Alan Woods: Derbyshire's High Sheriff

Pat Ashworth talks to Alan Woods who was sworn in as High Sheriff on 11th April

lan Woods is in no doubt about what the function of a High Sheriff is. It is not only about being The Queen’s Representative in Derbyshire for matters of the judiciary and law and order, but, he says, about ‘finding the good in people and places, affirming it, encouraging it and supporting it.’ He’s very comfortable with all that, and as an acknowledged leader – his wife, Sheila, describes him as ‘very good at being a cog in the wheel’ – he’s looking forward to involving as many people as possible during his year of office, from all walks of life and all corners of the county.

He was born in Leicester of a Yorkshire mother and a Lancastrian father, something which occasioned a lot of family banter he remembers affectionately about the Wars of the Roses, especially at the time of county cricket matches. Alan’s great-grandfather was a verger at Bolton Abbey, where he had the privilege of being christened. His father was Research Director of Bostik, in Leicester, and Alan went to school in Loughborough before training as a chartered accountant, and then subsequently worked with a London-based international city practice for three and a half years.

He married Sheila in 1972, the same year he moved to take up an appointment in Derbyshire, and the couple have two grown-up children, both initially educated in the county; Simon at S. Anselm’s and Oundle, and Sally at S. Anselm’s, Malvern Girl’s College and Oundle. ‘They’ve both been and continue to be a great joy and enormously successful in developing their lives,’ he says with justifiable pride. ‘We provided them with the education to have wings, fly and fulfil their own capabilities – though we didn’t expect them to be quite so far-flung...’ Simon, now an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, married a Swedish girl and has two sons; Sally, a doctor, emigrated to New Zealand in 2008, married a Kiwi and has a daughter. She and her family flew over for the swearing-in ceremony held on 11th April 2012.

Alan held this ancient ceremony in Derby Cathedral. It was an appropriate choice for a former member of the Cathedral Chapter, and especially given that his Chaplain is the Dean of Derby, the Very Revd Dr John Davies. ‘It’s very fitting that in Jubilee year, we were seated with the Lord Lieutenant in front of the Bakewell Screen and beneath The Queen’s coat of arms,’ he says, describing the year 2012/13 as ‘a cracking year in which to be High Sheriff.’ There’s the Jubilee itself, the Olympics, and also the 20th anniversary of the founding of Derby University, with whom he has had and continues to have close links, primarily as a previous chairman for 12 years.

Back in 1990 he knew that he and the Vice-Chancellor were in for the long haul when he accepted the Chairmanship, at a time when huge growth and development would have to take place if what was affectionately known as ‘Kedy Road Tech’ were to grow into becoming a polytechnic and then when the rules changed to go straight for university status. ‘It was a really important milestone, something of great value to the city and county,’ he says. So he’s chosen to hold the High"Sheriff’s reception at the Dome in Buxton: a change with tradition, ‘a different theme of bringing the people of the country into what is a magnificent building.’

He lives south of Ashbourne close to the Staffordshire border, something that firms his resolve to spread the year’s events evenly around the county. It’s Derbyshire’s turn to host the annual High Sheriffs in Nomination regional conference, which will take place at Renishaw Hall; the annual Shrievalty dinner will be at East Lodge in Rowsley, and Hassop Hall will be the venue for the joint Lieutenancy/Shrievalty dinner to celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and of course the Legal Service in October will be held in Derby Cathedral.

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He’s been privileged, he says, to work with a wide range of different organisations in the county, not as a single individual but always as part of a team that used everyone’s talents to the full. Life was extremely full in the 1990s, when he was chairing his firm at the same time as chairing the university and also being on the board of the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary during the period of discussion about bringing the city’s two hospitals together: ‘some challenging debates and interesting conversations there,’ he remembers. ‘My professional background stood me in good stead and it has been about using my qualification to create rather than just count.

‘I wanted to focus on things to do with tomorrow rather than to report as a historian on things that have happened. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to use what talents I have in a creative way, and I have been greatly privileged to be involved in so many Derbyshire institutions.’ These also include the CBI, Business in the Community and Pro Derby. And after standing down from the practice in 2002, he was first a board member and then the chair of the Derbyshire Building Society in what he describes as ‘interesting, testing and challenging times’. He also found time to be on the board of Loughborough University, and feels that having had a son through Oxford and a daughter through Leeds University Medical School in addition to what he’s experienced at Derby and Loughborough, and on University based national working parties, he’s seen quite a range of university provision.

