Heather Large talks to Selina Graham about her incredible year as High Sheriff of Shropshire.
Travelling the length and breadth of Shropshire to meet the people who make our communities tick has been a journey of discovery for Selina Graham.
When she was installed as High Sheriff in April last year, Selina vowed to champion volunteering in all its guises during her 12 months in office.
Since then, she has made it her mission to meet as many people as possible, who give up their time freely, and without expectation of reward, to improve the lives of others.
“So many people said at the beginning don’t be a ‘busy fool’ and I’ve probably been a ‘busy fool’!” says the mother of two. “Luckily my children learned young to fend for themselves and my husband has fast had to learn to cook! He has been a huge support.
“I’ve been to a lot of places and I’ve met a lot of people. I love meeting people and making connections and the more you meet the more connections you can make.
“The role has taken over my life completely but you only get one shot at it and if you want to make a difference then you need to throw as much at it as you possibly can,” explains Selina.
Over the past 12 months, she has clocked up thousands of miles visiting a vast range of charities and community groups across the county.
“When you start travelling the length and breadth of it, you realise what a huge county Shropshire is. It’s lucky I live pretty centrally,” says Selina, who has been involved in running her family’s estate at Willey Park, Broseley for more than 20 years, “but I still managed to have a day when I opened a Christmas Fayre in Shrewsbury, attended a civic service in Wem and turned on the Christmas lights in Clun!”
Spending time in different communities has opened her eyes to a wide variety of volunteering and the extraordinary efforts people go to support each other.
“My favourite definition of community is ‘a group of people that care about each other and feel they belong together’. When people care about each other, they develop trust and trust unlocks collaboration.
“All over Shropshire, we have such groups. Seeing the different ways in which these communities across Shropshire collaborate for greatest impact has been fantastic – and they are all so different, so proud of their own ‘place’ and how they care for it. It has been very evident that Shropshire is not one ‘place’, it really is made up of so many completely individual and very different towns and communities.”
To help recognise the valuable contribution volunteers make in Shropshire, she has been handing out High Sheriff’s Awards of appreciation.
“We’ve had a huge number of people nominate someone for an award, which is fantastic. I even received three completely independent nominations for one individual, which obviously says a huge amount about her. Somebody else has just received a High Sheriff’s Award from the 4th different county!
“I would never be able to recognise everyone who deserves it but it’s been a real privilege to go out and meet the people I have given awards to,” says Selina.
Selina, whose mother, Catherine Lady Forester, was the first female High Sheriff of Shropshire in 1997, has not only wanted to thank volunteers, but also to spread the positive message: “Volunteering is a remedy. It’s a feel-good pill. Doing things for others makes you feel good about yourself and that can help mental health,” she explains. “One person’s ‘service user’ is often somebody else’s volunteer.” And that is why Selina strongly believes volunteering will have such a positive part to play in social prescribing in the future – where doctors connect people with activities, groups and services to improve their health and wellbeing.
“One of the words I’ve heard the most this year is: purposefulness. The lack of purpose is when things tend to go wrong so doing something meaningful can be incredibly important and there are so many different volunteering opportunities available. I have been highlighting some of these on the High Sheriff’s social media #HighSheriffAsk but the Shropshire Infrastructure Partnership and town and county councils are also good places to look.”
Over the past 12 months, Selina has also undertaken the traditional role of a High Sheriff by supporting those working on our behalf in the judiciary, the police, prisons, probation and emergency services.
“People have been incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. I’ve sat with a High Court judge, Crown Court judges, with magistrates and with the coroner; met court staff, tribunal judges and probation officers.
“I’ve visited Stoke Heath Prison, been out with police on patrol, visited the police problem-solving unit, attended police awards evenings, met the police cadets and visited Willowdene Farm, a residential rehabilitation centre for women in Chorley.”
As well as visiting West Mercia Police’s headquarters at Hindlip Hall, Selina travelled out of the county to visit HM Prison Long Lartin, near Evesham in Worcestershire with fellow High Sheriffs from Worcestershire and Herefordshire.
Long Lartin is a Category A facility for male prisoners considered to pose the most threat to the public, the police or national security should they escape.
Describing the visit as “life-changing”, she says:
“No amount of watching Netflix crime dramas could have prepared me for the utter sense of desolation and hopelessness. It reinforced to me how important hope is, and how vital it is to work to keep even the faintest flickers alive, before a person ends up somewhere like this. There are also wider messages for society though – most of the people that end up there do so because society has – we have – failed them.”
There is, unsurprisingly, a ceremonial aspect to such an ancient role with royal visits, mayor makings, awards ceremonies, civic services and processions.
“I don’t think I could have had a more extraordinary year. It included the Queen’s Jubilee and the Commonwealth Games. I attended beacon lightings, community lunches, torch handovers and picnics in the park – a lot of celebration.” Then in September, Selina, along with other High Sheriffs across the country, read the accession proclamation of King Charles III.
She gave the first address from the bandstand in the Quarry in Shrewsbury before travelling to Southwater in Telford to repeat the proclamation.
“The proclamation was momentous. It was an incredible honour to take part in such an historic occasion, but also to spend time reflecting on the life of one of the most amazing, if not the most amazing, woman of my lifetime was a great privilege.
“Both Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin councils staged impeccable events, they were seamless,” says Selina.
In just a few weeks, she will be handing over her reins to High Sheriff in nomination Mandy Thorn following a legal service at Shrewsbury Abbey.
This is a traditional service held in thanksgiving of the King’s Peace, our heritage and for all those who work in the administration of justice and associated charities.
“The velvet and feathers is going to end up in the attic, but all of the experiences, connections, friendships and knowledge will remain.
“It does go incredibly quickly. For four years, you are working up to it, then once you are installed, it takes on a life of its own.
“I wish Mandy a wonderful year – my advice to her is probably the opposite of that given to me – to be a ‘busy fool’, throw yourself into it, embrace all the opportunities, but play to your strengths because that’s the way you can make the most difference.
“It’s exhausting but it’s an enormous privilege and I have enjoyed every minute of it.”