The position of High Sheriff is steeped in history, tradition and ceremonial – but behind all the robes and the regalia, its modern 21st century purpose includes offering down-to-earth support and encouragement to a range of local organisations and groups. This year’s incumbent Graham Biss, who has a background in farming, banking and charity enterprise, is looking forward to rolling up his sleeves, getting involved and helping to make a difference on the Island.

As the longest continuous office under the Crown, this ancient role would originally have involved collecting taxes for the King, but as the latest High Sheriff Graham Biss wryly observes: “HMRC performs that particular job very well these days, and for that I am very glad!”

Nowadays, the High Sheriff is there to provide the Sovereign’s support for the local systems of law and order – from police and law courts to the prisons and fire service. Which means that Graham will spend his year in office having regular official communications with these local authorities.

Aside from that more ceremonial function, being High Sheriff also gives him the opportunity to offer time and attention to areas of Island life in which he has a particular interest, and his chosen focus for his term is the voluntary sector and youth organisations.

As MD of the Newport-based charity Natural Enterprise and a father of four, Graham is already very familiar with these areas, and says: “We have some fantastic youth groups on the Island that I am very keen to support, promote and help shine a light on the great work they are doing”.

Among the many that have impressed him are the Bay Youth Programme, which he credits with “making a real difference” for young people in the area.

“Life has been and continues to be a challenge for all of us” he says, “but we have some great young people on the Island, so I’m keen to help in any way I can”.

Can-do spirit

He also points to the ‘extra good’ youth project being run by dedicated volunteers within the Brading Community Partnership, who tirelessly fundraise and run their own youth services.

Volunteer initiatives like these have sprung up to fill the void left by the demise of the Island’s Youth Service.

“That was a huge blow” said Graham, “but out of it has come some really good local provision by the community, for the community”.

It was this kind of can-do spirit that inspired one of Graham’s themes as High Sheriff for this year “Good people doing brilliant things” – a theme he’s keen to trumpet across the Island.

His awareness of the pressures and challenges faced by young people come not just from the lived experience of having raised four sons – now aged 19 to 28 – but also his involvement with IW Young Farmers, of which he is currently President.

“What younger people may lack in experience they certainly make up for in energy and infectious enthusiasm” he says, “and being around them is a sure way to keep you grounded”.

Getting on with it

Graham’s own early life as the third son of a dairy farming family in Somerset produced a strong work ethic that’s common to most rural communities.

“The way we were brought up, work came first, and if there was work to be done, you just got on with it”.

It was expected that the three brothers would continue in their farming heritage, but they have each found their own individual way. While Graham’s eldest brother carried on the family farm in the traditional manner, the second brother works as a chartered surveyor in the agricultural arena, while Graham found his own niche via an early route into banking.

At 19 he joined his local branch of the Nat West with a view to gaining some experience before returning to the family farm.

But just as he planned to resign from the bank and return to the land, he was sent to its Agricultural Office in Coventry, where he put his knowledge to use by being involved with the bank’s developing strategy for agriculture.

Over a six year period he was involved in the creation of 230 dedicated agricultural managers for the bank and now reflects how “very lucky” he was to be given that rare opportunity to combine his twin passions for farming and finance.

After six years in Coventry – where he happened to meet his wife-to-be, Sue, also working at the Agricultural Office – he returned to work in his native South West as the bank’s youngest Business Manager in the region.

Pull of the Island

Isle of Wight-born Sue, who had graduated in agriculture from Newcastle, moved to Somerset with him, although they were frequent visitors back to her family on the Island, and enjoyed regular holidays here with their own growing family of boys.

Like many Islanders, Sue always had that pull back to “home” and in 2006 the family finally made the move. Graham’s job had changed to give him less contact with farmers so he decided to take his career in his own direction, and left the bank to set up consultancy work – which also freed him and Sue to head across the Solent for good.

Later that year he was appointed Finance Director of the council-funded IW Economic Partnership, a partnership between private and public sector. He continued there until funding was removed in 2009 at which point he was tasked with shutting the business down – but from the ashes of that, he and the Trustees created the charity Natural Enterprise.

“Our two main focuses were to support the rural economy and protect the natural environment, which remains one of the Island’s greatest assets” he says. “It might sound a strange combination but we liked the idea of putting the two priorities together”.

The charity also straddles two different worlds, the public and private sector, providing a bridge between the two. With a dedicated team of 10 staff working out of Newport, the charity has the expertise to source suitable funding and then help to deliver worthwhile projects on their behalf of the community.  These include creative ideas such as the Gift to Nature initiative, for which the charity manages 32 countryside sites across the Island, for the public to enjoy.

Landmark restored

Ongoing projects include the long-anticipated renovation of Ryde’s landmark Appley Tower, which has sadly been closed for almost a decade. Now, having secured Heritage Lottery funding, work is finally under way ahead of a grand opening of the Tower in July, as a free entry community art gallery.

“The tower is an important asset and returning it to community use is such a good example of how people and organisations can work together and achieve great results” says Graham.

Natural Enterprise also looks out for local rivers through hosting the Island Rivers Partnership, and even gets involved with the control of those troublesome invasive, non-native species from the countryside.

Notably, the dreaded Japanese Knotweed, an ongoing battle which Graham describes as akin to “painting the Forth Road Bridge”. An army of dedicated volunteers helps to constantly check for and remove the offending weed.

Graham is also part of the voluntary team that has rejuvenated the Island’s County Show. The show has made great progress over the last decade and he hopes truly reflects everything that is great about the Island’s rural way of life.

As High Sheriff Graham is particularly looking forward to getting out and meeting more local groups.

“You think you know the Island and then get invited somewhere, meet new people and discover something completely new – it never ceases to amaze me and I really enjoy that”.

“It is easy to be influenced by negative comments but when you see the passion people have, just doing what they do and getting on with it, you realise there is such a lot to be positive about on the Island”.

Home sweet home

So does Graham regard the Island as home now? He laughs: “the Island is now firmly home, where we have raised our boys although I still support Somerset Cricket Club and Bristol Rovers! I enjoy going back to Somerset and have family and friends there but we wouldn’t live anywhere else. Sue did what many Islanders do at 18 and went to study on the mainland, but for her that maritime, coastal influence is strong and she needs to be in contact with the sea every day”.

With Graham’s busy schedule and Sue’s heavy involvement as IW Chairperson of the Women’s Institute, the couple don’t tend to go in for long-haul holidays.

In fact he happily describes himself as an enthusiastic workaholic who can never see a line between home and work. “People say I need a hobby but my work is my hobby. It probably comes from that farming background where the idea of a 9-5 doesn’t exist.

“I enjoy going to the office in the morning and as I get closer I tend to speed up – just wanting to get in there and get on with things. Of course I am incredibly lucky to work for a charity that mixes business and community and gives me lots of different hats to wear – sometimes all at the same time!”

He confesses to being “not very good at holidays” but he and Sue did manage a getaway to a cottage last year. Their destination? All the way to East Wight!

“Yes, some people probably thought we were bonkers but it was a lovely relaxing time, a change of environment … maybe when I retire we will travel more, but for now we’re quite happy having the Island to explore”.