Meet Louise Potter, Derbyshire's new High Sheriff
- Credit: Louise Potter
Derbyshire Life speaks with Louise Potter, Derbyshire's new High Sheriff and self-confessed lover of the Peak District
Louise Potter has the distinction of being the first High Sheriff to come from Buxton, a market town whose international reputation she has helped build over many years.
She is as proud of that as of being the tenth woman to hold the ancient office, and she can’t wait to get to know the rest of the county as well as she knows the High Peak.
Louise was brought up in Whaley Bridge, travelling into Buxton by train each day to attend Cavendish Grammar School for Girls. From the age of 12, she was firmly set on what she wanted to do – own and run her own hotel.
‘My aunt had a hotel in Cornwall and I used to go down and do chambermaiding. I’d see her sat in the bar and think to myself, ‘That’s what I’d like to do’,’ she says with a smile.
‘I just wanted to go to High Peak College and study catering.’ She could never have foreseen then that she would end up on the board of High Peak College at the time of its merger with the University of Derby in 1998.
In 1966, Louise’s parents moved to London, prompting a move into the college’s halls of residence at Harpur Hill, before she completed her training in hotel management and general catering at Ealing Technical College.
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She joined a management training scheme with Grand Metropolitan Hotels and went to work at the Londoner hotel in Welbeck Street.
Louise became the first female manager in the group, and loved her time in London – but only, she says, because she knew she was going to come back to her beloved Peak District.
She worked first as banqueting manager at the Royal George in Knutsford before going on to become managing director of the Moorside Hotel in Higher Disley.
‘That’s where I had my children - you didn’t have maternity leave then, you just carried on,’ she reflects.
‘When I was at Moorside, I was in charge of everything, and thought, ‘I can do this’. In 1982, I saw the Old Hall Hotel on the market for £150,000, which was a lot of money then.’
Five banks refused her before NatWest agreed to lend her the money. It was a building rich in history. Bess of Hardwick and her third husband, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, built it in 1573 on the site of an earlier hostelry, the Auld Hall.
Queen Elizabeth I sanctioned it as a place where Mary Queen of Scots could be held under house arrest while under the jailer-ship of the couple.
The writer, Daniel Defoe, described it as ‘indeed a very special place with its own special feeling’ when he visited in 1727.
The hotel, with its 40 bedrooms and three public bathrooms, was dilapidated when Louise bought it. The family moved in in February, with the weather so freezing that she had to dress the children in ski clothes indoors.
‘It was a nightmare. I remember sitting there thinking, what on earth have we done?’ she says.
‘But we got down to it and we decorated the downstairs and opened up the ground floor and the bar in time for Mother’s Day. All our friends came, and I had so much support.’
They set about the bedrooms and bathrooms with the help of a £20,000 grant from the Tourist Board which had to be match-funded.
‘My late husband, George, had a superb Lotus Esprit and I said, ‘George, you are going to have to sell that.’ He did. And he did so much work on refurbishing. He managed all that and I ran the business,’ she says with gratitude.
It remains a source of great sadness that George died in a car accident in 1994 after the couple had been 12 years at the hotel and were just beginning to make some money after the years of effort.
‘It is such a marvellous building,’ Louise says in appreciation. When she and George set about making new bathrooms and restoring the former public ones back into bedrooms, they discovered a beautiful ceiling dating back to the time of Mary Queen of Scots.
Historic England confirmed in a survey that the middle of the hotel was originally a four-storey building.
‘So I called the room Mary Bower,’ she says with pleasure. ‘We put in a four-poster bed and lots of information about Mary, which went down really well.’
With characteristic resolve, when she lost George, she told herself she could either go up or go down.
‘I had 50 people working for me at the Old Hall, with mortgages to pay, and I thought, ‘You’ve just got to get up and get on with it’. And that’s what I did.’
