“I thought I would take up hang gliding and surfing”

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Not that long ago, I remember reading the title ‘The Lord-Lieutenant of Devon’ and thinking that it was the coolest job title I had ever heard. Other than maybe ‘space cowboy’, as coined by Joey from the television series Friends. I sought to find out more…

The Lord-Lieutenant is Her Majesty’s personal representative in the county and is appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister.

This role is non-political and unpaid and he or she is supported by a Vice Lord Lieutenant and Deputy Lieutenants appointed for their work in the county in a number of different fields. Administrative support is provided by the Clerk to the Lieutenancy, which in most counties is the Chief Executive of the Local Authority.

The Lord-Lieutenant and his Lieutenancy team not only represent and uphold the dignity of the Crown and arrange Royal visits to the county but it also celebrates the achievements of the people of Devon and their service to others.

The Lieutenancy helps to promote Devon communities, culture, services, heritage, business and charitable success, while drawing attention to those addressing challenges and problems in the county. It also has a role in supporting the three services and, in particular, the reserve forces and cadets.

The current holder is one Mr David Fursdon who has, along with his family, lived in Devon for 40 years continuing a very long family tradition of living in the county.

David was born into an army family and, as a child, he moved to a new house every couple of years from UK to Germany, Kenya, Cyprus and Bahrain.

His dad was none other than Major-General Edward Fursdon, who served in the Royal Engineers and retired as General having just caught the end of the Second World War in Burma.

A distinguished soldier and writer, Edward Fursdon ended his military career as Commander of British Forces, Senior British Officer and Military Adviser to the last Governor of Rhodesia, helping to guide the country to independence in 1980. He then continued to act as military adviser to the Joint High Command of the Zimbabwe Armed Forces.

After retiring from the Army he became Military and then Defence Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, reporting from the field in the Falklands War and the Iran/Iraq War and then writing regularly for defence magazines worldwide.

He was never a typical military type, however, eschewing the back-slapping in pubs and clubs and the plotting in smoke-filled rooms. His was a more thoughtful, understated approach which was practical, as befitted an engineer, but also involved the writing of poetry. (Grains of Sand: a book of verse from Arabia appeared in 1971, and There are No Frontiers: a book of verse from Europe in 1973.)

He was intolerant of boorishness and found in his second career some of the satisfaction that had, at times, eluded him in his first.

Meanwhile, David’s mum was trained in music and particularly the piano. She was a trained accompanist and accompanied an opera singer giving concerts in the Gulf in the early 1970s.

I took the chance to ask David about what his childhood was like as the child of parents with such interesting jobs.

“Because of my father being in the army, I was sent to boarding school aged seven in England and used to have to travel with my sister to wherever they were based in the holidays. I became intrigued in why countries were so different physically, socially, and economically. I also played a lot of sport, particularly cricket and rugby. And had a wide range of friends and acquaintances.

‘I was commissioned into the 6th Gurkha after leaving school, but didn’t want to make the army my career. My travels, particularly abroad gave me an interest in geography and I hoped to use that as the basis of my career which to some extent I have done.”

Like his father before him, David ended up ended up commissioned into the 6th Gurkha Rifles, serving in Brunei and Hong Kong.

“As potential young officers, we went through training at Mons near Aldershot, and I remember it was a tough regime of endlessly polishing boots and uniform. Just after we arrived and having only had two hours sleep on our first night, we were roused from sleep by what appeared to be the sergeants on our course.

‘We then had two hours drill by moonlight during which most of us were ‘disciplined’ and told to report to the guard house at 7am. On doing so it became obvious the ‘sergeants’ were the previous course of cadets with pinned-on stripes.

‘My other memorable experience was arriving in Brunei to join the regiment and told that the first thing to do was to learn Gorkhali and Nepalese and to do this I was sent out into the jungle for ten days with a patrol of Gurkha, none of whom spoke a word of English to me in those ten days. I did learn to communicate, however!”

