Riviera People – Angela Gilbert, Lady of the Castle

Posted by: on Aug 9, 2016 | No Comments

Riviera People – Angela Gilbert, Lady of the Castle

First lady of Compton Castle, recently appointed High Sheriff of Devon, professional photographer, yachtie and sheep breeder, Angela Gilbert is always on the go.  Anita Newcombe catches up with her in the castle’s Butler’s Pantry.

Angela Gilbert

As I head towards the ticket office at Compton Castle, a door opens and Angela Gilbert pops out to meet me.  We head inside and settle in the warm, Aga-heated butler’s pantry, which seems to be the family’s everyday hub.

I am lucky to have secured this meeting – the office of High Sheriff is renowned for keeping the incumbent incredibly busy.  Angela is quite relaxed and chatty though and makes me a nice cup of tea.  No butlers here; it’s very informal and friendly.

Angela was not brought up in a stately home environment. She tells me “I was an army brat.” Her father, Major-General Anthony Deane-Drummond was a distinguished war hero who escaped from enemy hands three times and was awarded a DSO and two MCs.  Angela was born in London and like many people in the services, had to move army quarters regularly as her father was appointed to various different postings. There were 4 daughters in the family and Angela spent a holiday in Malaya where she learned to swim for the first time.  She explains, “We weren’t allowed to swim in England due to the risk of polio.”

Her father was away a lot but in spite of being seriously wounded in Cyprus, he lived to the ripe old age of 95 and a half. Her mother was a self-taught portrait photographer and set up a new studio everywhere they were stationed.  Angela wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after school, so she applied to North London Polytechnic in Regent Street (now Westminster University) where well-known architectural photographer Margaret Harker interviewed her.  She says she was a bit ashamed of the tiny photo prints she brought along but she must have made a good impression as she was accepted and went on to study commercial photography, architectural photography and photojournalism.

After graduating, Angela accepted the first job that she saw advertised. This was at Rex Roberts Studios in Dublin where she spent most of her time taking photos for the Green Shield Stamps catalogue.  She ended up spending more and more time in the pitch dark, processing 10 x 8 transparency images.  She remembers thinking, “I am definitely not going to spend my whole life processing and printing photos.”

So she trawled through the telephone directory looking for suitable companies to give her a new job and found Terry MacInnis, Photographic PR Services – they regularly arranged photoshoots on behalf of PR companies. One of her first assignments involved going up in a light aircraft to photograph Orange Parades in Belfast.  The plane banked right over and she had to hang right out of the aircraft window to get her shots.  Angela survived the trip unscathed but the owner’s son who was travelling with them was sick all over her.  She tells me, “When we landed I managed to find an old, broken basin and wash myself and my camera bag down – luckily the lenses were ok.”

Next she went on a British & Irish air sea rescue helicopter to photograph a simulated rescue. She had to hang her legs out of the door so far that they detailed someone to keep a firm grip round her middle to stop her from falling out (this was clearly before the days of Health & Safety!).

Later she was sent to photograph a number of hotels for brochures.  A friend covered a wardrobe up with bedspreads so that it was dark enough inside her little cocoon to change the camera plates. She learned the architectural photography trade on an old Gandolfi camera, beautifully constructed with wood and brass.   After leaving college she bought a Mamiyaflex twin lens reflex camera, which she found good but not quite as reliable. Later she progressed to the Nikon F, which was Nikon’s first SLR camera and acquired a selection of lenses.

Having worked for a PR company, Angela was now able to apply for an NUJ card opening up the world of newspaper work to her.  She wanted to go to South Africa as her grandparents had lived there.  Whilst still mulling over this idea, she bumped into a shipping magnate at an evening PR event and mentioned her idea.  Shortly afterwards she received an unsolicited ticket for the RMS Pendennis Castle operated by the Union-Castle line. It wasn’t free though – she had to stump up £130 for the voyage.  Armed with a banker’s draft from her father for £600, she managed to secure an open-ended visa and headed out to Cape Town.

A measure of Angela’s ‘get up and go’ mentality is that she immediately applied to both the local newspapers.  The Cape Times asked her to create a back cover for them and then offered her a job once they’d seen her work.  She then marched over to the Cape Argus and asked them if they’d be able to better the offer – they did and she became the first female press photographer in South Africa!  Having settled at the Cape Argus she was later offered the chance of a berth on the Cape Town to Rio Yacht Race – her dream trip.  Aboard the Gallant 53 Alaunt of Corfe, she found herself responsible for all the cooking and the washing up plus working the mizzen sail and night helming.  The crew ‘hot-bunked’ and the bunk above hers was stacked high with oiled eggs (this process seals the shell and can keep eggs fresh for months). The 4,000-mile race took 4 weeks as all the boats became becalmed en route. She tells me “It was so hot that everyone swam in the sea, even though there were sharks.”

