Lucy Palmer - Derbyshire’S High Sheriff
- Credit: Archant
Pat Ashworth talks to Lucy Palmer who was sworn in as High Sheriff on 12th April
A beautiful portrait of Lucy Palmer and her three young sons hangs at Locko Park, painted by the artist, Marie-Claire Kerr of Melbourne Hall. Commissioned as a secret present for Lucy’s husband, David, on his 50th birthday, it depicts her serene and relaxed, with the boys in shirtsleeves and seated as though captured unobserved.
The painting picks up the informal nature of life at Locko Park, which Lucy inherited in 1993. She had spent childhood holidays at the Drury-Lowe family home, a late 17th century house, and as the eldest daughter, had always known she would eventually take responsibility for it. The time came sooner than expected when her father, tragically, died at the age of 60. When Lucy and David (of the Huntley and Palmer biscuit family), took on the estate, their first son was eighteen months old and Lucy was eight months pregnant with their second.
She acknowledges that it was something of a baptism of fire. Born in Derby and educated in Kettering and Kent, she trained as a Montessori teacher, specialised in dyslexia and had her own nursery school in London. It was a career she loved. ‘Suddenly, without any warning really, I was catapulted from the life of a primary school teacher into all this,’ she says. ‘One minute you’re fine and then you’ve got this enormous responsibility, all over the course of a weekend. We thought we’d have a lot of time to learn the ropes, so it was all a bit stressful. But we have without doubt an excellent and professional team that works here with us.’
It was step by step, she remembers – ‘not just running a house and garden and what you see; it was overseeing cottages and houses and farms, when I really didn’t know anything about estate management.’ Her father, Patrick Drury-Lowe, had restored and refurbished Locko Park when he came into possession in 1965, so there were no major works to be done, and he had drained and flattened the surrounding land to introduce championship horse trials in the 1970s.
‘He’d opened it up a bit. But we were coming in in our early thirties, with a young family and lots of energy,’ she says. ‘We knew we needed to run a business and that’s what it is; that’s what the majority of these family estates are. You run a family business like anyone else. It’s just that you have the big liability of a house which is not a luxury house solely to live in and enjoy.’
Locko Park, a Grade II listed building embellished in Italianate style in the mid-19th century, is looking stunning on this March day. There’s a wind ruffling the surface of the lake and stirring the daffodils emerging below the ha-ha after the snows of winter. The dogs, Folly and Stella, spin and race on the lawn by the clock tower, in gardens and pleasure grounds largely laid out in the 1850s. Sun is slanting through the windows of the tiny, panelled chapel, which remains in use. It dates from 1669 and is the oldest part of the house, built on the site of the 13th century leper hospital that gives Locko (the old French word for ‘rags’ or lint bindings) its name.
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Outside events are now the mainstay of the business: the infrastructure that Patrick Drury-Lowe laid has proved its worth over the last 25 years as Lucy and David have experimented with enterprises of all kinds, from weddings to fruit farms, logs to Christmas trees.
‘It’s much better to do events outside than inside, where we’re trying to live in a house,’ Lucy observes. ‘We stick to what we can do and what we’re comfortable with.’
The couple had a fortuitous approach 22 years ago from the Lorien Trust, a live action role-play organisation based on the computer game, Dungeons and Dragons. Players meet four times a year at Locko, ‘camped out at the front, on and off, for the summer. My boys, when small, thought it was wonderful,’ she remembers. ‘They fought with latex weapons and thought it all amazing.’
Things continue to evolve: Derbyshire County Show returns this year after its debut in 2017, and there’s another new event in July, when campers and glampers will descend on Locko for the Blok Out music and food festival. Dale Hill Burial Ground, a natural burial ground which Lucy established two years ago, is another venture that has been very well received. ‘We’re always thinking of new ideas and I don’t think we’ve stopped,’ she reflects.
She still manages to teach two days a week, using her specialist skills and training to mentor pupils in a large state school in London, where David works in finance. It’s something she’ll continue to do in term-time throughout her year of office and which she considers in a sense to be her relaxation. The couple’s sons are now 22, 24 and 26, the youngest, Edward, still at university. They’ll all be coming to her installation on 12th April, which will take place in the chapel at Locko – ‘I don’t think they quite know what the whole thing is about, but I think they’re very proud,’ she says.
She is slim and youthful, and heads are guaranteed to turn when she makes an appearance in the rich velvet and beautifully tailored outfit of the High Sheriff. The feathered hat is stunning. Today, for our photographer, is the first time anyone, including David, has seen her in the dress and he can’t resist whistling off a picture to the boys on his mobile phone. The answer comes swiftly back from one of them, ‘I’d no idea that you’d diversified into period drama, Mother.’
Eight of Lucy’s Lowe and Drury-Lowe ancestors have held this office before her: in 1678, 1752, 1782, 1795, 1813, 1854, 1893 and 1928.
This year, 2018, is noteworthy for many major anniversaries, not least the centenary of the First World War and the formation of the RAF. It is also the centenary year for the Derbyshire Women’s Institute (WI) and the first event of that commemoration is at Derby Cathedral three days after Lucy’s installation. ‘It’s a really good year to be doing it,’ she says with pleasure and anticipation.
She has spent time over the past few months meeting key people and ‘getting my building bricks into place before I get into my year.’ A former Trustee of the Foundation Derbyshire, which supports the High Sheriff’s Fund, she looks forward to keen and continued involvement with that, but she has deliberately chosen not to have a theme for her year of office. ‘I don’t have a theme because I don’t know what’s out there,’ she says simply. ‘There’ll be charities I don’t know about yet and I don’t want to get pigeonholed: I just want to go about, though I may well find something that I want to make my theme over the year.’
Previous High Sheriffs have been enormously helpful, she says with gratitude, and have all advised her, ‘Do it your own way.’ So she has chosen not to have a summer garden party but a festive gathering with Christmas trees and mulled wine at the end of November, because ‘this is just the house for a lovely, warm Christmas party.’ And on their advice too, she is determined to pace herself – ‘It isn’t a competition of how many events you can do.’
The jigsaw pieces are all gradually falling into place, she says thankfully, having gone past the point which predecessors have identified as ‘having that enormous feeling of pride when you are asked and then spending the next three years wondering why on earth you said yes. I know I’ll enjoy it, and David and I will do it together and we’ll just see what comes out of it.
‘I am very proud. It’s the oldest secular office and it’s a huge honour and I don’t take it lightly. This is the year for the High Sheriff and I’ll carve it out. And then I’ll go back to obscurity and my former life.’