Mike Copkestake - the new Derbyshire High Sheriff
- Credit: Mike Copestake
Pat Ashworth meets Derbyshire's newly-installed High Sheriff, Mike Copkestake, and learns of his inspirational plans for the year
There’s something about sitting round a table in the warm afternoon sunshine that makes conversation flow like water.
Especially when the view from the window is a panorama of gently undulating fields and lines of trees as far as the eye can see, beyond a garden with enticing green lanes of its own.
The High Sheriff, Mike Copestake, and his wife, Dana, have enjoyed this view for a decade, since moving to the village of Turnditch.
It’s familiar landscape for him: born at Horsley Woodhouse, and brought up in Quarndon, he went to St Anselm’s preparatory school in Bakewell and on to Oundle before going on to read law at the University of Leeds.
There are bright tulips on the table, grapes and cheese to nibble, tea in the pot – and evidence of work in progress in the laptop and highlighted revision notes of the couple’s younger daughter, Gabby, who graduated last year and is doing her solicitors finals.
When her training is completed, it’s to everyone’s satisfaction that she’ll be the fourth generation lawyer in the family.
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Mike is a corporate lawyer: after qualifying and working in London, he came back to Derby to join the family firm of Gadsby, Coxon & Copestake.
He was senior partner of Freeth’s Derby office from 1995 to 2016 and will be the first solicitor to become High Sheriff of Derbyshire.
He loves corporate law – ‘I like business. I like negotiating,’ he says with relish.
‘It’s the commercial side of things that interests me. Doing deals is like doing a crossword. If you get it right, something jiggles in your brain. It’s fantastic.’
His feet will scarcely touch the ground. He is passionate about using this ancient office to put something back into the community: to do some good in a county which has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the country.
Mike has already been into eight of the 30 primary schools on his initial list to help raise the aspirations of children from all backgrounds to be the very best they can be.
It’s generally the sword that catches the attention of the students first, he has to admit. And it’s the boys, it has to be said, who ask with relish, ‘Have you killed anyone with it?’ Of ways of sitting down with a sword, he jokes, ‘all are disastrous.’
They’re fascinated with the plumed hat too – ‘I take it off and say, if I keep it on for too long, my head’s going to look like a shoebox.’
But here’s the clever bit - the potential for overturning stereotypes and changing lives during his time as High Sheriff.
He presents a video called Whizz Kids, which has pictures of 15 men and women in all kinds of jobs – from engineer, plumber and ballet dancer to nanny, doctor and nurse.
The children have to try and match the names of jobs they have with the people they see.
And all is then revealed. The tall, cool guy in a suit turns out to be the ballet dancer. The nurse is a man and the doctor a woman, and the lady in Muslim dress they thought might be a nanny turns out to be an engineer.
‘It’s very, very clever; short and fun,’ he says. Questions pour forth: 50 in one school and with hands still going up.
He is determined to keep the presentation fresh, and he is full of respect for primary school teachers: ‘I haven’t met a single one who wasn’t hugely motivated.’
Secondary schools in every part of the county are in his sights as well. He has a track record here: from November 2015 to December 2021, he was chair of Enterprise for Education, a Derby City Council-based organisation dedicated to getting employers into local schools to help pupils with CV writing, interview techniques, career talks and mentoring.
‘You meet so many remarkable people,’ he says, speaking with admiration of role models like hockey player Holly Pearne-Webb, who famously scored the winning goal in a shoot-out against the Netherlands and now captains England.
‘One of the best competitive games I’ve ever seen,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘And she went to Turnditch Primary School!’
He is keen to engage too with police projects involving children and young people too, whom he wants to encourage to enter the prestigious High Sheriff’s National Crimebeat Award for the most innovative and successful crime prevention projects carried out by young people. ‘You have to keep at all this and eventually get a result,’ he says.
High Sheriffs are always told by their Association, ‘The job isn’t about you. It’s about the office’, and it was the advice of a former High Sheriff, Lucy Palmer – ‘You make it your own. You do what you want with it’- that convinced them that Mike should accept the invitation and use the office as a platform for his charities.
The ceremonial and the civic presence is a proud and important part of it but there would be no point, they say firmly, in ‘just swanning around.’
He and Dana have known each other since their teens: their parents were friends and met every Christmas, and Dana’s return after graduating and then travelling coincided with Mike’s return from London.
‘They were having dinner at my sister’s house. I popped in for a chat – and there he was’, Dana recalls.
The couple have three children: Alexandra, Max and Gabby. Dana, whose father was in the Polish Air Force, has family in South Africa, and the one holiday they do hope to manage during this High Sheriff year is the annual winter visit.
There’s not much Mike doesn’t know about the city and county: he was president of the Southern Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce at a difficult time in its history; is a past-president of the Derby and District Law Society and is one of the original founders of Marketing Derby, - ‘probably one of the best examples of the way the public and private sectors work together,’ he suggests.
He has travelled widely, including to China, and is passionate about seeing Derby thrive as a city, celebrate its manufacturing base, hold its own with the best in Europe and capitalise on the ten million visitors who annually visit the Peak District.
He’s been a property developer, specialising in the regeneration of redundant churches, and is currently working on the creation of a classic car centre in Osmaston.
There won’t be a lot of spare time to indulge his interests, which include collecting antique guns, cricket, walking, tennis and skiing, but he may be able to incorporate some of the physical activities he enjoys into the year’s programme.
Mike has been a trustee of the Derbyshire Children’s Holiday Centre at Skegness for 30 years and speculates, ‘I just might cycle to Skegness…’ whilst observing he can no way match another former High Sheriff, Lord Burlington - who cycled the length and bread of the county with Guiness World Record holder Leigh Timmis, ‘the fastest person to cross Europe on a bike,’ he says with admiration – during his year of office.
More tea is poured in this hospitable household and we put the world to rights as we absorb the sunshine. It’s going to be a very interesting and productive year.