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Sheriff of Norwich - "My fantastic year."

PUBLISHED: 09:00 14 May 2011

Derek James

Derek James

Jeff Taylor

Sheriff of Norwich Derek James hands over his robes and responsibilities and looks back on a year of serving and celebrating his beloved home city.

It’s been a year of robes and receptions, chauffeurs and chains, glad-handing and signing hands, for Sheriff of Norwich Derek James.

For years he was known as “Mr Norwich” by colleagues and readers - for his knowledge of the history and people of the city.

But suddenly he was really Mr Norwich, one of the highest ranking citizens of his beloved city.

The man who had spent almost 25 years putting the characters of Norwich centre-stage, via his hugely popular page in the Evening News, was centre stage himself. Instead of popping out, armed with notebook and pen, to meet someone arranging a school reunion or to interview unassuming, unsung world war veteran, he was being dressed in long purple, fur-lined robes and civic regalia and chauffeured to be guest of honour at churches and charities, dinners and parades,

He even had his own parlour in the Guildhall.

Together with Lord Mayor Tom Dylan, Derek chose Norwich’s Rotary House for the Deaf as the civic charity for the year. It was typical of Derek that he particularly wanted to help a charity which was literally just round the corner from his home.

Derek has spent his entire working life writing for local newspapers and giving local people a voice.

Now he was able to help raise thousands of pounds for a small city charity – and learn some sign language.

“The response from the public has been fantastic and people have come forward and organised so many events for us – from dog shows to concerts, all sorts of different events. People have been very generous in these difficult times and it’s helped to put Rotary House on the map,” he said. “It’s the only home of its kind in the country. It’s nice to be able to put a small local charity in the spotlight because they do a fantastic job.”

He said he will remember the year as an amazing opportunity to find out about the life of the city. “I grew up in Norfolk and have lived in the county most of my life, and in Norwich for the past 25 years, but even so, I didn’t realise how much was going on in the city,” he said.

He has particularly enjoyed the chance to meet so many people through the past year.

“Every week we have been to events large and small. And I’ve never spent so much time in church in my life!” he said. “David Cameron talks about the ‘big society’ but it’s been going on in Norwich for hundreds of years – people looking after each other. That’s the real meaning of it.”

One of his favourite moments of the year included the time he was at a school fete, dressed in his robes and regalia. “A little boy come up to me and asked, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m the Sheriff of Norwich,’ and he said, ‘Don’t be so daft!’ I enjoyed that. He put me in my place!”

And what is the place of the Sheriff of Norwich?

Derek said he had been overwhelmed to be asked to be Sheriff, honoured to meet so many Norwich people doing such interesting and important work in the city, and very conscious of the history of the role, which goes back hundreds of years.

“It’s really all about getting out and meeting people,” he said.

But among all the greetings given, parades inspected, meetings attended and speeches delivered there was one person he did not quite meet. Just days before his elevation to Sheriffship Her Majesty the Queen visited Norwich, but Derek was still Sheriff-in-waiting. Later she visited RAF Marham for a VIP occasion and Derek was there too, representing the fine city.

“I almost met the Queen, but not quite!” he said.

His wife, the artist Bridgette James, or his daughter Verity, a nurse at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, accompanied him to many of his events.

“I couldn’t have done it without Bridgette and Verity, they have been a huge support,” he said. “My wife has always been at my side. She’s been a great asset and a wonderful Sheriff’s Lady.”

Derek and Bridgette also enjoyed welcoming people to the Sheriff’s official parlour in the ancient Guildhall, and showing guests around the historic city landmark.

Now, after hundreds of hours of official engagements, scores of speeches, dozens of dinners, a fair few fly-pasts and parades, and the chance to meet thousands of local people, it is time for Derek to pass his robes and chains on to the next Sheriff of Norwich, Chris Higgins.

“It’s been a fantastic year but now it is time to hand over the baton,” said Derek.

“I’ll miss going out and meeting people and seeing what’s going on in the city but I think I might be able to do my job a little better, because this year has given me an inkling of what people are doing and thinking and saying.”

He has been sharing his year with Evening News reader via his weekly Sheriff’s Diary pages and hopes to be able to feature Chris, and Lord Mayor Jenny Lay, as they continue meeting, representing and recognising the achievements of the people of Norwich.

For the past year Derek and Tom have been driven to official appointments, shown where to stand, coached in etiquette and generally shepherded through their roles by civic attendant Gavin Thorpe. Derek paid tribute to Gavin, saying: “He’s been great and he makes sure we do the job properly.”

And his feelings as he doffs his elaborate hat to the people of Norwich for the final time, shrugs off the robes, and packs away the chains?

“I never imagined, ever, that I would do anything like this. It’s been an amazing honour,” said the man who today joins the illustrious ranks of former Sheriffs of Norwich.

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