Lady Dannatt MBE: Representing Queen and county
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
The formality of the title is clear: The Lady Dannatt, MBE, Lord-Lieutenant of Norfolk, representative of Her Majesty the Queen.
But for one of the county’s highest profile figures, that appears to be where such formality ends.
“Call me Pippa,” she insists, as I ask how she wishes to be addressed.
During our conversation at her home in Keswick, just south of Norwich, I sense this relaxed and approachable demeanour is key to her success in the role.
It is a role where she values contact, meeting people, championing causes, and highlighting the good and the resilience in the wider community of Norfolk, a county she loves dearly and is so passionate about.
This compassion and understanding, I suspect, is what enables her to connect so strongly with the 'grassroots', a word that crops up regularly during our conversation. I interpret it as the importance she puts on the many people – often unheralded – who are doing tremendous work in communities across the county.
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This, she recognises, was particularly strong at the height of the coronavirus pandemic where hardships and loneliness were exposed; there was a need, and the community responded.
And these efforts are now being acknowledged by the Lord-Lieutenancy of Pippa Dannatt in the form of blue plaques, recognising the efforts of communities, large and small, for their efforts and resilience in the face of the pandemic.
“I do feel there is a community resilience and I hope we do not lose all the things that we learned during that horrible period of lockdown,” she says. “With so much loss, we did learn to come together and serve each other in an extraordinary way and I really want to hold onto that and my feeling is that so far, we are.”
The blue plaques – large ones for towns and smaller plaques for villages and communities – were the idea of her vice-Lord Lieutenant, Peter Wilson, and deputy lieutenant Melinda Raker.
“They came up with the idea of giving every community that would like one a plaque to put wherever they like in their community centre, village hall, church, pub, or wherever they feel it would be most appropriate.”
Engraved with the words “to commemorate our community’s resilience in the year of the pandemic 2020-2021”, they are circled by the quote from Norfolk-born social theorist Harriet Martineau: “live your best and act your best and think your best today.”
“We are very proud of it,” continues Pippa, “and the feedback across the county has been absolutely fantastic. There are over 550 to be presented, so all my deputy lieutenants are having to work incredibly hard but it does get them into the communities and meeting with local councils, church councils, and schools. That is a real benefit for the Lieutenancy because it gives us a presence but it is also a benefit for the local communities.”
While her role is to represent The Queen throughout the county, she feels it is much broader and enables her to support organisations from the magistrates through to charities, youth organisations and many more.
“I regard it as opportunity to support organisations at the grassroots level in Norfolk,” she says. “I have a very full diary, I have to be quite disciplined to take time out, but I have 50 deputies and I am very keen that they get involved and particularly in areas that are of importance to them so that they can champion the causes that they feel are most important for Norfolk.”
She inherited many deputies from her predecessor Sir Richard Jewson, but has since hand-picked 15 of her own.
Now 67, and appointed in 2019, she will continue in the role until she is 75.
So, what is her strategy?
“I hope I have set the tone in that I want to use deputies imaginatively and fully; I want them to be proactive amongst the county. Fifty deputies may sound a lot but it is a huge county and I want them all to be as active as they possibly can and as their other commitments allow.
“I feel very strongly about that if you take on the position of Lord-Lieutenant, or a vice like Peter, or a deputy, that it is a giving back.”
She remains “very, very, surprised” at being selected for the role, but adds: “What a privilege and why would you not want to do it because it is such an extraordinary county and my roots go back a long way. Also, I do feel that we can make a difference. It is about meeting and encouraging and thanking people from all walks of life.”
Even during lockdown, she enthusiastically continued that contact via Zoom calls, and sending out 2,000 cards to individuals and organisations who had done ‘fantastic things for their community and the county.’
“It was just to thank them in the name of Her Majesty for everything they have done and they were very well received.”
It is the grassroots activities that she enjoys the most; visiting communities such as the Feltwell Pantry, for example, where local women have set up a food bank resource.
“It was an absolute joy to see what these ladies were doing and how they were reaching out to nine very isolated villages. They were operating from the church, some of them were churchgoers some were not, but they were all acting for the best in the community.”
The church community remains an important part of her life. She is a lay canon of Norwich Cathedral and with husband Richard - General The Lord Dannatt, the former Chief of the General Staff – is a supporter of their local parish church.
Another project she visited recently and was impressed with was the Holt Youth Project, serving young people from across North Norfolk, including some who may have been excluded from school or with particular needs.
Pippa remains acutely aware that beyond Norfolk’s rural idyll are pockets of poverty and she is keen to raise awareness and support organisations that are helping address this.
“We do have problems but much more importantly we have wonderful charities and organisations that are working their socks off to help individuals and communities and we are very well served with the Norfolk Community Foundation.”
