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Hertfordshire Champions who had a memorable year in 2023

Max Whitlock show his gold medal in Toyko. Credit Garry Bowden/Sport in Pictures
Max Whitlock show his gold medal in Toyko. Credit Garry Bowden/Sport in Pictures

Here we celebrate those who have bossed it this year, and remember those whose triumphs and bravery shouldn’t be forgotten. From top fundraisers and a damehood to historic firsts and sporting feats, meet our county’s most influential and inspiring people.

Netball dame

President of World Netball Liz Nicholl became a Dame (DBE) in this year’s King’s Birthday honours list in June 2023. The ex-international netball player from Hitchin was awarded the honour for services to sport in particular her services to Netball. During Liz’s time at England Netball, she supported the inclusion of netball in the Commonwealth Games for the first time in 1998 which saw England take a gold medal; set up the National Youth Development Programme and was championship director of the 1995 World Cup held in Birmingham. The Vitality Roses currently hold third place in the world rankings. Last year the number of people participating in the sport in England increased by 92 percent and more men are now playing Nets, a version of the sport. Walking netball a slower version of the game is also making it more inclusive.

Cover star

Rose Usher, age 10, at pupil at St Marys Catholic Primary School, in Royston, in the young artist behind our December 2023 cover illustration.

Our gallant police dog

In 2016 police dog Finn was stabbed in Stevenage protecting his handler PC Dave Wardell while he was apprehending a youth. The dog was taken for life-saving surgery which included 30 stitches to his head and chest. Within 11 weeks Finn returned to duty, however, due to the limited sentencing imposed for the attack on the dog, a campaign was launched for Finn's Law to provide greater prosecution powers to protect animals in service. Finn’s law came into force 2019 as an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Finn was awarded the highest award for animal bravery. The PDSA Gold Medal for life-saving devotion to duty. After he was retired from the force, Finn still proved he had star quality. The duo participated in the ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent with a mind reading act reducing the normally harsh judge Simon Cowell to tears. The much-loved dog died peacefully in his sleep in July, aged 14.

Max Whitlock

Gymnast Whitlock returned to international competition this September and proved he is still top of his game by claiming pommel horse gold at the Apparatus World Cup in Paris. The gymnast who grew up in Hemel Hempstead made history in the 2015 Rio Olympics when he won an all-around bronze medal; it was Britain's first medal in the event for 108 years.

Services to heritage

John Barnes received an OBE in the King's Birthday Honours List for services to heritage. The chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces heads up a team who look after ‘six of the most wonderful palaces in the world’. Historic Royal Palaces was set up in 1989 and became a charity in 1998. The Welwyn Garden City resident presides over an organisation which has over three million visitors a year. His team includes 35 Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) and a large team of curators, including popular historians Lucy Worsley and Tracy Borman. In addition to opening the sites up to the public, his team conserve and maintain the buildings for future generations.

Beautiful border

Ware based garden designer, Rachel Sporborg, won Best Beautiful Border and a Platinum Award for her design, Free Thinking, at the BBC Gardeners' World Autumn Fair. The compact nine metre squared designs aim to create inspiration for small gardens and were judged on design features and creative planting; this year’s theme was My Garden Escape. Rachel’s border design was inspired by artist David Tremlett’s wall drawing, Drawing for Free Thinking, installed at Tate Britain’s Manton Stairwell.

Fundraising duo

Springer Spaniel Bertie and his fundraising buddy, 13-year-old Ashley Owens from Welwyn Garden City spent nearly two years (650 nights) camping out in a tent as part of ‘sleep out to help out’ to raise money for Paws2Rescue. The charity is helping to find refuge for pets and owners from the Ukraine providing essential supplies; it also provides sanctuary to stray dogs in Romania. Ashley’s efforts saw him nominated in the Crufts Hero Dog Awards this year. Ashley is hoping to raise £30,000 in total. Bertie supported Ashley in his efforts but also kept him warm too!

Historic first

Pet supplement manufacturer Lintbells of Hall's Green near Weston, made history in April as the first business to receive a King's Award for Enterprise. The business has won a Queen's Award on two separate occasions and the award recognised the business's international growth.

Young chef

You may think risotto is the domain of the Italians, but Emily Simkins from Hitchin took first prize this year in Riso Gallo UK & Ireland Young Risotto Chef of the Year. The 18-year-old wowed the judges with her Jerusalem artichoke risotto and won four days’ work experience at the two Michelin starred Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia in Milan. She said of the experience: ‘To be able to experience first-hand the entire process - from making a plate of risotto to seeing it grow in the paddies in Italy - really rounds off the journey. Plus, I even learnt a bit of Italian.’ Bravo Emily!

Great taste

Move over Walkers, Grace Foods UK, based in Welwyn Garden City won a Great Taste Award this year (think an Oscars for food) for their Grace Exotic Chips, purple sweet potato flavour. The snack is described as ‘super tasty, has an epic crunch’ and is ‘super moreish’. The judges agreed and described them as ‘beautiful, evenly sliced chips with sound salinity and gentle intrinsic sweetness’. You can find them in Tesco.

