Saffron Walden – one of the great ‘wool churches’ largely built in the 15th and 16th centuries funded by the wealth of the Essex wool trade. You can read a history of the church here.

The Vice Lord Lieutenant, the Mayor and Town Clerk of Saffron Walden, and me, with partners together with the Macebearer at St Mary’s Church

During the month I was also pleased to attend several happy celebrations with Essex organisations, though sadly I missed joining Keep It 100 and ECVYS for their evening events as I was under the weather for a few days. It is hard to pick highlights, but Chelmsford CVS organised a very successful Volunteer Festival in the High Street; Lads need Dads held a terrific awards event at Princes Theatre in Clacton-on-Sea; and North Avenue Youth Centre in Chelmsford held their AGM and lovely awards ceremony followed by a barbeque that we all enjoyed. The charity and voluntary sectors contribute so much to community life and it right that we celebrate with them as they transform lives.

Enjoying the barbeque after the North Avenue Youth Centre AGM

Celebrations at the end of the month didn’t let up as Essex Police held a long service awards evening, and the county celebrated Armed Forces Week, the more special this year because of the Jubilee. Towns raised flags to mark a local Armed Forces day, and our Essex based military units organised events, with the 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team putting on a spectacular show on Abbey Fields in Colchester. Essex is also proud to host the Royal Engineers at Carver Barracks in Wimbish. I was honoured to be invited to take the salute at the Jubilee Parade of 35 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Search) and to present their Jubilee Medals. After the constraints imposed by COVID19, celebrating in such a way felt very special indeed.

As this month of celebration draws to a close, there is much to reflect on: the 70 years of faithful service of her Majesty the Queen: the loyal and brave commitment of our police and armed forces: and around Essex, day by day, the work of many voluntary and community organisations. Their employees and volunteers work tirelessly, seeking to make communities safer and more caring places. I have been deeply impressed by those I have already met, and now look forward to meeting many more during the summer and autumn.

There truly is so much to celebrate.

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.

Tapestry

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

The Declaration Ceremony (coronavirus style)

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From Chapman & André’s map of Essex, 1777

Nearly twelve months ago I described the Declaration Ceremony and the Declaration itself. No one would then have guessed how different things would be for my successor, Julie Fosh. In January came news that there were likely to be some changes to the wording of the Declaration. When the new version arrived at the end of February it turned out to be very different from the old one. Gone were the interminable unpunctuated sentences about such matters as sheriffwicks and bailiwicks and ‘let to farm’; in their place a series of concise, elegantly worded undertakings, including what is arguably the key one, to ‘support the Judiciary and all who maintain The Queen’s Peace, who administer justice, and who protect and support their fellow citizens’.

The other change was unplanned and crept up on us at first slowly, and then rapidly. It wasn’t until Friday 13 March, of all dates, that I realised we should be thinking of contingency plans for the Declaration Ceremony because of the increasing disruption being caused by the coronavirus, which had been declared a pandemic two days earlier. After a number of changes of plan in response to ever-stricter Government advice, it was decided to bring the date forward, from 6 April to 25 March, to ensure that the key players were in good health, and then, as the situation developed, to limit the ceremony to those who absolutely needed to be present for legal reasons, and to hold it at Julie Fosh’s house in North Fambridge. 

The large-scale event of the kind we have become used to is a relatively recent invention. The Council Chamber at County Hall was first used in 2015, for Vincent Thompson’s Declaration. Before that it took place in various Crown Courts, and in some years at Hylands House. Go back a little further in the 20th century and you will find the Declaration being made in the Under Sheriff’s office with just the necessary Justice of the Peace as witness. We came close to that this year, but in the end returned to what used to be the common practice of the High Sheriff making his Declaration in his own house (and it always ‘his’ in those days). When Henry Grapnel made his Declaration in 1290 it’s more than likely that he did so in Tiled Hall, close to Latchingdon old church, a stone’s throw from where Julie is making her Declaration today. And for Henry Grapnel, and every High Sheriff until 1752, today, 25 March, Lady Day, was the first day of the new year, so he would have thought this a much more natural date for the Declaration than 6 April.

One of the pleasures of the last year and more has been getting to know Julie and Paul Fosh. Those of you know her already do not need telling that she will be a wonderful High Sheriff, and everyone else will soon find out. She will, I think, take the Essex shrievalty to new places, and not just because the current situation requires it. I wish her every joy in the role, and hope that in spite of all the challenges ahead she finds it as interesting and rewarding as I have done.

[Footnote for the benefit of future historians: The Queen’s Remembrancer has decided that in the current situation s. 7(1) of the Sheriffs Act would encompass the Declaration being read out by the incoming High Sheriff either by telephone conference or by any form of digital video link with a High Court judge or justice of the peace of the relevant county.]