Well-placed to sense the mood of the county through the diverse people and groups she interacts with, Pippa notes: “I think we are going to have a very harsh winter but what one has to hold onto is the extraordinary amount of good that is being done by individuals and groups within this quite amazing county of ours.”
Mental health and wellbeing has long been an important cause. Pippa has been a counsellor for almost 30 years, having started when stationed in Germany, initially for Relate, and then in Wiltshire with GP practices.
“I realised I was hardly ever without a client who was not there as a result of some kind of childhood harm, so in the five years before I took on being Lord-Lieutenant, I worked exclusively for the Sue Lambert Trust in Norwich which is a charity that support adults and teenage survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”
When appointed Lord-Lieutenant, she stated she was looking forward to “serving the people of the county of Norfolk in the best way that I can” and developing the work of the Lieutenancy, in particular encouraging volunteering, and “promoting mental health fitness especially amongst young people and those working in our farming communities.” She also supports charities working in the area of dementia.
When serving as High Sheriff of Norfolk in 2014-15 - an appointment previously held by her father Jim Gurney and grandfather Quintin Gurney – Pippa took mental health as her theme.
“That was an interesting year, a very good basis to build on as Lord-Lieutenant,” added Pippa, who is also a Norwich City fan.
Having spent much of her life as an army wife, she reflects: “That has actually probably been instrumental in forming much of the person I am today. People remember the grander bits, and we did have some wonderful postings towards the end, but it was very tough as a young Major’s wife bringing up three little boys in Germany.”
With frequent moves in Germany, across the UK, and Northern Ireland, she continues: “I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for young soldiers' wives today, they have a very tough call indeed.
“Loneliness is rife, pay is poor, still not enough support of the young families, although that has greatly improved, so the military life was very formative. It was not all glamorous in the way that one might perhaps think.”
Born in Keswick as Philippa Gurney, when she married, her father gave the young couple their current home, where he farmed the estate, and which is still run today by her husband.
“When I said I’d be marrying a soldier, he said to Richard that she will be a much better army wife if she knows she has a base, and how true that was.”
For their sons Tom, Bertie and Oliver and daughter Richenda, Norfolk was always “home,” and her 10 grandchildren - eight boys and two girls – are regular visitors, with the family remaining an extremely important part of her life, taking up any spare time she has.
Sent to the Tower
One of Pippa's happiest times in recent years was spent living at the Tower of London in Richard’s capacity as Constable of the Tower (2009-16) after he left his role as Chief of the General Staff.
“I adored living there,” she recalls, “it was a wonderful, cosy, tower community and like a little village with 125 residents including a doctor and vicar and the 37 Yeoman Warders – Beefeaters – who lived on site with their families.”
A major project they oversaw was the centenary of the start of World War One in 2014 to fill the moat with 888,246 poppies, one for every British and colonial soldier who lost their lives in the Great War. When they were sold off, the ceramic poppies raised some £10m for service charities, with another £5m raised from other events for organisations such as Help for Heroes, SSAFA, Combat Stress.
This concern for the welfare of military families was particularly apparent during the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, as UK casualties mounted.
While her husband was Chief of the General Staff, she worked with SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association) to raise £5m to help provide accommodation in Birmingham and the Headley Court rehabilitation facility for families to be close to soldiers severely injured in conflict.
“It was deeply shocking that when our injured service personnel were brought back to the UK, there was nowhere for their families to go. It was unbelievable, there were families having to stay in bedsits at their own expense. I was so incensed about the situation,” she says.
Having met families of badly injured service personnel, she felt “driven and passionate” about providing somewhere for them to stay, so two properties were converted for the purpose.
“It was an extraordinary sum to have raised in nine months, the most wonderful project to be involved in, and reflected the country’s awareness of how badly injured soldiers and their families needed support,” adds Pippa, who is Vice President of SSAFA and was awarded her MBE for the work on that project.
“SSAFA does so much for the military families, but I particularly enjoyed being a panel member and deputy chair of SSAFA’s adoption panel.”
SSAFA set up an adoption agency to enable military families to adopt and over the last decade has successfully place more than 100 children. She also supports Homestart because of “the enormous value it had to lonely military families,” and is a former President of The Army Widows’ Association.
I'm reading – All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, and Pope Francis’ Little Book of Compassion. I love reading and have a book club, a group of friends who are my greatest support network.
I'm watching – Strictly on a Saturday night is a must, I’m an avid watcher
I'm listening to – The Today Programme in the morning to keep me up to date, and in the car it’s Radio Norfolk or Jeremy Vine on Radio Two. I have a wide range of music tastes but would rather listen to conversation and be informed.