He is bringing the same planning precision to his year of office as he has applied in all other areas of his working life. ‘It’s a one-off opportunity,’ he says. ‘The only way in which I survived the workload in the 90s was having a ‘clean desk’ policy – plan, get a strategy and make sure it was effectively challenged but then executed in the proper way, so that when the inevitable issues arose, you have space to tackle them.’

He is very enthusiastic about involvement in the crime and law and order aspect of the office of High Sheriff, wanting to ‘help the young, and encourage a sense of order and good citizenship.’ So he’s passionate about the work of Crimebeat, a charity founded by a previous High Sheriff of Derbyshire, David Wigglesworth, to help tackle youth crime and antisocial behaviour and to improve life in communities. ‘We’ve got a number of challenges in that area, and if we can do our own little bit, that’s something we’d like to do,’ he observes. He has already met the Army cadet assigned to him, Rachel Oram, from Chesterfield, whom he describes as ‘a lovely young lady, with whom we’re really pleased and delighted.’

When it comes to the dressing up, the wearing of the regalia, he acknowledges some apprehension. ‘I’m not someone who wants to draw attention to myself, after all I am 6'4" tall. I’ve known most of the High Sheriffs who’ve worn it over the last 20 years or so, so it’s not a question of asking, gosh, where did this come from? I shall enjoy wearing it on formal occasions, though it’s not something I’d have gone out and chosen!

‘But it’s a real opportunity, and I’m looking forward to a number of things. John Burgess, Honorary Recorder of Derby, has already made me feel welcome to the various courts. If I’m going to enjoy the role, the dress is part of it, and in fact a number of previous High Sheriffs have indicated to me that the outfit brings with it a sense of occasion. If that actually helps to encourage people to ask what the role is all about, who am I to complain?’

There won’t be much time for the long-haul travel the couple love, or for the frequent trips up to the Lake District that they also enjoy. ‘We have always been great lovers of the Lake District, and not a year has gone by since we were married that we haven’t spent time there,’ says Alan. ‘It’s a place I find lovely and reflective, where you never get two days that are the same. The light and the clouds are always changing. You can understand how Wordsworth and his fellow poets wrote the poems they did.’

In contrast, he’s a big rugby fan, a season ticket holder at Leicester Tigers and a frequent visitor to Twickenham. He was lucky enough to see four World Cup Rugby matches at Wellington, New Zealand, on a visit to his daughter and son-in-law last year: ‘some cracking rugby,’ he says with pleasure.

Along with Crimebeat, Marie Curie will benefit as his chosen charity. Sheila is a long-term member of the award-winning Derbyshire Committee. The Lord Lieutenant, Willie Tucker, is its patron, and he and Alan will be leading a team to organise a Brain Game in the Roundhouse at Pride Park in October, to raise funds. ‘We’re looking for teams prepared to make a good contribution. It’ll take a lot of effort, it’s the first time in the country and we’re very enthusiastic about it,’ he says.

Summing up his hopes for the year, he concludes, ‘There are some really good ideas and teams in the county and we just want to help in an effective way. We would like to be an agent, maybe a catalyst for enhancement in various areas, particularly encouraging groups to be successful and really tackle things with enthusiasm. People are welcome to make contact with us.’

‘It’s going to be fabulous,’ Sheila says. ‘What an opportunity. We know people obviously from all walks of life, but I think we’re going to be so challenged and excited by people who are going to amaze us, the unsung heroes of the county whom we’re going to meet. The office of High Sheriff is an honour but can be obscure and we want to be able to relate to people in their everyday lives. We look on it as a great privilege, we want to bring a lot of dignity and enthusiasm to the role but also to modernise it in a way that gives relevance to people’s lives on the street. To notice what people do, to recognise the selfless contribution of large numbers of people in public life – some highly visible and some not, and to thank them for all the hours they put in.

‘You can achieve a lot if you work hard. It’s about how to make the year of High Sheriff work, day by day, bit by bit, developing the relationships and friendships. I hope Alan can facilitate things through his office, and make things easier. He’s great at putting things together, and I think that’s why he’s been given this honour.’

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