Louise had chosen the Old Hall partly because of its location opposite Buxton’s beautiful Opera House. Pre-theatre and post-theatre suppers had been a feature of the Londoner hotel in the West End, along with accommodation for the artists working there.
‘I thought, if you have 800 people going to the theatre in an evening, you can’t go wrong,’ she recalls.
So they built up that business. ‘The first Buxton Festival we did, I didn’t know what had hit me. So many dinners!
‘It was amazing. And I just realised how important the theatre and the festival were, and what a tremendous economic impact they had not just on Buxton and Derbyshire but beyond.’
In 2003, she was appointed to the Festival board, on which she remained until 2010 and re-joined in 2013. She chaired the Friends of Buxton Festival for ten years, remains a trustee.
She describes it as ‘a remarkable organisation, a wonderful thing to be involved with. It has about 2,000 members and we do lots of fundraising to support the festival.
'It’s the intimacy of the Festival that is so special. Some of our residents have been coming for 40 years.’
In 2001, while still had the Old Hall, she bought No 6 The Square Tea Rooms, to which she later added accommodation. The following year saw her named Midlands Businesswoman of the year.
Louise sold the Old Hall in 2008 to Trevor Osborne, the developer of the Buxton Crescent and Thermal Spa – reluctantly at first.
‘I told him, ‘I’ve had it 25 years. This is my baby - my blood, sweat and tears have gone into this.
'But I realised that the basement and the ground floor were so integral to the plans for the Spa. And then my daughters said, ‘Come on, Mum, you’ve worked so hard, why don’t you take this opportunity?’’
Sally, former manager of the Old Hall, is now marketing manager for The Maynard at Grindleford, and Emma runs the No 6 business.
Louise is full of admiration for the way the Dome has been developed: ‘I remember walking in when Prince Charles came to open it and I was so emotional to see all the work that had been done to transform that building. They have done it so beautifully.’
The Opera House is now ‘the last piece of the jigsaw,’ after the transformation of the Octagon, the Dome and the Crescent. Louise is its vice-patron and has twice been on its board, retiring in 2019.
‘The theatre brings so many people into the town. Our festival is International and we get audiences and performers from all over the world,’ she says with pride.
‘As part of my work as High Sheriff, I’ll be raising money for the refurbishment of the backstage area.
‘Technically, it is most important that it’s upgraded. We can’t get the productions we would like to because we don’t have the technical backup.’
She is ‘absolutely delighted’ the Festival will go ahead this year and pays tribute to chief executive, Michael Williams; artistic director, Adrian Kelly, and Paul Kerryson, chief executive of the Opera House.
Both the Opera House and Festival rely on volunteers – something at which Derbyshire excels, along with its high reputation for communication and for the way in which the different organisations and the public and private sectors work together.
‘I think more than ever this year, it will be great to support the volunteers at all the charities who have all been so important during the challenges of the pandemic, she says with conviction.
‘My predecessor, Tony Walker, started the Derbyshire Beacon of Hope Initiative in conjunction with Derbyshire County Council and Derby City Council to identify and thank the groups and individuals who have worked so earnestly to keep our communities safe.’
It will be a busy year for the High Sheriff, with the 70th anniversary of the Peak Park as well as the anniversary of the British Legion.
Although retired from business, Louise holds an honorary degree from the University of Derby for services to the Festival and to tourism; is a trustee and former chair of Kinder Choirs, and a judge of the Buxton Spa Art Prize.
She now lives in a barn conversion in Burbage, which she shares with her daughter, Sally, and it is a particular satisfaction that George is buried in the churchyard at Burbage, overlooking the golf course on which he spent many happy hours.
There is a bitter-sweetness about her nomination by a former High Sheriff, the late Annie Hall, who tragically died in the floods of November 2019.
‘She was a wonderful woman and a great leader in Derbyshire,’ she says.
‘My installation was on Zoom on April 8 and I was delighted that Michael, her husband, was able to be there.’