Valedictory despatch

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Before social distancing: with Alf, a volunteer at a community club in Waltham Forest run by Voluntary Action Epping Forest

How quickly the situation changes. When I published my post The great outdoors on 16 March it already had a retrospective feel, and now most if not all of the activities I mentioned are no longer running. To take just one example, Abberton Rural Training tweeted on 18 March that that would be their last day of normal operations for the foreseeable future. Now they are looking at ways of delivering services by other means. The closure of cafés affects not just commercial enterprises but social ones too. Hadleigh Farm’s tea room is not just a tea room, it is also a training centre for people with learning difficulties, who do a real job by staffing the café and thereby acquire skills that they can use elsewhere. The Coffee Grind café behind the Castle Point Council offices in Thundersley, run by Carers Choices, is in a similar predicament. Drop-in centres like 57 West in Southend and Sanctus in Chelmsford are run by volunteers who may themselves be getting over some of the issues faced by those they are helping. As places like this are forced to close down the loss of services will have an impact on staff and volunteers as well as users.

In the greater scheme of things it is no more than a minor technicality that we have decided to bring forward the Declaration of my successor as High Sheriff by a few days, in the hope of ensuring that all the key players can be present. On these occasions it has become customary for the outgoing High Sheriff to deliver a report on their year, but what I shall be saying is not what I had intended; so I shall publish it here instead, with apologies for the length. Much of it may not seem particularly relevant in the current situation, but it deals with some of the values that form the basis of our society – in particular, public service and the rule of law – which are as important now as they ever have been, and will be greatly needed over the coming months.

So, my reflections after not quite a full year as High Sheriff are divided into three groups of three. The first group comprises the three themes that I chose to highlight during my year in office: litter, Travellers, and women offenders.

Litter seems like a bit of a first-world, middle-class problem, but it is of course an offence, it is one step away from the very serious problem of fly-tipping, and there is evidence that a litter-free environment, especially in built-up areas, is less liable to suffer from anti-social behaviour: the one breeds the other. There are a great many individuals and groups across the county who regularly go litter-picking and I hope I’ve been able to do something to support and encourage them, as well as making my own modest contribution with my shrieval litter-picking-tool. As with so many environmental issues, young people are often more aware than their elders and so-called betters, and inspired by a litter-pick Lucy and I did with the 4th Rochford Scouts I worked with Richard Pattison, County Commissioner for Essex Scouts, to organise a countywide litter-pick by cubs and scouts over the last weekend in March. [This, of course, was overtaken by events, but we hope it can be rescheduled for September.]

If, when I move on from litter to Gypsies and Travellers, you say to yourself that you can see where this is going, then you’ve fallen into my trap. If you nod knowingly when I tell you that most of the Travellers I have met and spoken to have been in Chelmsford Prison, then you have fallen even further in. I do not set myself up as a champion and defender of Gypsies and Travellers – that would be presumptuous – but I do deplore the stereotyping of this group of people, and the way in which they are talked about in terms that would not be acceptable if applied to other minorities. Like all groups of people they are made up of individuals, and while I would not presume to call them my friends I have spent some entertaining hours in their company, enjoyed their hospitality, and shared their food, and I think I am right saying that they appreciate a little non-hostile attention from an unlikely quarter. The bodies who work with Travellers – specific officers of local authorities, the County Council’s Countywide Traveller Unit, and Essex Police’s Rural Engagement Team – have all built up a good working relationship with them precisely because they treat them as individuals. Some good work is being done to bridge the gap between the Traveller community and the wider community, particularly in Basildon with the Council’s Traveller Wellbeing Group, and one of the High Sheriffs’ Awards that I was particularly pleased to make was to Southend YMCA for the bus which they take to Travellers’ sites, filled with help and advice and activities that enable Travellers to engage better with the wider community. After a gap of a couple of years the bus was back at Oak Lane (next to the site of the better-known Dale Farm) in March and, taking this as a model, plans are underway to introduce a similar scheme across the whole county.

The particular circumstances of women offenders is a concern that arose directly out of my experience as a magistrate. It has been well understood for many years that women suffer disproportionately compared with men as a result of their treatment by the criminal justice and prison systems, systems designed by men for men. Most women who are sent to prison are there for relatively short sentences, for non-violent offences, very often committed under the influence of controlling male partners to the extent that they are victims as much as they are perpetrators. Because there are fewer women offenders than men there are fewer prisons, further apart, which in the case of Essex means being sent to Peterborough. Their children are likely to be taken into care and it is well known that children who have been in care are more likely to become offenders themselves. Some good work has been done in Essex by our Community Rehabilitation Company working with Open Road, Wilderness Foundation and others, to provide programmes specifically for women that address offending and provide a realistic alternative to prison, and a major development took place at the end of 2019 with the opening of a women’s centre in Harlow by Safer Places: women’s centres have proved to be extremely effective in other locations, and this is the first of its kind in Essex. But we need more, and more needs to be done generally, and I was delighted to be able to work with Essex CRC and the national charity Clinks to organise a one-day conference at the end of March which brought together the various agencies from across the county to review progress so far and see how the situation can be improved. We were fortunate to have engaged as keynote speaker Vicky Pryce, the economist and author of Prisonomics who, you will recall, was sent to prison for taking penalty points on her licence that should have gone to her husband Chris Huhne. As Vicky’s journey through the criminal justice system started with being interviewed by Essex Police I think it was particularly gracious of her to accept my invitation. [This too was overtaken by events but we hope that this also will take place in September.]

