Outgoing West Sussex High Sheriff reflects on the year

Charlotte Pearson catches up with the outgoing High Sheriff of West Sussex about the past year and her future plans.

New High Sheriff of West Sussex Denise Patterson Picture: Louise Adams
New High Sheriff of West Sussex Denise Patterson Picture: Louise Adams

A lot can happen in a year, something which Denise Patterson knows only too well.

From March 2015 to this week Mrs Patterson acted as High Sheriff of West Sussex before handing over the reins to Mark Spofforth.

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She said: “It has been a very busy year. It does take over your life but I have had the opportunity to go all over Sussex which has been fantastic.”

High Sheriff Sussex swearing in ceremony March 2015, Denise (left)

The role of High Sheriff has it roots in Saxon times. The modern precedent was defined by a Royal Warrant of 1904, which was amplified by a Home Office Memorandum of 1928 which stated that the High Sheriff takes precedence in the county immediately after the Lord-Lieutenant.

“You are the Queen’s representative and also represent law and order in the county,” Mrs Patterson explained. “I spent time going out and seeing what Sussex police do.

“I got to see their compassion for the job, I did firearms training and went out with the traffic officers monitoring the A27, it was really insightful.”

Another aspect of the role is ‘bringing the community together’.

She said: “I have got to meet some wonderful people and visited places in Sussex I had never heard of before.

“There is so much going on out there that you never hear about.

“I am really going to miss meeting people and hearing their stories.”

And one place in particular seems to have left its mark.

“I love East Grinstead,” Mrs Patterson said. “It was somewhere I had never been before, but it was such a beautiful place, I am planning to go back there and have a look around the shops.”

While many of the moments throughout the year have been ones of joy, there was one particular event which she says was ‘such a tragedy’.

“I was at the Shoreham Airshow as a guest of the charity when the disaster happened,” she recalled. “After it happened a surreal, deathly silence came over the crowd.

“When you see things like that in movies it doesn’t affect you and you think that it will be the same when you see it in real life but that fire ball you couldn’t comprehend what was happening.”

And she added that there were many poignant moments in the weeks afterwards.

“I remember going to the bridge with the chief constable and Lord Lieutenant and there was a little village with catering, offices and a mortuary,” she said.

“You could see the men and women in their white outfits scanning the area, and when they collected all they could find it would go in a box and off to Brighton mortuary.

“Every single time the car left the site to go to Brighton everyone would stop what they were doing and line the route, it was such a moving moment and even now it still gets me.

“It really brought the community together, ladies in Shoreham baked cakes, the children from the school presented the workers with chocolate, St John’s ambulance, which is voluntary, worked 12 hour shifts, and police officers came off their holiday.

“The weather was dire and when M&S heard about how soaked the people were they donated underwear and socks, while Tesco donated food.

“It was a terrible tragedy but it really brought the community together which I am glad I got to witness.”

During her term Mrs Patterson got to visit Lewes and Ford prisons.

She said: “Over Christmas I went to about 17 carol concerts which you would think would all be the same but they were all completely different.

“One in Lewes prison saw Silent Night being played by two inmates on a guitar Calypso style, it was great.”

Born on the Isle of Wight, Mrs Patterson went to boarding school near Petworth before moving to Oxford, but she says her parents always lived in West Sussex.

“I worked in London as a literary agent which is where I met my husband, novelist Harry Patterson (aka the thriller writer Jack Higgins),” the Aldwick Bay resident explained.

“When my father died I would come over to spend time with my mother and just loved it here.”

As for life after being High Sheriff Mrs Patterson will return to the board of the restoration of Chichester Cathedral and the board of Chichester Festival Theatre.

“It is Jonathan’s (Church) and Alan’s (Finch) last year so that will be interesting, also to see what Daniel (Evans) has in store for the year to come,” she said.

“But I am definitely going to take April off to try and get my life back,” she explained.

“I have been so used to getting a brief sent to me outlining what I am doing that day so it will be odd not getting that, I will miss it but it is someone else’s turn now.”