Meet Kent's new High Sheriff

Kent's High Sheriff, Peregrine Massey, on gardening, maritime matters and why he rather hopes it won't be too hot this summer

Meet Kent’s new High Sheriff

Kent’s High Sheriff, Peregrine Massey, on gardening, maritime matters and why he rather hopes it won’t be too hot this summer

At six foot six inches, the new High Sheriff of Kent makes an impressive sight in the traditional black velvet and white lace ruffles, which he had run up especially by Ravenscroft in London. No chance of re-using a previous incumbent’s jacket or breeches for Peregrine Massey, who has five to six events a month where he will be required to wear the full regalia (and is secretly rather hoping we don’t have too hot a summer).

A barrister and mediator by profession, Peregrine tells me: “I still have a portfolio life with various directorships and a range of businesses I’m involved with, but I am not trotting daily up to London. In executive terms, I have had to pass over a number of things to other good people, but there are still one or two things that do require my involvement. It hasn’t been an issue.”

We are talking at his wonderful home, Boldshaves in Woodchurch, where the garden was being licked into even more immaculate shape than usual in readiness for its imminent open day under the National Gardens Scheme.

Peregrine and his wife Dee moved to Kent more than 30 years ago, initially to a farmhouse in Romney Marsh, where all three of their daughters were born then, wanting a bit of land and space for the girls to ride, found Boldshaves.

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“It’s a curious house,” says Peregrine. “It was designed by one of Lutyens’ first pupils – he took on three in 1897 and William Marchant, who was my architect, was one of them. The house was built in 1902 so it must have been one of his very first commissions when he went solo. The only other things I can find in Kent are a couple of north Kent churches, which he modified.”

The place was in need of some love and attention by the time the Masseys arrived and the garden in particular was, Peregrine admits, “a bit of a jungle.” He adds: “The walled garden to the east of the house was a thicket and it was only scratching around in our first winter here that we discovered that there were walls.

“There was only one thing we were able to reclaim in that area – a rose, which now covers that top wall entirely, called Wedding Day. It had been planted about 50 years before we arrived to mark the wedding of the then daughter of the house. It took me two years to get it under control, but it was worth it.

 Peregrine, whose own middle daughter got married here in June, says he had always wanted to make a garden, but the idea of taking over someone else’s perfection and maintaining it didn’t appeal. “I enjoy the design element of developing a garden, gardens shouldn’t sit still, they should always be moving forward, so we are still making bits and bobs – the Italian Garden is only two years old and we’ve just created some new borders. You never have enough time, however, and always make mistakes,” he says.

“There was a wonderful man who chaired the RHS a few years ago and he was asked on the BBC at the end of an interview if he could sum up his lifetime in gardening, and he said: every year, without fail, 11 months of gruelling hard work followed by one month of bitter disappointment!”

Both Dee and  Peregrine grew up in Hampshire ( “I played a little bit of cricket for junior Hampshire teams – I have confessed this in Kent – and they look at me very carefully when Hampshire play Kent”, he admits) and both are from service families, hers military, his naval.

“The families have always known each other and in fact we went to the same kindergarten, but I’m not sure the die was cast then,” smiles Peregrine, who went on to university to read French, German and Russian, while Dee trained to be a nurse – but they always kept in touch.

They both enjoy the garden and although Peregrine insists he isn’t artistic – “my wife is the watercolourist, not me” – the beauty of Boldshaves suggests this isn’t strictly true. And they feel very fortunate to be surrounded by so many excellent places to eat out, naming the Three Chimneys and West House in nearby Biddenden, The Detling Arms at Pluckley, The Mulberry Tree and Rankins in Sissinghurst among others.

Peregrine also confesses to being “a bit of a bookaholic” and to having just bought Jenny Uglow’s Charles II. “The gambling king, a fabulous subject,” he beams. “I’m a great fan of her hers – she doesn’t just write biographies, but some gardening books as well, she wrote a very nice pocket history on gardening. She’s a great pin up.”

As High Sheriff, Peregrine, whose working life has been largely spent in international dispute resolution with a bias towards maritime matters, intends to spend quite a bit of his time giving the organisations involved in protecting our coast, such as the coastguard and immigration service, “a bit of a boost.” As he says: “I speak the language.”

He also wants to support young people caught up in the justice system, either as ‘so-called’ young criminals or as young victims of crime. Of the latter he says: “We have a lot of really rather extraordinary organisations in Kent but some of them find it very difficult to promote themselves, even locally, not least because they attract the wrong kind of attention when they do put their head above the parapet.”

He has already been committing “a bit of time and effort” to the Caldecott Foundation and is working with Childhood First, which has a number of homes for seriously damaged young children around the UK.

“I am equally interested to talking to those charities working with people who have fallen foul of the justice system,” he adds. “I am going to give awards to long-term prisoners at East Sutton Prison. Even if people have committed a serious crime, there will come a time when they are in the community again and they need help to be able to adjust and these awards are designed to encourage them along the way of rehabilitation back into society.”

And as with all who take on this role. Peregrine will be giving as much support as he can to the judiciary across the county. “I include in that the ones who sit on their own in the family courts and those that are elsewhere other than the two principle centres of Maidstone and Canterbury,” he says.

“It can be a fairly isolated task being a judge. It’s usually demanding and not only requires great expertise and judgement but it also requires a huge amount of humanity and I think we are enormously fortunate in the judiciary we have at this level. Our own judiciary, who sit day in and day out, dealing with the issues that arise here in Kent, deserve all the support we can give them. I’m determined to do that.”

Despite only being a month or so into his role when we meet, Peregrine has already enjoyed a number of red-letter days. He describes his installation ceremony as “great fun” and says how delighted he was that it was attended by so many people from the village of Woodchurch. Music at the service by the Chamber Choir from Ashford School, where he chairs the governing body and all three of his daughters attended, was also a highlight.

His apolitical status as High Sheriff has also meant that he was able to take an interest in all aspects of the recent General Election and was very happy to declare the result as returning officer for the Ashford constituency.  “I was very well supported by the acting returning officer and his team, who kept me on the straight and narrow. All the returning officers technically come within the High Sheriff’s area of responsibility and of course it is one of the most intense elections we have had for many years. People need to be engaged about what is happening in their country,” he says.

And Peregrine is taking his responsibilities extremely seriously, especially given the weight of history resting on his shoulders. “I was sent a wonderful book brought out in the 17th century and it reminded me that the Shrievalty is older than Parliament, older than the Courts of Law and older than all the great offices of state other than the monarchy. That alone is a very good reason for not thinking you can do it by halves. It’s all or nothing.

“And if it makes a difference to the people of the county, if you have the opportunity to make links for people or institutions that need help making those links, then it’s a jolly good cause. I have spent all my time asleep in the county, and it’s just about time I put myself about a bit while I am awake!

“You don’t want to make yourself a nuisance, there has to be some purpose in what you do and I have no wish to be turning up and taking up people’s valuable time and smiling inanely. A lot of time I have to explain the history and what my remit is.

During this year I have pulled away from a number of other projects I am involved in, because I don’t want to be doing this at half cock – I want to put my shoulder to the wheel properly. Everyone has an optimum pace at which they go and I have a horror of merely dabbling – I don’t want to be just skimming across the surface and doing hundreds of different things but only superficially. I think if at the end of the day I’ve done all the things which the High Sheriff  is expected to do but have also given a bit of a push to some aspects of Kent life which really can benefit from it, then I shall be quite happy. You can make a little bit of a difference.”