Congratulations also to Woodford & Warner Ltd which won an award for its elderflower cordial which will be launched next year in time for the summer. In the meantime, try the company’s hibiscus or the hibiscus and ginger cordial. The versatile drinks are delicious simply diluted with water hot or cold. They can also be added to mulled wine or paired with prosecco for Christmas bellinis. Cheers to that.

Just giving

Harry Smith from St Albans took home the accolade for Young Fundraiser of the Year at this year’s JustGiving Awards. The 12-year-old raised more than £28,000 for The Brain Tumour Charity in memory of his sister, Emily, eight, who was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour last year and sadly died just days later. With the support of his family, Harry completed several challenges including swimming a mile, climbing Scafell Pike and cycling the 75km from Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge to his home in St Albans. His efforts will mean more valuable funding for research so perhaps in future someone else's sister will survive.

Power 100

Marrianne Rooprai featured on The Shaw Trust Power 100 in 2021, becoming one of the most influential disabled people in the UK. The inspirational woman from Royston became paralysed from the shoulders down after she was involved in a car accident in 2004. Her ‘superhuman level of determination’ saw her become the first C4 tetraplegic in the world to walk in the Ekso-Exoskeleton and the highest injured tetraplegic to complete a functional electric stimulation rowing study at Brunel University. She continues to opening the door for others.

All you need is love

Daphne Tyler, 78, from Rickmansworth, began fostering 40 years ago. ‘I just love children and I just can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see them grow. They’re like flowers but they just need love and care and listening to and they just blossom,’ she says. Her commitment earned her an Exceptional Service award at the Hertfordshire County Council Carer Awards in July. To date, she has fostered 191 children, many of whom she keeps in touch with. She says it is an experience that has enriched her life. ‘One of my foster children is now a social worker,’ she adds. ‘I’m very proud of them all.’

Magic Martin

Martin Rees loves magic and he loves to perform it in the most unusual places. The magician currently holds six Guinness World Records including most magic tricks underwater, most magic tricks performed in a wind tunnel and the most magic tricks performed in a single skydive – he completed 11. In 2019 he performed live on the set of Blue Peter identifying 18 cards, a record for the most cards in one minute. His latest achievement in February this year was performing the most magic tricks blindfold. He performed a staggering 42 in one minute. The Hemel Hempstead magician has rightly earned a mention in the new 2024 Guinness World Records.

New balls please

Former GB wheelchair rugby captain Chris Ryan who led his team to a Paralympic gold medal in Tokyo has swapped his rugby ball to embark on a new career in table tennis. The athlete from Welwyn Garden City was part of a 12-strong British squad for the US Open in July and took home a bronze medal. ‘Paralympics is the ultimate goal and I know it is a long journey and there will be hurdles to overcome,’ he admitted. ‘It won’t be through lack of hard work that I haven’t got there.’ Watch this space …

Age is just a number

In 2014 Daphne Selfe from Baldock became the oldest professional fashion model at the age of 85 years. Now 95, her career has seen her work with top brands including Dolce & Gabbana, Gap and Olay. In an ageist industry she has been a trailblazer gracing the covers of Vogue and photographed by some of the most renowned fashion photographers, including Mario Testino, Nick Knight, and David Bailey. Aged 70, the fashion label Red or Dead asked her to walk the catwalk at London Fashion Week. Her style advice for other women is to ‘wear what suits you. Look in the mirror and don’t worry what other people think.’ Her latest fashion shot this year was for the ZERO.NINE, Flannel Magazine.

Another woman sending the message that age is not barrier was Anne Graves who set a world record in 2015. Aged 80 and nine days she became the oldest female hockey player to play a full match playing for Stevenage Ladies 5th XI. Although her world record has been broken, she still retains the UK record.

Chelsea win

Wherever we find ourselves in life - a garden is a place to ground ourselves. A space where we can feel calm, secure and inspired. Garden designer Rosemary Coldstream brought these elements into her design which took inspiration from the landscapes and botany of New Zealand – her childhood home. A bespoke water feature was created using a silver fern, the national symbol of New Zealand. Her garden, Feels Like Home, won her not only a gold medal but also Best Balcony/Container Garden and a People’s Choice award at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show. ‘It highlights what you can do with a small space even if you are renting,’ she said.

Stand out design

James Scott at The Garden Company was awarded a distinguished Design Award by Homes and Gardens for Best Small Garden 2023. The winning project transformed a ‘blank canvas’ into a warm, naturalistic space for the homeowners to spend time outdoors, relaxing with family and entertaining friends. James said, ‘We believe in the transformative quality of great garden design. We constantly seek to bring enduring value to our clients’ lives through the creation of unique outside spaces.’

Best place to live

If you are thinking of moving, you might like to consider Wheathampstead. The Sunday Times named it one of best places to live in for its High Street, good schools and close-knit community. The Sussex market town of Wadhurst topped this year’s list with Wheathampstead gaining a place in South East category.

