A year of honour
PUBLISHED: 08:24 30 October 2013 | UPDATED: 08:24 30 October 2013
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2013
For more than two decades, Sarah Leicester, supported her husband as he ran one of the most historic and important estates in the country. This year she steps into the limelight – with an Earl as her plus-one and chauffeur.
Lady Leicester is this year’s High Sheriff of Norfolk, and loving the chance to find out more about her home county. “I want to offer support and encouragement wherever it can help,” she says.
Asked to name their favourite place in Norfolk, many people immediately alight on the vast, dune-backed, forest-fringed beach at Holkham. The Countess of Leicester is just as entranced by the beauty and history of the estate, but says: “I enjoy driving down the Acle Straight to Great Yarmouth. I know a lot of people don’t, but I love that view of the marshes with windmills and grazing cattle.”
Wife to the Earl of Leicester, she lived in magnificent Holkham Hall for more than 20 years, before the couple retired to a house on the estate six years ago, allowing the Earl’s eldest son, Viscount Coke to take over at Holkham.
“I couldn’t believe it when I was nominated to be High Sheriff, and I feel very honoured to be chosen,” says the Countess. “Norfolk is where I have lived most of my life and I love meeting and talking to people, and learning more about this large and wonderful county.
“On my travels all over the county I have met so many who give so generously of their time – to help others – without ever expecting to be thanked or recognised for their work. Did you know there are over 3000 charities in Norfolk? That will give you an idea as to how many volunteers there are out there.”
As High Sheriff, Lady Leicester has taken to the sea in the Caister Lifeboat, the fastest in the country - “It was quite a thrill!” she laughs - and hopes to go out on a Wells fishing boat, although it is apparently unlucky to have a woman on board a fishing boat. “I will no doubt have to go out with the samphire gatherers – and just not catch fish!”
She has spent time with the police and the fire service. “It is so interesting discovering how Norfolk works,” she says.
Sarah married The Earl of Leicester in 1986, bringing her two young children from her first marriage to live at Holkham Hall. “I had never lived in a stately home before – not many people have. It was exciting and daunting, and it stayed daunting throughout my years there. Whenever I came up the long drive and saw that huge house, I thought ‘Gosh, I am mistress of that house!’ Running Holkham was such hard work. I enjoyed it, but it was unrelenting.”
Lady Leicester oversaw the refurbishment of the interiors of the hall, managed Holkham Pottery, two gift shops, two tea rooms and initiated the classical music concerts and opera performances in the Marble Hall which have raised many tens of thousands of pounds for charity.
Her husband says she did a remarkable job restoring the grand house and opening it up to visitors: “Many stately homes you go to, you are behind ropes. She did away with the ropes. People can walk up to the picture. For more than two decades she supported his work at Holkham. Now, it is her turn to step into the limelight, and Lord Leicester agrees: “I’m 10 paces behind now. I’m very definitely just the consort, chaperone and chauffeur.”
Sarah Leicester devotes time and energy to raising money for charities. “It’s good to be able to help. You feel you have got to try to do your best if you’ve got the opportunity,” she explains.
During her year as High Sheriff she has chosen to support The West Norfolk Hospice at Home – affiliated to Tapping House. “It’s a small but wonderful organisation, run by Rebecca Meyrick, who is married to The Bishop of King’s Lynn. A team of trained nurses and carers help people who are nearing the end of their lives to die at home, if they so wish. I am sure that we would all like to die at home, in peace and dignity, surrounded by family and friends.”
Another charity close to her heart is The Norfolk Churches Trust, for which she has raised £230,000 from her Holkham operas. A devoted church-goer herself, she says: “I adore our wonderful medieval churches. My father introduced me to church crawls when I was young. He used to say ‘We’re off on a church crawl!’ My brothers and I would always groan ‘We wish it was a pub crawl!’ But something from those visits must have gone in, as I am passionate about them now. There is so much history to them, and they are havens of peace.”
Until recently Sarah was a Trustee of the League of Friends of Wells Community Hospital for many years, and has served on the board of visitors of Wayland Prison. She has raised funds for The Mariensky Theatre and orphanages in St Petersburg, and is president of the East Anglian Sheepdog Society. “I believe the sheepdog is the King of dogs!” says Lady Leicester – although not within the hearing of her own dogs – she breeds the Holkham line of both Labradors and spaniels. The couple always name their dogs after African tribes because both Lord and Lady Leicester spent part of their childhoods in Africa, where Sarah’s father, Noel Forde, was a gold prospector and big game hunter, rode in the Kenyan Grand National and led mounted camel patrols in Palestine. He became a Police Commissioner in Nigeria and eventually retired to Norfolk.
She spent her early years with a nanny in Kent. “I actually had a miserable childhood,” she says. She arrived in Norfolk at 13, as a student at Runton Hill School (now Kingswood activity centre in West Runton), and at 18 began work as a dress designer. She worked in a London theatrical agency, but says: “If I had my life again, I would have loved to have studied law.”
She is particularly interested in the parts of her High Sheriff role which involve the justice system. One of her duties as High Sheriff is to look after visiting High Court judges when they come to Norfolk. She visits Norwich Crown Court as often as she can. “I find the judges are very humane and compassionate to both victim and accused, and are really concerned to get the sentence right.”
In any spare time she enjoys gardening. The walled garden at Holkham is one of her favourite parts of the estate and here she used to grow flowers to arrange in vases throughout the house when it was open to the public. “I wanted people to feel when they visited the hall that they were coming into a home rather than a museum,” she explains.
Holkham Hall is also home to centuries-old busts of Roman emperors and vestal virgins, classical poets and philosophers, making up one of the finest collections of classical sculptures in the world. They were collected by the first Lord Leicester in the 18th century to adorn his palatial new north Norfolk mansion.
When Sarah was running Holkham Pottery, she started to reproduce some of the classical marble busts in the hall, in plaster. They proved a success and are “now considered the best on the market”, she says with justifiable pride. Although The Holkham Pottery closed six years ago, Holkham Sculpture Reproductions still exists, and she makes the busts to order, in a studio at her home.
Instead of opting for relaxation in retirement she is constantly busy: “Even now I don’t know what it is to sit down, I feel it’s almost wrong to do so!”
She has three young grandchildren in Scotland, plus seven step-grandchildren, and photographs of the youngsters are in every room at Model Farm. She loves the park all year round – but particularly going out with her dogs in the shooting season, and when the trees are ablaze with colour in October. Some hot summer days she and Lord Leicester will stay in a beach house in the woods and she will go for an early morning swim in the sea.
But this year there is no time to linger on the iconic beach as her packed programme takes the High Sheriff the length and breadth of her county – raising funds and raising awareness of the very best Norfolk has to offer.