Andrew Thomas talks to High Sheriff of Cumbria Julie Barton about her life, the role and why she has chosen tackling social isolation and loneliness as her theme during her year in office
Julie Barton said it was both a big surprise and a huge honour when she was asked to become High Sheriff of Cumbria for 2020/21.
She still does not know who nominated her for the role. The High Sheriff is appointed personally by the Sovereign for one year and is her representative in the county in all matters relating to the judiciary, the maintenance of law and order and the administration of justice.
“People were intrigued when I told them,” she said. “Some of my friends knew nothing about the role but they were genuinely interested in it.”
But the coronavirus pandemic meant her installation was rather unusual.
“There was supposed to be a big ceremony at Barrow Town Hall on March 26,” said Mrs Barton, who lives just outside Ulverston. “The installation had never been held there before, partly because there has never been a High Sheriff from the Low Furness peninsula in the past.
“But obviously Covid-19 came along and it had to be cancelled. I moved the date forward on March 21, which was just two days before the lockdown was announced. It was held on my patio at home instead, with ten people in attendance – all socially distanced – and others joining via Skype, including the Lord Lieutenant Claire Hensman and outgoing High Sheriff Marcia Reid Fotheringham.
“Also there was my chaplain, the Canon Paul Embery, who is the parish priest at the Catholic Church in Ulverston I attend. He asked if he could bring anything to the event – I think he meant something like glasses for drinks – but I asked if he could bring along the lectern from the church. It was quite nice to sign on the lectern. I have read from it many times and I think it gave the procedure even more gravitas.”
Mrs Barton, 53, grew up in Ulverston and attended St Mary’s RC Primary School and Ulverston Victoria High School. She went on to study History and Education at Durham University. After graduation in 1989, Julie returned to Furness and started her career as a teacher at Holy Family School, Barrow.
After two years she moved to St Mary’s, her former school, where the head teacher was still the same person as when she was a pupil.
She married Peter married in 1990 and the couple have two grown-up sons, Joseph, a performance manager in the NHS at Newcastle, and John, who is studying for a masters in International Relations at Durham.
In 1993 Julie actively supported Peter in setting up Forge Europa, an LED lighting company based in Ulverston and Dalton-in-Furness.
They started the business in the spare room at home from a standing start with no customers, no suppliers and no financial backers. Together they led Forge Europa to become an innovative lighting company with customers in more than 20 countries. Julie was instrumental in the company winning a Queen’s Award for Outstanding Innovation in 2009.
How did she find making the leap from the public sector to the private? “There were a lot of different skills to learn but a lot of it is about connecting with people. If you can sell fractions to small children in the classroom you have a good chance of connecting with business people and making a success of it!” she explained.
The High Sheriff is the oldest secular office in the United Kingdom after the Crown and dates from Saxon times. It has certainly existed for more than 1,000 years since the Shires were formed.
As the holder of an entirely non-political office, the High Sheriff remains in a unique position to bring people together within the county and to lend active support to the principal organs of the constitution within Cumbria – the Royal Family, the judiciary, the police and other law-enforcement agencies, the emergency services, local authorities and all recognised church and faith groups.
The High Sheriff of Cumbria, a voluntary role, takes an active part in supporting and promoting voluntary organisations.
Mrs Barton, though, had to adapt the way the High Sheriff carried out duties due to the lockdown.
“I had lots of days planed through Cumbria Community Foundation, where I was meant to meet around five different local charities each day,” she said. “So, instead, I have been ‘phoning up all these charities, many of whose volunteers are working in situations which are unprecedented.
“It’s important they know there is someone who is listening, appreciating and thanking them for what they do and encouraging them. It is not really me ringing them but me in my office, representing the Crown and the constitution and that has been appreciated by them.”
And she added: “I have been to places no other High Sheriff has ever been because people have Zoom conversations with me from the quieter parts of their houses – places they would never normally take the High Sheriff, such as under a cabin bed!”
Other duties have included attending a virtual camp organised by Girl Guides in South Cumbria. She made a video in which she thanked the emergency services and the judiciary for their efforts. And she placed flowers at Ulverston’s Market Cross on VE Day, thanks to Ellie’s garden centre at Ulverston, which made her a red, white and blue planter with ribbons attached and pupils at Croftlands Juniors, which is teaching children of key workers, who made her Union flags.
“The lockdown has been frustrating but I think business teaches you to adapt, be tenacious and to find other ways of doing things,” she said.
Mrs Barton’s theme for the year is tackling isolation and loneliness, something which has become more acute by the risk of coronavirus and the need for many in our communities to self-isolate for long periods.
“There is social isolation in Cumbria because we live in a large, rural area and have an ageing population,” she said. “There are also a lot more homes these days with only one person living in them. My plan is to highlight and work with organisations which are tackling social isolation.”
She had noticed more people being neighbourly and supporting others with shopping and collecting prescriptions and so on. “Perhaps we are more aware now of people who live on their own. If we continue that support in the future then perhaps something positive can come out of Covid-19 and the lockdown,” she said.
Mrs Barton’s interests include music. She plays recorder with The Dorian Players, an early music group in the Furness area. She also enjoys fell walking and completed the 214 Wainwrights in 2015.
Asked to describe herself, she consulted with Peter and son John and came up with: ‘Cheery, tenacious, loyal, busy but thinks time is elastic - and prone to writing lists.’
· For more information see https://www.highsheriffofcumbria.co.uk/