Once again like his dad before him when he headed for Fleet Street following his army days, David too left the military and headed for the capital city.

“My commission was only between school and university and after university I had decided to follow the bright lights of London.

‘A friend was taking the Civil Service exams, so I went along with him for the experience. After three rounds of interviews I found myself offered a job in the Ministry of Defence which I felt I knew a little about already.

‘I had three jobs in the Civil Service and the most fulfilling the third, which was working on arms control and disarmament, in which I specialised in humanitarian law.

‘I got to sit with ministers when they met, for example, the President of the International Red Cross. Also, I was a member of a UK Foreign Office delegation to the UN disarmament conference in Geneva in 1979.”

Despite the success of his career in the Civil Service, David would soon make the decision to take his life back down south and make Devon his home.

“It was a difficult decision to leave the MOD as I had been offered a position in a minister’s private office, but I was the last member of the Fursdon family and, as such, had to relieve my aging uncle from the running of our family property in Mid Devon which had been in the family for 700 years.

‘It was in a very poor state of repair and the business was in a parlous state, so I had to get a job locally. A teaching job nearby that used my academic and sporting background was a godsend.”

David took up a role as a teacher at Blundell’s school in Tiverton. “It was fun, I was only a few years older than some of the senior students, some that I taught went on to do well at university while others went on to sporting careers with a couple playing rugby for the Exeter Chiefs and one, playing cricket for England.”

Former pupils of the school include English cricket spin bowler, Dom Bess and rugby union player Dave Lewis.

Away from teaching, David also worked in agriculture and rural property across Devon and elsewhere for over 30 years.

“It has been a real privilege to be invited into farming families at difficult times in their lives when they were thinking about retirement or sale or changes to their farming partnerships. I got to know the county well and to understand the challenges of farming.”

Typically humble, I asked if he had a particular achievement he was proudest of: “I don’t have one in particular, I hope that I helped a number of families with their future planning and each one was important to me and I was delighted when
the plans worked.”

His other work has included being elected to lead the CLA, an organisation that, at the time, represented 50,000 members on a variety of rural issues. He was also a Commissioner and Board member of the Crown Estate and of English Heritage; a Board member of the SW Regional Development Agency and, as a volunteer, led the SW Board for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Other voluntary work has included trustee and board member of the National Trust; chairing the joint Government and Agricultural Industry ‘Future of Farming’ Report; chairing the SW Rural Productivity Commission following his earlier
work on the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, the Heritage Protection Review and the Rural Housing Policy
Group; chairing the Devon Inquiry as part of his role on the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission; chairing the
SW Rural and Farming Network for DEFRA; serving on the Duchy of Cornwall rural committee and the Board of Historic Houses; acting as High Sheriff of Devon and chairing his local parish meeting for 35 years.

He chaired the NSPCC Full Stop Appeal in Devon but now as Lord Lieutenant has an interest in all Devon charities and how they can work together more effectively.
Asking about the role in which he now serves his county and country, David admitted that it had been totally unexpected:

“The role was completely unexpected and the result of a comprehensive consultation process by the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary, which took place by post and in person over two or three in the county.

‘The role involves representing HM The Queen in the county presenting medals and attending events on her behalf, getting involved in the Queen’s awards (for enterprise and voluntary service) validating national honours, getting involved in the economic social and charitable life of the county.

“I am still involved in other work, so each day involves fitting in those other roles with being HM Lord-Lieutenant. Each day is very different, and it is the unexpected nature of the activities which makes it stimulating. Some of the occasions in which I am involved are very personal and emotional for those concerned; and it is particularly rewarding to be able to thank and celebrate achievement with some of the wonderful people that keep the wheels turning in Devon often in an unexpected and unrecognised way. I see the role as a privilege and to be used for the benefit of the people of the county.

“I will retire as Lord-Lieutenant at age 75 at which point, I thought I would take up hang gliding and surfing!”

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