The PREVIEW interview: Countess Bathurst
In April this year, The Right Honourable The Countess Bathurst was ordained as the new High Sheriff of Gloucestershire. Sally Bult met her to discuss what the position entails and discovered how her love of literature has already inspired a new project helping improve literacy in prisons…
Congratulations on your recent appointment as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire. Please could you tell our readers a little about the role?
The position of High Sheriff is not elected. In Gloucestershire, each serving High Sheriff thinks of the name of a person who will then come into office four years hence. This name is put before a panel of various members of society – council, police, judiciary and previous High Sheriffs. I think in some counties the High Sheriff alone chooses, but in Gloucestershire we thought for reasons of transparency it would be a good idea to have a High Sheriff panel. Once approved by the panel, the person is asked whether they would like to take on the role. It’s something you do think about quite carefully. The criteria for being High Sheriff include being an active member of the county, having done a bit for charity and your community, and being energetic, enthusiastic, kind and ready to roll up your sleeves up and get ’stuck in’. You only do it for a year and it’s a huge honour to be asked. I was astounded when I was asked to do it by Mark Heywood. Tony Blair tried to get rid of the office of High Sheriff, as he believed it was a drain on the purse. It used to be a role that had funding but this has now all gone. In order to save it, the High Sheriff had to become self-funded and this means that it is now an extremely expensive role to take on, with the travel expenses, secretarial expenses, use of a driver and the uniform all coming out of your own pocket. This is a shame as it means that an awful lot of people who would be absolutely brilliant in the role are counted out because it is so demanding on a private income. It is one of the oldest posts in the country – we think it was created in 972 – so it is a very historic and traditional role but one that still has huge relevance in modern times. I am incredibly fortunate to have a husband who is extremely supportive and it wasn’t without his agreement that I could take this on. It’s our way of doing our bit and giving something back to society, which is what we have always believed in.
What does being High Sheriff involve on a day to day basis?
On a weekly basis, I’ll attend about eight to ten visits or meetings. It is a full time job but it is hugely enjoyable. You have the ability to raise money during the year, which you then get to allocate. As an example, this morning at the High Sheriff Grants programme, I gave away just under £13,000 to different projects helping youths across the county. It was great fun! The High Sheriff office concentrates a lot on initiatives and projects geared toward helping young people: helping prevent them from indulging in anti-social behaviour, getting them off the streets, teaching them things like how to grow vegetables and all about nutrition. We’re able to look at the requests for grants and can often join the dots by connecting different groups who can then help each other. It’s a wonderful way to get around the county and to discover how many amazing charities, projects, groups, clubs and cadets there are all over. There are so many people giving their time for absolutely nothing but for the sheer enjoyment of looking after our young. And if it wasn’t for those volunteers I don’t think we could exist. As High Sheriff you do have the ability to go and visit some of these unsung heroes and tell them what a really good job they are doing and just thank them and give them a boost.I am also learning a lot about the police, including how hard they work and how under-appreciated they are. Despite having had their funding cut, they still manage to fulfill the role. I do wish people would be kinder to them and I hope I can offer them a level of moral support. They are so committed to helping people and try to treat everyone with respect, fairness and kindness. I’ve done three shifts with them so far: a day at division, a night shift with Cheltenham and a day on traffic, which I have to say I enjoyed far too much! In another life I’d like to be a policewoman. I’m also getting to work with the judiciary, both at Gloucester Crown Court with the fabulous Judge Jamie Tabor and with High Court judges in Bristol. It has been fascinating. In his term as High Sheriff, Mark Heywood started “Getting Court”– an initiative to take schoolchildren into court to see what happens, to learn about judges and to watch defendants getting sentenced. It’s a wonderful way to get children engaged with the legal process in the right way – for anyone toying with the idea of exploring the wrong side of the law, it’s a sharp wake-up call as to what could happen.
How do you go about making the role your own in the one year that you have?
