Meet your new High Sheriff of Kent

PUBLISHED: 16:19 27 June 2013 | UPDATED: 16:19 27 June 2013

Lord and Lady Colgrain

Lord and Lady Colgrain

Manu Palomeque

At home with Alastair Campbell and his wife Bella, DL, Chairman of Kent Community Foundation

The detailed directions, including ignoring satnav’s insistence on sending you onto the M25 and notes about how your mobile will most certainly lose signal at a critical point, make arriving at the Campbells’ beautiful if remotely located home Everlands at Ide Hill all the more sweet.

The perfect weather is a bonus too, enhancing the uninterrupted views across their terrace to Bough Beech reservoir. I learn that the Great Storm of 1987 played its part in creating that view, conveniently taking out a massive and unloved fir that no one had previously had the nerve to fell.

I am here to meet not only Alastair Campbell, 4th Baron Colgrain and this year’s High Sheriff, but also his wife Bella, whom I already know well as the Chairman of Kent Community Foundation and just can’t bring myself to think of as The Lady Colgrain.

This is probably just as well, for both are very down to earth and not fussed about any of it. The title is hereditary, created in 1946 for the Scottish banker Colin Campbell. Alastair is his great-grandson, the fourth Baron, and succeeded his father in 2008.

He and Bella met through mutual friends when Alastair was up at Trinity, Cambridge, where he read English. Married 34 years, they have two sons, Thomas and Nicholas, both of whom read at their father’s installation service at St Mary’s in Ide Hill.

“One was a church reading and the other a translation from Antigone by Sophocles by my tutor at Cambridge, Theo Redpath,” says Alastair. “It finishes off talking about the rule of law and the value of the legal profession, so it just seemed very appropriate at the High Sheriff service.”

The Victorian church at Ide Hill has special resonance for Alastair. In the South Transept is a memorial window to the first Baron Colgrain of Everlands and the choir vestry screen at the back of the church was erected in 1939 in memory of Lady Angela Campbell.

“All my family are buried there and I’ve worshipped there since I was a child,” he says. “We are actually in the parish of Chevening, so I asked Chris Smith, the Chevening vicar and my chaplain for the year, if he would officiate. That way we could combine Chevening and Ide Hill.”

Alastair, 62 and a dashing six-footer, wears the blue velvet with panache and I am amazed to learn that the immaculate ceremonial outfit was made for a Kent High Sheriff 100 years ago. Not only that, its owner was a personal friend of Alastair father’s – so it has really come full circle.

The Kent links to his new role are very important to Alastair. “The family has been here 100 years and I was born in Penshurst, so long ago that I can remember the Medway flooding before the flood defences at Leigh were created,” he says.

“My first and fondest memory of the Kent and the ‘belonging’ bit was going with my grandfather into Sevenoaks when I was four or five. He’d been in the Royal West Kent Regiment during the First World War and then ran the Home Guard rifle range up here during the Second World War.

“I remember him bumping into all these old troopers in the town and there was always a huge amount of laughter and a real sense that they’d done an awful lot together. I feel very strongly about a sense of belonging, rather than a West Kent allegiance. It’s nice for people to have a sense of place and to relate to it.”

Growing up in a farming family instilled in Alastair a lifelong love of the countryside, in particular its wildlife and woodland. His great-grandfather first bought the land and his father, a woodsman, won an award from the Forestry Commission for his work on Oak Die-Back disease. “I feel him sitting on my shoulders sometimes when I’m walking around the estate,” Alastair smiles.

Today the Campbells have 1,000 acres of land and are beef cattle farmers, but in the nineties they had two dairy herds and a cheese-making business, jointly owned with Neal’s Yard, producing a farmhouse cream cheese known as Wealden.

Alastair, who employs a full-time farm manager, describes the farm as “my more-than-a-hobby love”. He has his own head-hunting business in London and is following former High Sheriff Richard Oldfield’s example and going up to the office from Monday to Wednesday.

This is proving a perfect solution to actually seeing something of his equally busy wife who, apart from being chairman of Kent Community Foundation and a Deputy Lieutenant, also works three days a week for the Citizens Advice Bureau in Westway, North Kensington.

A volunteer at CAB Sevenoaks for 12 years when the boys were little, Bella (who has a background in publishing) decided seven years ago that she wanted to get back to work part-time. She saw the London post advertised and got snapped up.

“When you say Kensington and Chelsea everyone has this idea that there can’t be any debt problems, but Golborne in North Kensington is in fact the joint poorest ward in London,” she explains.

“I specialise in financial advice, due to my experience in Sevenoaks in debt and employment law, so it was a natural step. It’s a very deprived inner-city area and has a lot of problems similar to the ones we experience here in Kent’s Medway Towns.”

Bella, who was the Kent visitor for grant-making charity The Henry Smith Charity for 15 years, finds that the knowledge she gains of deprived communities through her work with CAB feeds back into what she is doing with Kent Community Foundation.

“What I find exciting is how all the strands are joining up together. I didn’t see it earlier on in my life, but suddenly it’s all coming together,” she says. “When you see people come in, incredibly stressed, often in tears when they explain what has happened, it’s hugely rewarding when you see them go out with a smile on their face.”

It’s the same with her charity work: “Kent Community Foundation works very closely with the High Sheriffs and we can direct Alastair to various charities such as The Dandelion Trust and Canterbury Oast we have supported that are already working with children and getting them out into the countryside.”

Alastair agrees: “It means Bella and I can do things together during my year and it will be one and one making three. It’s great for us, great for the Shrievalty and great for Kent Community Foundation.”

When they are both back in Kent, the diary is pretty packed. Highlights so far have included Princess Anne’s visit to the East Malling Research Centre, when she planted a tree to mark the Kent site’s 100th anniversary. And both are looking forward to the High Sheriff’s Garden Party, which they will host at Belmont House (where Alastair is a Trustee) on 4 July.

There will also be a lot of prison visiting, which mirrors Bella’s experience in London with The Wormwood Scrubs Project, a full-time CAB service based there. Alastair adds: “I feel strongly about the training of young people, especially young offenders. The more we can get companies to set up apprenticeships the more we can help in that process, because there is going to be less and less government money available.”

Working with the judiciary and police is a major part of the High Sheriff’s role and Alastair reveals: “I was a Special Constable for all of one year in London, so that enabled me to see the other side slightly. It was one hell of an eye opener, Friday night down the King’s Road after there’s been a football match at Chelsea is something else!”

Back on a Kent focus, Alastair points out: “For many visitors to the UK the first county they see is Kent, so it’s important that we present everything here as well as we possibly can. I’d love to continue Mike Bax’s litter initiative; that sort of basic social responsibility is a good message to get across to the schools I will be visiting. I’ve also been asked to get involved in getting inner-city schoolchildren out into the countryside, which is of great appeal.”

He adds: “I’m a trustee of The Arvon Foundation, a creative writing charity that is also very keen on getting inner-city children out into their residential centres for a week at a time to write. More than one child said they’d never seen the stars before, a terrible thing to hear from a child of the 21st century. You realise how a lot of the things we need to do are very basic.”

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