‘No I don’t get a castle - or a sword!’
Ben Raza meets the new Lord-Lieutenant of Bedfordshire
Helen Nellis is a remarkable woman in many ways.
She is the first female Lord-Lieutenant of the county in 463 years. She has worked variously in health, education, as a barrister and in the commercial sector.
Her career has included stints as chairman of Bedfordshire Health Authority, vice-chairman of the University of Luton and then the University of Bedfordshire, and chairman of Bedford Hospital Trust. And she has worked in Ghana, helping to support a family with health, education and farming programmes which have gone on to help a huge number of people in their community.
And yet one of the most remarkable aspects of her story is the week last year, when in the space of a few days she took up a new job, was appointed Lord-Lieutenant, and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Helen was given the all-clear last month.
She said: “I want people to know that you can get through cancer.
“That very strange week, all these strange and very different things happened. I had a couple of days when I had to decide whether I was going to stop everything, or whether I was going to do everything and assume I was going to get better.
“Being the person I am I decided to do everything, and having the support of my friends and family and got me through. Dramatic things have happened in the last year, but if you dig deep you can move forward.”
The Lord-Lieutenant is the only post that represents the whole of Bedfordshire, since a re-organisation of local government three years ago meant that the county is split into separate councils, as well as being represented by six different MPs.
Helen is keen to use her post to promote the entire county.
She said: “It’s really important to the south of the county that it’s remembered. I’m putting a lot of focus on helping to build a positive profile of Bedfordshire as a whole, and why it’s a great place to live and to do business. This is a job that really strips away your cynicism, it makes you glad to be alive. I spend a lot of time with people who are doing such great things for our community, and who are so inspirational.”
Helen has lived in the county for 30 years, and her husband Professor Joe Nellis is a former pro vice-chancellor at the University Of Cranfield who now works as director of community at Cranfield Business School.
Helen singled out both Bedfordshire and Cranfield universities, as well as Easyjet, as businesses, based in the county, that are leaders in their field.
And while she said she is glad to have brought her three children up in Bedfordshire, she also pointed to Bedfordshire’s diverse cultures.
She said: “I think we’ve got a fantastic and diverse community, and it’s great that so many different groups live so successfully together. The way Bedfordshire people live together is an example to the rest of the country, but then there is also our geographical location, and the many dedicated volunteers, that make this a great place.”
So far Helen’s highlights of the job have included the numerous Diamond Jubilee events she took part in, one of which was lighting her first-ever beacon.
“I was at Luton Hoo with the scouts and lighting the beacon while I was undergoing chemotherapy,” she said.
“I got a lot of advice from the scouts on how to do this. But they still must have been worried as I had my own fire engine standing by!”
Helen also pointed to the arrival of the Paralympic Fame in Bedford, which she described as “marvellous”.
But one of the biggest eye-openers has been the programme of school visits.
“I talk to children about the monarchy, and that has been really well-received,” she said.
“But the first question I was ever asked was ‘Have you got your own castle?’ and the next one was ‘Don’t you come in a carriage?’
“The third question was ‘How old are you?’ I asked how old did they think I was, and was told ‘18.’ I asked the class if they all thought I was 18, and the next guess was ‘85’.”
The arrival the first female Lord-Lieutenant has meant several changes in Bedfordshire, not least the fact that Helen does not receive the ceremonial uniform or sword that her predecessors had, and gets a beautiful insignia instead.
But like her predecessors she is still the Queen’s representative, and is given all the respect due to the monarchy.
Lord-Lieutenants are also expected to serve until the age of 75, which will take Helen up to 2034.
She said: “Because I am younger than most Lord-Lieutenants the Queen has said that it is until I am 75 ‘or after a reasonable period’.
“But the world of the Lord-Lieutenancy is still entirely new to me. There’s a whole world of etiquette I am learning about, and various formalities.”
While various awards and invites to the royal garden parties are still in the Queen’s gift, Helen plays a key role in their being awarded.
And she also has responsibility for all royal visits to Bedfordshire, attending each visit and escorting the Royal visitor.
She said: “My office is happy to support and encourage charities and businesses, and to nominate people who have gone the extra mile.
“If people want to nominate anyone for the various awards they can get in touch and get guidance on how to proceed.”
> The office of the Lieutenancy is based at Priory House in Chicksands. Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org call 0300 300 6090.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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