It’s word of mouth: you need to keep your ear to the ground. You get to meet the most amazing group of people. My own passion is literature and I have been shocked to learn that between 60–70% of the offenders in our prisons are either innumerate or illiterate, and that breaks my heart. I wanted to do something about it so I asked Suzy Dymond-White, the new governor of HM Prison Eastwood Park, what I could do to help these girls read and whether it would be possible to start a book club. I now have a group of up to 10 prisoners and we read a book together once a fortnight. It’s simply about getting them reading. If someone can’t read, there’s a whole other world that is shut off to them. I also feel strongly that not being able to read or write is one of the main catalysts for crime. You’re really cut off from society when you can’t read a job application let alone fill one in and you can’t write a CV. You just cannot function. You’re probably on benefits, which aren’t very generous, and you’ve lots of time on your hands… and the inevitable happens. I do truly believe that by helping inmates become literate, they will have a better chance of integrating into society when they are released from prison. Although there are programmes in place in prisons to help with literacy, I wanted to do something that would help those taking part to challenge themselves. At the start, I gave them a choice of three books and they selected “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory. What is really interesting to see is that a group of prisoners who have all led a pretty tough life are now fully engaged with this book. When I read to them, you can hear a pin drop. One of the young women taking part, who suffers from schizophrenia, says that learning to read has helped her calm down because she’s able to get into a book. I really look forward to my meetings with the group and I love talking to the women. We are just so lucky in our cottonwool environment with nice houses and kind husbands and dogs and we lead busy, fulfilling lives – but these people have not had a very good chance in life, with abuse, mistrust, alcohol, beatings and a whole catalogue of errors. If I can help just a few of them, I will feel that my time has been well spent. The book club is something I’d like to carry on past my year of being High Sheriff because committing to something like that is a long-term project. The other exciting thing we’re doing is opening a WI branch at Eastwood Park, which I’m chuffed to bits about.
How do you juggle these duties with your other charitable works?
Well, it does sometimes feel like juggling! All the charities I work with are causes that are close to my heart – animals, for example. I’m Patron of Dog’s Trust, Labrador Rescue Trust and Golden Retriever Club of Great Britain. I’ve got six dogs, so can you see the connection here?! I’ve also just become Patron to the Barn Owl Centre in Gloucester. Other charities of which I am a Patron are the Cirencester Hospital League of Friends, Royal Wessex Yeomanry, LINC in Cheltenham and Salters Hill in Newent. They do all know that I’m not ignoring them this year but that I can’t be as present as I normally am while I’m High Sheriff.
What do you love most about living in Cirencester?
I love the atmosphere. It’s a reasonably large market town and has a great community feel and spirit to it. It has good shopping, too, and there’s a sense of pride in the town and its history.
How do you think towns can move forward without losing their charm?
I think tradition and modernity go hand in hand and can be synergized but it has to be done carefully and with compassion. I think
Brits by nature are wary of change. However, I think any town, no matter where it is, has to embrace change and expansion in order to survive. If that means embracing modern buildings like St James’s Place then so be it – how many market towns in the Cotswolds can boast a FTSE 100 company in their midst? I think that it is wonderful – it brings people, money and progress to the town.
The Cotswold Show takes place this month at Cirencester Park. What does the annual show mean to you?
I go every year – it’s one of the most important weekends in my husband’s life and I’ll be there to support it, as always. It’s a wonderful weekend and, my goodness, how it has grown! This year, we have the The Royal Signals White Helmets Motorcycle display team and The Shetland Pony Grand National – which is hysterical – and the shopping, which was so good last year, the best ever, I think. It’s very much a family show and people love coming to it. I think it is very good value for money and it’s also very traditional. My husband has stayed true to country traditions and country arts and craft – there really is something there for everyone. You almost need a weekend ticket as there’s so much to see.
You obviously have a very full schedule, but how do you like to spend any free time?
My other passion is my holiday cottages. I have three up here – one in Sapperton and two in Kemble – and I have one in Devon now. I inherited my childhood home from a beloved elderly aunt in 2014 and have spent two years and a small fortune renovating it to a five star standard. It sleeps 12 and has a stunning kitchen and a three acre garden, five miles from the coast and ten miles from Lyme Regis. It is a house that means the world to me – I spent the happiest days of my childhood there and I still sneak down there for some peace and quiet when I have some spare time. It has this wonderful atmosphere that just envelops you. One little girl who stayed there recently burst into tears when she was told they were leaving the following morning. Apparently she said, “I don’t want to leave the happy house.” I think that sums it up! As High Sheriff, you now join five other women in some of the county’s most senior positions: Bishop, the Right Reverend Rachel Treweek; Dame Janet Trotter, who became the Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire in 2010; Suzette Davenport as the Chief Constable, and Helen Ryder and Suzy Dymond-White as Governors overseeing both Leyhill Prison and Eastwood Park Prison respectively. Do you think the fascination with gender in such roles is helpful? This is not some great conspiracy. All these women got the jobs because they’re the best ones for the role – it’s got nothing to do with whether or not they wear a skirt. I truly believe that women’s equality in the workplace is paramount and that those women who are doing the same job as a man ought to be treated equally. However, I don’t understand the feminist view sometimes expressed that women are supposed to be equal in everything. I still like the door held open for me, I still like a gentleman to offer me his seat and I still like a man to stand up when I enter a room. I’m quite old fashioned when it comes to manners and chivalry.