Suffolk Show: I went as a baby . . . and became the director. Now I’m the High Sheriff

The Suffolk Show is less than three weeks away. Steven Russell meets a man who first went as an eight-week-old baby. He also happens to be the new High Sheriff . . .

STEPHEN Miles strolls to meet me as I scrunch up his drive. He shakes my hand – presumably the one he offered the Queen during her visit to Newmarket Day Care Centre earlier in the week. I’m tempted not to wash again . . . On yet another oven-like day we chat about the weather and the fact that for weeks and weeks we haven’t seen a drop of rain to speak of. One of Stephen’s many hats is that of an arable farmer, forever with an eye to the skies and hoping the elements are kind. It all reminds him of the bleached-out summer of 1976 – the year he graduated from agricultural college. “I can remember doing my finals and it was blisteringly hot. That was the beginning of June and everything was just brown.”

With 3,000 acres to worry about, farming naturally continues to occupy much of his energies, but there are plenty of other things on his plate, too – such as being the new High Sheriff of Suffolk.

More anon. While he’s getting his feet under table with his new role, Stephen also has the Suffolk Show coming up fast on the rails. He’ll again be senior steward of The Flower & Garden Experience – his latest incarnation at an annual event that’s a major part of his life.

Stephen first attended the show at the tender age of eight weeks, his father having been involved for years, and hasn’t missed one since he was 18.

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That was when he became a steward: a maintenance steward, to be precise – part of a small team ensuring the supply of water to livestock, loos, catering areas and all corners of the showground that needed it.

He did it for 25 years – enjoying the build-up of the three weeks before the show and the great camaraderie.

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In the early days he didn’t bother travelling home to west Suffolk once the event was in full swing. Needing to be up at 5am, he’d sleep on a little camp bed in a showground shed.

In 1996 he stepped outside his comfort zone big-time, with an invitation to become deputy director. “That was fascinating, because you were suddenly looking at the whole show for a whole year.”

After that, from 1997 to 2003, Stephen was senior steward of the Farminanglia section, which highlights the diversity of Suffolk agriculture on our doorstep.

He’s pleased to have helped introduce the children’s farmyard during this time, “though I can’t claim total credit”, he smiles. Stephen had agreed with one of the steward’s views that they should be offering something specifically for youngsters, and approached Easton Farm Park to help make it happen.

In similar vein, he was on the founding committee of The School Farm & Country Fair between 2000 and 2005. “This is now one of the most important days in the (Suffolk Agricultural) Association’s calendar, when, in April, over 3,500 children have the chance to learn about all aspects of farming and the countryside at Trinity Park.”

In 2004 came another spell as deputy director – knowing he’d be taking over as show director the following year.

Stephen’s three-year term of office had a touch of serendipity about it. The middle show, 2006, marked the 175th anniversary of the association – and the director during the 150th anniversary just happened to have been . . . his father.

“Sheer coincidence! Nothing was planned; nobody had ever thought about it; just a lovely coincidence.”

That middle year also saw the opening of the Trinity Park conference and events centre. It welcomed, too, the installation at the showground entrance of Harriet Mead’s life-size sculptures of the Suffolk Trinity: a Suffolk Horse, a Suffolk ram and a Suffolk red poll bull.

Again, Stephen won’t claim credit, since these improvements were in train before he became director.

He did, however, push forward the transformation of the event centre into a Lifestyle Pavilion during the show for top-end lifestyle and interiors retailers.

Royal visitors during “the Miles era” were Prince Edward and the Duke of Gloucester.

Stephen enjoyed tremendously his time at the helm, “but come the end I was quite happy to be handing on. I’d had three years and it was absolutely fantastic. That’s the good thing about it: you’ve got time to make your mark, then hand it on to someone else to make their mark.

“You spend a year being involved in the planning and then you see it all coming together, and you can’t describe that feeling to anybody.

“Suddenly, on the day, you’ve got this army of people beavering away, pulling together, to make the show a success, and that is an incredible feeling.”

Senior stewards responsible for each area, along with their teams, knew their stuff and so he’d leave it to them once the gates opened – unless a problem arose. As director, Stephen sought to get out and about on the showground, thanking people and greeting specific visitors.

Handing back his director’s badge didn’t mark the end, of course, but a new beginning. Stephen is now senior steward of The Flower and Garden Experience – perfectly up his street, as gardening is the main hobby of the Mileses. Wife Petrina is one of the stewards in the flower-arrangement section.

Stephen says that what he’s most enjoyed about his Suffolk Show involvement is helping reconnect the public with agriculture.

“Years ago, many people grew up in a village and they were part of it. Now, all this big machinery . . . health and safety . . . nobody’s allowed near it . . . Things have changed so much and people have become so disconnected from the land. You don’t go to the village shop; you don’t see food growing. You go to Sainsbury’s and it’s in its packet.”

The secret of the show is presenting a quality event. It has evolved, but its agricultural flavour remains pre-eminent, “and it’s really paid off”.

The healthy number of livestock exhibitors, in a county not primarily known for its animals, reflects that sustained agricultural tradition, he says.

“The Suffolk Show is Suffolk at its best. You can’t get better than that.”

All we need now is the right show weather on June 1 and 2: “Warm with a bit of breeze is just perfect – like last year.”