My second group of three comprises events in the last year that have raised issues of concern to all those interested in law and order. The first was the Supreme Court ruling on the prorogation of Parliament in September. The ruling confirmed, except for those who strongly disagreed with it, the independence of the judiciary that is fundamental to our way of life in this country and underpins the rule of law that affects not just the judiciary but of course the police and everyone else who is responsible for maintaining law and order. It is arguably the first objective of the High Sheriff to support the judiciary, and I have no hesitation in doing that. I started out the year with a high opinion of judges, and during the year it has only grown. The job they are doing is particularly difficult at the moment, as a result of repeated cost savings made by the Ministry of Justice, to the point where it is increasingly being said, not just in private but in public, that the system is close to breaking point. Those who work in the courts are under increasing pressure and there are good reasons to fear for the long-term future of what is, or was, the finest justice system in the world. Our judges here in Essex do a magnificent job, and I’d particularly like to thank His Honour Judge Gratwicke, resident judge in Chelmsford, for his kindness and hospitality over the past months, and similarly to thank John Lodge who retired as resident judge in Basildon at the end of November. To be able to sit beside them on the bench is a real privilege, not to say an education.

The second event was the shocking death of thirty-nine Vietnamese migrants in Thurrock in October. Perhaps this incident led you, like me, to wonder what it is about this country that makes people go to such lengths and take such risks to get here. A part of the answer, not necessarily something that those migrants would have consciously thought about, may lie in the matter of judicial independence that I have just been talking about. Another great part of the answer may lie in the response of the emergency services and other authorities to an incident that is way beyond what most of us expect to encounter in our daily lives. I have spent many hours with a variety of police officers as they go about their work, and have been enormously impressed by their professionalism and, in particular, by their dedication to serving the public. I cannot deny that it has been fun dashing from one side of the county to the other on blue runs, chatting with police dogs and their handlers, exploring the police armoury, and cruising down the coast from the Crouch to the Thames in the Marine Unit’s launch. But the death of the Vietnamese migrants shows just how much we expect of our police and emergency services, and the impact of this event on the ambulance crew who were first on the scene, the police who had to investigate the crime, and the hospital staff and coroner’s officers who had their parts to play in the process, can barely be imagined by the rest of us. At such times these people, who do the vital jobs that the rest of us are very glad not to have to do, need all the support that the community they serve can give. I’d like to take the opportunity at this point to pay tribute to our senior coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, who this year has been president of the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales. The courtesy and sympathy with which she treats those who come before her in court, particularly grieving relatives, is an example to us all.

The third event was the equally shocking incident at Fishmongers’ Hall and London Bridge in November. For many in Essex this event was close to home because one of the victims, Saskia Jones, had studied at Anglia Ruskin University. The immediate reaction seemed to be that anyone convicted of a terrorist offence should be locked up indefinitely, until it was pointed out Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt believed passionately in the possibility of rehabilitation through education, the very opposite of lock ’em up and throw away the key. What the legal effect will be of this incident, and of the more recent knifing incident in Streatham, remains to be seen, but what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall did at least draw attention to the event that was being run there and the possibility of rehabilitation: such an important thing to believe in, and a deeply held belief which I have observed on many occasions in the last year on various visits to Probation, the Essex Community Rehabilitation Company, and the Youth Offending Service. I have heard more than one staff member describe what they do as a vocation, and we are very fortunate to have these dedicated people working among us. If as a society we lose faith in the possibility of rehabilitation of all offenders, regardless of their offence, we will have reached a very sorry state.

For my third trio, I offer briefly three observations on the shrievalty. The first is by François de la Rochefoucauld, a young French aristocrat who visited England in 1784. ‘It is an honour to have been Sheriff,’ he wrote, ‘but being it is very troublesome.’ It’s one of those pithy sayings that the French are so good at – it is worthy of Voltaire, and no doubt sounds even better in French. The duties of High Sheriff then were indeed onerous, and an unwelcome distraction from the normal routine of a gentleman. Now I think we can all agree that it is still an honour to have been Sheriff, but being it is time-consuming, yes; exhausting, at certain points in the year; but hugely rewarding and, very often, great fun.

