Oliver Stephenson - Derbyshire's new High Sheriff
PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 May 2015 | UPDATED: 09:15 27 May 2015
Oliver Stephenson was sworn in as High Sheriff on 9th April
Oliver Stephenson has one of the loveliest views in the White Peak. From the windows of Lomberdale Hall, elevated above the road from Youlgreave to Middleton, he can see right across the sweep of the valley to Stanton Moor on the distant horizon. His parents moved here in 1970, and in 1999 chose to go and live in the cottage next door, so it became the family home of Oliver, his wife, Fiona, and their three small children, Gus, Alfie and Arabella.
It’s a beautiful house and garden, with a broad terrace just made for bounding dogs, and with some quirky features that illustrate its origins as the mid-19th century house that Thomas Bateman, barrow digger and antiquarian, built. There’s a bit of Arts and Crafts influence in the stonework of a summer house, and a couple of romantic ruined arches on the terrace that found their way here when Bakewell Parish Church was damaged by fire in 1868.
Derbyshire’s incoming High Sheriff was born in Sheffield and went to prep school in Northamptonshire before going off to Eton. Ask him how he found that experience and he reflects, ‘It was great fun. But you don’t think it’s anything extraordinary while you’re there: you just think, “I’m at school”. It’s been a more extraordinary and enjoyable experience being a parent – our eldest son was there. It all feels a very long time ago...’
He didn’t take the Oxbridge route: instead, loving Scotland as a place annually visited on family holidays, he opted for Aberdeen. His wife, Fiona, was at St Andrew’s and was a friend of a friend, ‘mates in a gang, all those years ago,’ he says happily. They went their separate ways after university, when Oliver went to Lloyds of London. He spent three happy years there but realising in the fourth that he didn’t want to pursue that career, went to the University of Warwick in 1989 to pursue an MBA.
His plan was to go into marketing and advertising, something, perhaps, at the sales-related end of a company, but with a recession beginning to bite, job hunting was hard. ‘So off I went to the family brick company, Carlton Brick, in Barnsley, to increase my knowledge,’ he says. ‘I thought I’d be there for a very short time but I instantly found myself drawn in, particularly to the sales side. It was a desperate time for building, so a very good introduction to business. Bricks is an interesting trade because it is such a good barometer of industry as a whole. When times are good, it’s very good: when times are bad, it’s very bad.’
25 years later, he is still there, chairman of the company, a director of the Brick Development Association, and still loving being in manufacturing. ‘I can’t imagine doing anything else at all, can’t imagine how life would be,’ he reflects. ‘There’s something very satisfying about making a product as good as you can possibly make it, and then selling it at a really good price. And to say that it feels like a family is not an exaggeration – I’m very attached to all the people who work there. It’s a part of the world, South Yorkshire, where people don’t really move jobs much, and still think of a job as for life.’
The company has sponsored Grimethorpe Colliery band over a long period of time and Oliver is delighted that the band has offered to come and play at the High Sheriff’s garden party at Lomberdale in June. ‘They’re coming as a favour to us,’ he says with gratitude. ‘I hope we’ll raise lots of money for charity.’
In taking on the office, he is following a family tradition that began with his great-grandfather, Henry Kenyon Stephenson, of Hassop Hall, who was High Sheriff in 1932. A military gentleman, his stern portrait hangs over the fireplace in the dining-room. In 1948, came Sir Henry Francis Blake Stephenson, of Great Longstone, followed by Henry Upton Stephenson in 1975 and Charles Lyon Stephenson in 1984.
So Oliver is used to seeing pictures of family members in the regalia, but wasn’t sure how well he would look in it himself in this modern day. The answer is, he looks very good indeed. I ask him whether he feels as though he is in a play and he says he does rather, pointing out the small wig box at the back of the neck, dating from the era of powdered wigs. ‘The sword is the thing that gets them all,’ he suggests – he’s learning how to manage that – and the only thing that might give him trouble is the footwear, the very slim and elegant slip-on buckled shoes that High Sheriffs have been known to substitute with more practical ones for anything involving distance walking. The white gloves are never worn, his tailor sternly told him.
He pays tribute to his predecessor, David Coleman, and other recent holders of the office, for their inclusivity and their ‘willingness to give me pointers. It’s been quite a joy,’ he says. He helped David Coleman rehearse part of the route for the High Sheriff’s Walk that was part of his shrieval year, checking out a leg of the journey that went through Earl Sterndale, Pilsbury and Hartington. It was no hardship: he and Fiona love walking in the Peak, where favourite haunts include the Derwent Valley. Buxton is a favourite place too, and recent discoveries that have delighted include Derby Museum.
Buxton will be figuring prominently on 31st October, when he’ll put on the big fundraising event of his year – a charity performance of Pirates of Penzance at Buxton Opera House, performed by the Derby Gilbert & Sullivan Company and in aid of his primary charity, the Derbyshire Community Foundation, and Age UK. ‘They’ve all been very enthusiastic,’ he says warmly. ‘We’ve got 902 seats to fill, so we are trying to rally the troops: friends, family, colleagues, anyone we know. We want to spread the word that not only will they really enjoy the show itself but that they’ll have a very amusing night as well, seeing lots of friends there.’ He adds, ‘Gosh. There’s a lot of input to make it work...’
The couple will be supporting lots of other good causes around Derbyshire too, and are much looking forward to getting around the county and especially into the parts they know less well. It’s a double act, they both agree. ‘We’re very conscious of doing it together, and keep saying, “When we are High Sheriff”,’ Oliver says with a smile. He will be working the year of office round the business, something of a juggling act but one that can be managed. ‘I think I’ve just got to keep an open mind about when I’m needed,’ he observes. ‘I’ve got a very good managing director and team: it’s looked after well in my absence and they all know what I’m doing and are very pleased about it. It will happen.’
Their two sons are now both at St Andrew’s, where Fiona’s mother also lives. Gus, aged 20 and studying Spanish and Portuguese, has done six months in Spain as part of his course and is now doing the same amount of time in Rio de Janeiro. Alfie, now 19, is reading Geography. The couple’s daughter, Arabella, is at school near Banbury in Oxfordshire, and taking her GCSE exams this summer. None of them have yet seen their father dressed in the regalia of High Sheriff but they are all very pleased for him. Holidays in Portugal with cousins who take a house there each summer have been a feature of family life for the last 15 years and they all hope that can happen this summer too in the lower period of activity that tends to come in August.
There won’t be much leisure time apart from that, few opportunities to say, ‘Gone Fishing’ – something he was brought up on and which is second nature to him. ‘Part of the joy of it is cutting yourself off from the hubbub,’ he says. ‘When we were young, my father used to fish in the trout stream here. We don’t do that now, and I wish I did.’
Work on the Hall has just been completed: the demolition of a tall, narrow and rather ugly servants’ wing that was added to the house in the 1920s and the building of a modest new wing that has given balance back to the architecture. The bell in its bellcote above the doorway has also been restored and chimes once an hour. ‘We love it up here,’ Derbyshire’s High Sheriff concludes with satisfaction. ‘It’s a good community and a strong one, and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.’