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Roots in the fields of Suffolk

STEPHEN Miles never doubted he’d become the third generation of his family to farm the fields of west Suffolk. The Mileses have been in agriculture for more than a century and came to the Great Ashfield area in 1900, from elsewhere in the county. His grandfather started with a small patch of land and added farms as they came up for sale. By the mid-1970s the estate ran to about 1,700 acres, but since then Stephen’s taken on contract work for five other owners. The total area now stands at 3,000 acres.

Livestock once figured prominently – he talks of 750 head of beef cattle – but is long gone: the victim of agricultural economics. Simplicity is key in managing a large acreage, so his “good, heavy, Suffolk land” grows wheat, barley, oil seed rape and sugar beet – plus a few beans from time to time.

Stephen has four full-time employees, with another three people who can help part-time during hectic periods. “If you go back 30 years we must have had, goodness knows, 15 or more people – when we had the livestock.”

Staff have been with the estate since leaving school, and one employee is a fourth-generation worker. “It makes my life very easy. When I was director of the Suffolk Show, I was away from here a lot, and they’re very capable of just getting on with it. This year they know I’m not going to be here very much, and I can go away with confidence, knowing things are happening back home.”

The Miles estate is quite spread out and Stephen grew up at Norton, though he went to school in Great Ashfield until he was eight. Boarding school followed, then Shuttleworth Agricultural College in Bedfordshire.

Stephen and his wife met – surprise, surprise – through Young Farmers. Petrina’s family came from Little Wenham. They have three children. Rachel, 24, has qualified as a chartered surveyor. Emily, 22, graduated in business and retail. Philip, 19, is in America and completing his second year at university. The daughters have chosen different career paths to farming; might their brother enter the family business? His father isn’t sure – but will apply no pressure. “They all appreciate what’s here; and the general consensus seems to be that I can go on a bit longer!” he grins.

There has been some “succession”. Emily is stewarding at the show for the first time, in the Lifestyle Pavilion. “So we’re starting on the next generation!”

Bodkins and banquets

SO, this business of High Sheriff . . . What’s that all about?

Well, it dates from Saxon times and the term comes from “Shire Reeve” or the Anglo-Saxon “Scir-gerefa”, apparently.

The office is thought to derive from the king’s reeve, who dealt with administrative work such as collecting rents, taxes and fines.

High Sheriffs judged cases at monthly courts and acted as law enforcement officers. If they needed to, they could summon and command the full military force of their county.

However, from about 1300 their powers waned steadily – tasks being carried out instead by Parliament, local authorities, police, magistrates, coroners, the civil service, the Inland Revenue and others.

Today, the High Sheriff is a largely-ceremonial non-political office that – among other tasks – encourages voluntary groups, supports those involved in the law and the upholding of public order (such as the emergency services) and looks after the welfare of any visiting High Court judges. High Sheriffs also attend royal visits in their county and support agencies involved in crime prevention, particularly those helping young people.

Theirs is a one-year term and there is an annual nomination ceremony in November at the Royal Courts of Justice, when three names are put forward for each county. One name is chosen by the monarch at a meeting of the Privy Council.

Some ancient ceremony comes into play, with the Queen “pricking” the name with a silver bodkin – a type of needle.

The custom stems from the days when sheriffs collected unpopular taxes and were liable for shortfalls. People therefore tried hard not to be appointed – even resorting to bribing officials. To deter interference with the official documents, a hole was punched through the vellum, next to the appointee’s name – a hole being almost impossible to alter.

High Sheriffs provide their own uniform. They are also unpaid and do not get expenses. They don’t, therefore, place a financial burden on the state.

Stephen Miles said he was approached a few years ago about taking on the role and didn’t need to be convinced.

We speak less than a month after the swearing-in at Ipswich Crown Court and he admits he is still getting his bearings.

There is an under-sheriff – enthusiastic Bury St Edmunds-based lawyer Neil Walmsley, who has been very helpful and is knowledgeable about legal issues – but there isn’t a diary secretary to mastermind Stephen’s year in office.

The High Sheriff’s staff are thus the man himself and his good lady. To them falls the task of dealing with correspondence and arranging whom they’d like to meet in the next 11 months.

It’s anything but a hardship, though. “It’s such a privilege to be asked to do this,” says Stephen. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to get under the skin of the county and a huge opportunity to give something back. Agriculture can be quite insular, and to be taken out of the box is very nice.

One of his aims is to encourage and thank charities such as the Iceni Project (based in Ipswich and treating drug addiction and its consequences) and other organisations doing great work to improve lives.

“There are some fantastic things going on out there and we don’t always hear about the good stuff.”

Helping to put that right is the High Sheriff Awards Scheme, which recognises the contribution local people and organisations make to society, particularly through community safety and crime prevention initiatives, citizenship work and volunteering.

The High Sheriffs of Suffolk have set up a fund to support community activities, but it needs charitable donations so it can award grants to grass-roots groups that often struggle to compete with high-profile national charities. To help swell the coffers, Stephen is holding The High Sheriff’s Banquet on Saturday, October 8, at Trinity Park, Ipswich (the showground). To reserve a table for 10 guests, or for more details, contact Elizabeth on 01473 734125 or email

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