The second is by Robert Erith, High Sheriff in 1997–8, who told me that being High Sheriff changed his life. Well, I think that’s probably right in my case too, although it’s still too early to tell.

The third observation was made to me by David Boyle, High Sheriff in 2002–3, although he does not claim to have said it first. ‘There’s nothing as ex as an ex-High Sheriff.’ I’m sure that’s true as well, as I am about to discover, but it has always been at the back of my mind as an incentive to make the most of every opportunity offered during the past year.

The great outdoors

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Close encounter at Wellies-On (and I do realise it’s not a goat)

It wasn’t until I encountered my third goat that I began to spot a trend, but I have now visited quite a number and variety of farms and gardens that provide programmes and services that might be broadly termed therapeutic. Given that some 72 per cent of the land area of Essex is devoted to agriculture, and with significant urban populations not just within the county but also over the border in Greater London, it’s not surprising that small farms, in particular, should be used in this way. An example is Wellies-On, a 40-acre social or care farm at Abberton that has been providing therapeutic and educational services since 2005. As well as offering visits that might include helping to feed and groom the animals, and work in the vegetable garden, Wellies-On also has a ‘flat pack farm’, complete with chickens, goats, Shetland pony, sheep, and farm dogs, that it takes to care homes and schools, including the Heybridge Co-Operative Academy that I wrote about recently. Rainbow Rural Centre at Barnston, near Dunmow, provides a similar opportunity for people to interact with animals and nature on an organic farm.

The idea of putting farmland to positive social use has been around for a long time. The Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm was started by William Booth in 1891 to provide training for young men from the East End of London, with the idea that they would then be equipped to seek a better life in the Empire overseas. The role of the farm changed after the Second World War and in the 1950s it was used for training former youth offenders and boys on probation. In 1990 the Hadleigh Training Centre opened in conjunction with the farm and it now provides facilities to train people with special educational needs, some of whom go on to regular employment. It is spectacularly sited overlooking the Thames Estuary, with a public café and access to the neighbouring country park, as well as a rare breeds centre to visit.

Header_TestimonialSomewhere I was particularly keen to visit was Circles Farm, near Stock, because I’d heard about them when sitting as a magistrate in the Youth Court. There was something appealing (to me) about the rather scruffy and ramshackle collection of buildings at the far end of a bumpy track: a mix of old farm buildings, new ones that had been, or were being, built as part of the farm’s activities, and donated portable buildings clad in black weatherboarding to satisfy the planners. It’s an environment so far removed from home or school as to be unthreatening and therefore nurturing for the young people who come here, and although there are plenty of animals around there is also an engineering workshop and a beauty salon, with the opportunity to earn BTEC qualifications. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed, but serious work gets done too.

Lambourne End Centre similarly offers alternative provision for young people struggling in mainstream school, with courses leading to City & Guilds qualifications in animal care and estate maintenance. As well as being a working farm (complete with shop that sells meat from their own animals as well as eggs as other produce), the 54-acre site also has a range of outdoor activity equipment including a climbing wall and zip wire, and all within the M25. It was odd to walk round there on a rather cold morning and then drive five minutes down the road and take a Central Line train to Holborn, with plenty of good Essex mud on my shoes.

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Wilderness UK TurnAround graduates at their celebration in February

There are animals too at Abberton Rural Training, although not permanently resident; but if there are animals at Wilderness Foundation UK, they are wild, not domesticated, and I failed to spot them. Wilderness’s Essex base at Chatham Green is what they call a 400-acre living classroom, and I’ve already written about the excellent work they do with women offenders. I returned there in February to celebrate the successful completion of another TurnAround project: eight young people with problems of one sort or another who have been helped over nine months to come to terms with their lives with the help of a range of activities and mentoring, mainly in Essex but including challenging outward-bound expeditions in Wales and Scotland. The results are impressive, in terms of building confidence and skills. The sad reality is that such intensive programmes are available to only a tiny number of people, and there are many more who would benefit from it.

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A warm welcome at Dig4Jaywick community garden

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that you need hundreds or even a single acre to provide nature-based opportunities for improving health and wellbeing. One of the places I have enjoyed visiting most is the ‘Dig4Jaywick’ community garden. I saw it briefly on a wet Sunday in August following a beach clean along Jaywick Sands. As there was no one around I made a point of returning a couple of weeks later, taking with me a rose for the garden. I was a bit overdressed for the occasion (I was going on to a Firebreak parade at Clacton Fire Station, but that’s another story), but I had a very friendly reception and in return for my rose came away with a bag of tomatoes and onions. Jaywick gets a bad press as being ‘the most deprived area in England’ (news stories usually accompanied by out-of-date photographs of unmade roads), but anyone who’s been there and talked to residents will know that it has a very strong community spirit, and the garden is an excellent example of that.

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Inspecting cuttings with green-fingered Dave