Pandemic means Lancashire's new High Sheriff Catherine Penny has had change of plan - but is still determined to put young people first

Catherine Penny tells Fiona Finch about her ambitions for her year in office and how the current pandemic has changed her plans.

Monday, 18th May 2020, 12:56 pm
Catherine (third from left) with husband Andrew, son Francis and daughter-in-law Faye pictured otuside Dutton Hall (photo: Laura Nutter)

On a usual day Lancashire’s new High Sheriff would be out and about turning a spotlight on county residents’ good works.

The new holder of the ancient office would be saying a very public thank you on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen to those groups and organisations which go the extra mile to help make life better for the county’s residents.

She would also be acknowledging the work of the judiciary.

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The new High Sheriff pictured at home at her swearing in ceremony

But these are not usual times, as signalled by the way Catherine Penny took office.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic the usual swearing in ceremony had to be abandoned, with renowned rose grower Catherine being sworn in from her home at Dutton Hall, near Preston, via a virtual ceremony.

There was still, though, a hint of pomp and circumstance as she dressed in her official made to measure velvet robes. She is also looking forward to seeing her family shield take its place in Lancaster Castle.

But although the office itself is endowed with a strong sense of tradition, this is now destined to be a most modern year in office.

Part of the Woodcock family's coat of arms

The High Sheriff says she knows that if she is to meet her goals she must embrace all the help modern technology can bring to reach out to people in Lancashire.

To this end she is asking relevant groups and organisations to make contact with her.

She said: “I’m trying extremely hard to master all sorts of other techniques for talking to people, with a bit of video as well. We’ve done Zoom(meetings), because sometimes it’s nice to a actually see someone - but I still do find a frustration of not being able to go out and physically meet people

“Part of my role is to support all those making a positive difference to the lives of others in the county. Obviously I would like to be out there saying thank you to them in person. It’s difficult to make yourself feel you’re doing enough because a lot of the job is going out and meeting people.”

Ready for duty - Catherine Penny in her High Sheriff robes (photo: Nicola at Pickle Pictures)

She continued: “I would love anyone who would just like me to have a phone call with them or to book for the future to contact me. I’m trying to get things in the diary for when we can go out. I’m also happy to give a little video message.”

The 66 year old has herself given ongoing commitment to various charitable causes in the county.

She is Chairman of the Preston based Shepherd Street Trust (formerly known as the Shepherd Street Mission).

She said: “I’ve done various voluntary roles myself. Through my role as Chairman of the Shepherd Street Trust I’ve felt that whilst the Trust gives grants to disadvantaged children and we don’t have a huge amount of money to spend, very often as trustees we feel these children might need a mentor.

“During my year I am hoping to particularly concentrate on things related to children and young people, aged 25 years and under, in the county.”

She acknowledged: “We can’t look at every element of the voluntary sector because there are so many people doing good things for the county, so I was particularly hoping to concentrate on young people.”

But she is also aware of the debt owed to so many people stepping up to help in the Coronavirus crisis and the work of those in key services. She said: “Extraordinary and astonishing efforts are being made to keep things going in these difficult and challenging times. We all owe a tremendous amount to key workers.”

Catherine served on a local fund-raising group for the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council and was, until last year, treasurer of the Lancashire Fundraising Committee for The Art Fund.

She is clerk to Dutton Parish Council and has made a significant contribution to horticulture. After taking an engineering science degree at the University of Exeter Catherine, who was brought up in Hurst Green, worked at an experimental horticultural station.

She decided to continue her studies at Pershore Horticultural College, combining practical horticulture with business studies. From there she opened her own nursery Stydd Nursery, on the outskirts of Ribchester, which specialised in old roses and complementary plants.

She was and is delighted to include amongst her rose collection the red rose of Lancaster, otherwise known as the Lancastrian or apothecary’s rose.

Although she sold the nursery in 2002 she has continued to grow roses at home and advise on rose growing. She and husband Andrew hold a national collection of hybrid musk roses.

She said: “I’m a national trustee of Plant Heritage. What we are trying to do is conserve the important varieties of garden plant. Because of the way the nursery industry is it’s not economical to grow a wide range of unusual plants. We’re in danger of losing them completely if we don’t do something about it. Hence we have national collections and plant guardian schemes. Anyone can look after varieties that are not very widely available or commercially available.”

She stressed the aim is to keep the plant alive and ideally propagate it, to keep the gene pool going and maintain diversity.

Her collection of rarer plants also, she notes, includes a “a couple of hebes and an oak tree or two”.

She said: “We would like any gardener to get involved. It’s just being aware there are other varieties to use that you don’t see outside the supermarket.”

In total in their garden they have more than 200 varieties of rose and open the garden each year for charity under the National Garden Scheme. Catherine is also Chairman of the north west Plant Heritage group.

She revealed she had known about the High Sheriff appointment for some two and half years, but was not allowed to share her news, a convention with appointments in Palatine counties, where the High Sheriff appointment is a direct Crown appointment.

Her uniform has echoes of the role’s historic elements. She said: “I got mine from the official court tailors Ede & Ravenscroft. It’s based on court dress but you are left to choose the colour of the velvet yourself. It’s dark green velvet and there’s a skirt, a waistcoat and a short coat and then you have a hat with a white ostrich feather in it. Then there are black shoes with a buckle.”

So far the costume has had two outings - for the online swearing in and for a subsequent photo call. There will, too, be another VIP date in the future - the hanging of her shield. She has chosen to use her family coat of arms, the Woodcock coat of arms and explains: “The family has got a long association with Lancashire. We were first registered as Freemen of Preston in 1622. Hence I felt it would be nice to hang the Woodcock coat of arms.”

A step which, no doubt, will be approved of by her brother Thomas Woodcock, a heraldic expert who is Garter King of Arms.

Catherine’s unpaid voluntary office dates back to the time of Henry II and its responsibilities include a duty to “protect and assist in upholding the dignity and wellbeing of Her Majesty’s Judges” as well as “to project the principles of encouraging responsible citizenship and respect for the diversity of the community”.

The High Sheriff can be contacted via [email protected], via Instagram @highsherifflancs, through the website highsheriffoflancashire.co.uk or via email at [email protected]