On a lovely, sunny Wednesday morning in August, the High Sheriff of East Sussex, Violet Hancock, came to visit Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, to see the wildlife and hear about the Discovery Centre project. She was accompanied by husband Tim, and greeted by Barry Yates, Reserve Manager, Tor Lawrence, CEO of Sussex Wildlife Trust and Cliff Dean, Chair of the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. After Barry gave a potted history of the reserve and the reasons behind the Discovery Centre project, everyone enjoyed refreshments in the Information Cabin, and Violet mentioned a particular interest in wetland habitats. The group walked to the Discovery Centre site to see progress on the build, then were taken on a Land Rover tour of the nature reserve, with Barry explaining how the reserve manages the shingle, saltmarsh, saline lagoons, coastal grazing marsh, freshwater gravel pits and reedbed habitats. He mentioned the many wildlife successes of the reserve, such as the reintroduction of the previously extinct Stinking Hawksbeard, as well as some of the challenges. The tour ended in the Denny Hide, where the High Sheriff enjoyed the opportunity to use binoculars to observe a Little Grebe feeding, as well as some of other wildlife that thrives on the saltwater lagoon.
After their visit, Emma Chaplin spoke to Violet about herself, her role and her interest in wildlife:
Thank you for your support of the Discovery Centre. Do you have a particular interest in wildlife?
I have always loved watching birds as well as seeing the seasons change. There always seems to be a surprise awaiting us in the natural world. I grew up in a part of New Jersey where we had wonderful wetlands near the Shore, as we call the coast in South Jersey. It was interesting to compare the grasses and wetlands at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve to those of my childhood. I have also become very interested in the current initiative to create a wild garden area next to the new Discovery Centre.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born in Yugoslavia and grew up mainly on the East Coast of the USA. I came to England in 1982 with my job in banking. My husband Tim and I decided to settle in England, first in London and then in my husband’s native Sussex. We now live in Ringmer, near Lewes with our extremely sweet Labrador. Our three grown sons have flown the nest.
How did you come to be High Sheriff of East Sussex?
I was honoured to be asked by the High Sheriff’s Panel several years ago whether I would consider taking up this ancient post. I believe it was because I have been involved in several voluntary organisations over the years, including Sussex Heritage Trust and FitzRoy. I've always been active in county life.
Can you tell us a bit more about the role?
The High Sheriff is appointed personally by the Sovereign. The key objectives of the role of High Sheriff are to uphold and lend active support to the principal organs of the Constitution - the Royal Family, the Judiciary, the Police, the Prison Service and other law enforcement agencies, the emergency services, local authorities, and all recognised church and faith groups. In addition, we support and encourage the voluntary sector, in particular those connected with crime prevention.
Do you wear ceremonial robes?
Yes I do. This is known as Court Dress. Lady High Sheriffs are able to design their own outfit, as long as it is modest, dark in colour, made of velvet or a good wool. It must have a white lace jabot and cuffs and be accompanied by a hat adorned with two ostrich feathers. We also wear white gloves on formal occasions. Men wear a black velvet 18th century jacket and breeches with silk stockings, but also sport the lace jabot and cuffs.
© Andrew Mardell. Pictured with Violet is her predecessor, Major General John Moore-Bick
What was the High Sheriff role originally?
The Office of High Sheriff is the oldest secular office in the United Kingdom after the Crown. Sheriffs raised the local armed bands, collected taxes on behalf of the Sovereign, judged cases, had law enforcement powers and were the principal representatives and agents for the Crown. These powers were steadily eroded over succeeding centuries as formal roles such as the Exchequer, Itinerant Justices, Coroners and Justices of the Peace were created. By the mid 1800s we saw the creation of Prison Commissioners and a local Constabulary.
What do you enjoy about it?
I feel comfortable in the role. I have met so many wonderful people doing amazing things, often in challenging circumstances. It is a great privilege to be able to thank people for a job well done.
Do you meet up with other High Sheriffs?
Yes, in London I attend the AGM of the High Sheriffs’ Association each November. In Sussex, we hold an informal Ladies’ Lunch among the former lady High Sheriffs of recent times. We have only had women High Sheriffs in East Sussex since the mid 1990s, so it’s nice to compare notes. But we do all tend to see each other often in informal situations as well as most of us stay involved in county life after our year is over.
What do you value most in nature?
Since moving to the country from London about 23 years ago, I realised that nature never sleeps. My favourite days are the bleak, cold days of January or February when the sticky leaf buds are fattening up on the trees, full of the promise of spring. There is such optimism in nature.