Lord Ralph Kerr: Derbyshire's High Sheriff

Pat Ashworth interviews Lord Ralph Kerr who was sworn in as High Sheriff of Derbyshire on 10th April 2008.

There's a slipping back in time the minute Lord Ralph Kerr dons the startlingly midnight-blue velvet breeches and buckled shoes of his new office and parades the uniform for the customary photograph of a High Sheriff beginning his year of duty.

It's a splendid uniform, studded with silver buttons and flamboyant with lace. If the picture had been taken in a contemporary setting, the effect would have been more akin to an actor putting on period dress. But standing against the gracious backdrop of Melbourne Hall, Lord Ralph looks as though he has just stepped into the gardens of 1700, newly laid out in the French style. The topiary is smooth and plump, the Bakewell Birdcage arbour gleams in intermittent sunshine and a flotilla of swans ruffles the surface of the Mill Pond. The picture could belong to any century.

What belongs very firmly in the 21st century, though, is the brazen white soccer goal that stands on one level plateau of the greensward. 'Hugh wasn't very keen on me painting it green so that it would blend into the background,' says Lord Ralph affectionately of his eight-year-old son, the youngest of his family of six children.

As if to demonstrate her own prowess at the sport, Peggy, the family's black-and-white terrier, seizes a football and nudges it smartly with her nose until it rolls down a bank and she enters the chase. She's followed in hot pursuit by Lady Ralph, who has suddenly realised that the football is Hugh's new one and needs to be retrieved before it's punctured - again. She finds a temporary resting-place for the ball in a newly restored stone urn, where it sits like a nicely boiled egg.

This is a house and a household where the present comfortably co-exists with the past in every possible dimension. You don't have to look far in order to spot evidence of family pursuits amongst the heritage of the Hall, whether it's the drum kit alongside the grand piano in the drawing room or the accordion under the table in the library. 'There's usually music coming from somewhere in the house,' says Lord Ralph with pleasure.

An accomplished jazz pianist and song-writer himself, he enjoys surrounding himself with the children and their instruments, which include the harmonica always to be found in the pocket of John, the eldest. The six Kerr children are at four schools, with John currently taking a gap year after Eton. When nine-year-old Minna eventually joins her older sister, Amabel, at St Mary's Ascot, the reduction to three schools will be something of a relief, says Lady Ralph with a smile.

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Parallel diaries are more essential in this family than most and make a fine art out of planning ahead for Lord Ralph's year as High Sheriff. Lady Ralph, the artist, Marie-Claire Kerr, has likened her life to being in a spin-drier or 'rather like someone in the circus spinning plates,' but says tranquilly of the year ahead, 'It's just a matter of spinning different plates. I suppose if we'd have waited until all the children were away at school, I'd have been able to do more, but we've talked about it and the way to do it is to engage with what Ralph is doing as much as I can.'

For Lord Ralph it will be a question of readjustment of his day-to-day affairs to accommodate the demands of what will be a very busy year. The younger son of the late Marquis and Marchioness of Lothian, he was born in Scotland and runs an estate there.

The majority of the time is spent at Melbourne, which has been his permanent home since 1988, when he married Lady Ralph. He has been a regional representative for Sotheby's for the past 30 years, a job which necessitates regular trips to London, but he is profoundly thankful to be able to run both estates from home and to be 'master of my own time, to some extent.'

He is greatly looking forward to taking what he describes as 'a small part in the affairs of the county', to meeting many of its unsung heroes and to a grassroots involvement with Crimebeat, the youth crime prevention strategy pioneered and developed by Derbyshire's High Sheriffs. Initiatives that try to stabilise the youth of today are of great interest to Lady Ralph as well, a passionate advocate for children and young people, and a school governor for the last 10 years.

'I think there needs to be a sea-change in lifestyle to achieve anything,' she reflects. 'I think it's sad that children are often neglected.'

She hopes that Lord Ralph's year as High Sheriff might be an opportunity to highlight Billy's Appeal, a cause they both hold dear. It aims to raise �2 million during the next two years to buy a house close to the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, where the families of children from all over the Midlands who are coming in for often harrowing daily cancer treatment can stay with the child in what is hoped will be a 'home from home'.

Maybe a sponsored abseil, she wonders ... It wouldn't be the first time: she famously abseiled down from the top of Bart's Hospital, going first because she had to pick up the children from the dentist and didn't want to be late - 'And if I'd had to wait, I'd have chickened out.' Lord Ralph, who will be raising money for the Treetops Hospice, of which he is longstanding president, pats his stomach and says, 'I don't think I'm quite the right shape for abseiling, though my predecessor as High Sheriff, Roger Wardle, did it.' He says warmly of Roger, 'He has been a fantastic High Sheriff and is a very hard act to follow.'

Lord Ralph is a great advocate for Derbyshire and has a particular affection for the area around Melbourne, the less showy end of the county but with much beautiful countryside to enjoy, he suggests. Previous High Sheriffs have told him how much of the county he will discover that is new to him, and he is particularly keen to go out with the police and to visit the prisons as part of his own education. 'I can't wait,' he says with genuine enthusiasm, mentioning 'how to carry one's sword so as not to suddenly spear someone by mistake' as being among the helpful tips he has received from former office-holders.

Lady Ralph, who served a six-year apprenticeship with the distinguished Spanish portrait painter, Joaquin Torrents-Llado, has lately been finding more time to paint and is currently engaged on a series of family conversation pieces, most of which have to be done in the holidays. She has a London studio, but like Lord Ralph, works mostly from home. The garden, which is open from April through to September, will continue to absorb a great deal of her time in the year ahead but she rejoices in the way the long-term vision for its restoration is coming to fruition.

Lord Ralph credits her with the imaginative, botanically interesting planting that has enriched the garden over the last 20 years and helped to recreate the vistas integral to the original landscape. The latest project, creating an arboretum, is giving enormous pleasure, and she delights in seeing the garden at its best in this month of May.

We make our way back towards the Hall, stopping to exclaim at the long and shiveringly atmospheric bower that is the yew tunnel, originally planted in 1740 as a walk between two yew hedges. You could imagine A Midsummer Night's Dream being played out in the lure of its beckoning branches. We can afford to stroll but Lady Ralph has vanished like a whirlwind - off to support Minna at her school swimming gala. A High Sheriff with a young family is going to bring a warm and familiar insight to the job.

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