Podium position

We will forgive Sir Lewis Hamilton for infamously calling Stevenage ‘the slums’. The seven-time World Champion surpassed Michael Schumacher to become the most successful F1 driver of all time. He has had the most wins, pole positions, and podium finishes in Formula One history. He is also a force in combating racism and has campaigned for increased diversity in the sport. The 38-year-old has also found time to launch a clothing line +44 and founded Mission 44, a charity to improving education for black students in the UK.

Singing sensation

Sam Smith who grew up just across the border in Great Chishill has won a heap of awards for their velvet voice and songwriting skills. Their song Writing's on the Wall from the James Bond film series Spectre became the first James Bond theme to reach number one in the UK charts and won both a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar. This year Smith won the Grammy Award with Petra for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for Unholy. It has made Sam who attended school in Bishop’s Stortford the first openly non-binary artist to win a Grammy.

Royal Academy honour

Paul Hiles unique pencil drawings each typically take him over a year to complete. His drawing of Clapham Junction was selected by the Royal Academy to be exhibited at its 2023 Summer Exhibition. This year the academy received over 6,500 entries worldwide. The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 and its Summer Exhibition, held since 1769, is the world’s oldest open submission exhibition – anyone can enter their work. ‘I was very proud to have my drawing exhibited in such a prestigious exhibition,’ commented the Ware artist.

Thrilling award

Dani Atkins was presented with the Jackie Collins Romantic Thriller Award at the 2023 Romantic Novel Awards for her compelling novel Six Days. The story of a groom disappearing on his wedding day and his bride's search to find him has been described as ‘a heart-tugging romance’. The author lives near Buntingford and has written 13 novels to date.

Science and magic

The Royal Society David Attenborough Award and Lecture 2023 has been awarded to Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire for his innovative public engagement with the psychology of magic and the nature of deception. The annual is awarded to individuals for outstanding public engagement with science. Dr Wiseman is a member of the inner magic circle and past studies have included the nature of luck. His latest book, Magic discovers how magic can improve health and enhance wellbeing.


Re-purpose, reuse and up-cycle is Watford-based company RefillAbell’s mantra. Run by Sameer Kassam and Jane Hopkins, it’s the town’s first zero waste refill store and recently won a gold award at the Hertfordshire Business Awards. Ditch all that horrid plastic and fill up with a glass jar or a paper bag, even better bring your own container.

JPA Workspaces has won a King’s Award for Industry for Sustainable Development. The company in St Albans help clients extend furniture life cycles by providing repairs, reupholstery and re-working furniture. A take-back scheme and recycling programme ensures no unwanted furniture goes into landfill.

EcoNomad Solutions, which is based in Harpenden at the Rothamsted Campus is an award-winning company that has designed a simple waste-to-energy solution for farms. The company’s design converts animal waste such as manure and slurry into renewable fuel to generate heat and energy. It’s has won grants this year to carry on its innovative work.

Go girls

The Times has listed construction company Wilmott Dixon in the Top 50 Employers for Women list. It follows a win at the Best Companies Awards last year. The Letchworth based company won the title of UK’s Best Workplace.

Resourceful teacher

Sivan Kader, a biology teacher at St Albans High School for Girls received the Martin Roberts Prize in May from the Professional Teaching Institution for ‘outstanding new resources’. Carolyn Roberts, co-director at the PTI said: ‘Loving their subject and devising interesting ways to teach it is the most important teacher skill. Focusing on this keeps teachers fresh and leads to long and happy careers.’


Watford’s Simon Maloney served with the Household Cavalry Regiment for 10 years. On one of his frontline tours of Afghanistan he was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for bravery. The medal is second only to the Victoria Cross for bravery. Since it was first awarded in 1995 only 60 other people have been presented with the honour. Simon was presented the medal by the late Queen Elizabeth. Commenting he said it was a proud moment. ‘It was nice to give some good news to my parents and take them to Windsor, my mum shed a tear,’ he said. After leaving the armed forces Simon co-founded the charity Head Up and remains an ambassador for Fighting Minds, supporting veterans in finding work.

Defying the odds

Jed Thirkettle, a 24-year-old, from Hemel Hempstead, embarked on a remarkable 24-hour charity fitness challenge to raise funds and awareness for Muscular Dystrophy UK this month.

Diagnosed with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy aged eight, Jed is passionate about raising awareness of his condition and is determined to make a difference for others living with a muscle wasting or weakening condition.

Following Jed's diagnosis medical experts predicted he would be in a wheelchair within a few years, reliant on a ventilator by the age of 14, and unlikely to live past his 20th birthday – but he has defied the experts. Undeterred by his condition, Jed rallied support from friends, family, and wider community to form ‘Team Jed’. Over the years, this united effort has raised £200,000 to support Muscular Dystrophy UK, the leading charity for more than 110,000 children and adults in the UK living with one of over 60 muscle wasting and weakening conditions, like Jed.


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