Arriving in Rio, Angela never went back to the Cape Argus, deciding instead to travel around South America with some of her yacht club friends.  They went to sites that are popular now but were relatively unknown to tourists at the time, such as Machu Picchu and Cusco in Peru.  They were fortunate in having a Peruvian and two Australian architects in their group who explained the sites they were visiting and Angela also had her “Blue Guide” with her.  In Machu Picchu, they stayed in a free student hut that had just logs for beds and a water pipe outside for washing. Meals were dried fish and the facilities were basic to say the least.  Angela remembers,  “In Cusco, we were shown across 2 fields to a loo seat that was suspended over a river with a loo-roll conveniently tied to a nearby tree!”  Another hotel used a well with a bucket as its only shower.  Angela stayed in South America for around 3 months travelling with friends to some beautiful places including Brasilia, Iguazu and Asuncion.

On returning to the UK, Angela was offered a job at the Evening Standard as a photographer.  In typical style, she was undeterred by being initially told there were no jobs available.  She went in to chat to them anyway and managed to convince them to take her on as the only female on the team.  She recalls, “The office was very male-dominated and the language around the office was rather ‘blue’ in those days.”

Husband Geoffrey came into her life in one of her sailing weekends at Itchenor in Sussex where she regularly crewed on an X boat, an open clinker built keelboat owned by her friend Flavia Nunes.  On one fateful day soon after Geoffrey and Angela met, they were both crewing on another X boat racing at Cowes with 77 other boats. Things didn’t go well that day.  First the yacht’s kicking strap broke, then the tiller broke and having fixed those, when lying in 10th place, the mast broke and they had to be rescued.  To add insult to injury, the knot the crew tied to their rescue vessel came undone in front of the Royal Squadron causing some red faces.

After Geoffrey and Angela were married in 1975, she carried on working right up to 3 weeks before her son was born.  During this time she was regularly sent by her newspaper to cover bomb scares and she remembers saying to Geoffrey, “Do you think I’m in the wrong job?”  Looking for a house to live in, they discovered that Flavia owned a whole street of houses in Hammersmith and they bought one of them. It was small and rooms had to be knocked together but it had a 40ft garden where they grew grapes and made wine.

They came to live at Compton Castle in 1984 after Geoffrey’s father died and his mother moved to London and then Exeter.  Geoffrey had grown up in the castle with his father Commander Walter Raleigh Gilbert and his mother Joan and siblings. Compton Castle has been home to the Gilbert family including Sir Humphrey Gilbert, half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, for nearly 600 years (with one break from the 1790s to the 1930s).  Nowadays, the National Trust manages the property and the Gilberts live mainly in the East Wing.  They have brought up their three children there.

Having settled into Compton and with an established family, Angela became involved with rearing Jacob sheep.  She remembered, “I was once sent to photograph an event at Grosvenor House in London run by the Jacob Sheep Society and having watched their presentation, I thought, ‘If I ever have any land I’ll get some Jacob Sheep.’” She went on to breed the sheep and show them at Devon County Show and other local shows and has been a Jacob Sheep Society panel judge for many years. At the same time, she was full time Honorary Administrator for Compton Castle, a role she carried out for 21 years (now the National Trust manages everything direct).

Angela has recently become High Sheriff of Devon, an illustrious royal appointment that lasts for a year and which is very much a full time job. She reveals, “I was absolutely amazed to be asked.” There have been High Sheriffs for at least 1,000 years and in the past, the High Sheriff could be relied upon to raise ‘the hue and cry’ and pursue criminals.  These days, duties include attendance at royal visits and support for Her Majesty’s High Court Judges when on Circuit.  As High Sheriff, Angela also gives active support to the police and emergency services, the probation and prison services and to voluntary sector organisations, especially those involved in crime reduction and social cohesion. Her charities for the year’s fund raising are Veterans FarmAble Project and the Trinity Sailing Foundation. She is also involved as High Sheriff in the Devon Crimebeat Charity.

Angela Gilbert ERM

It’s an incredibly busy schedule.  I hear the schedule for tomorrow.  Angela has a number of high profile engagements including attending Michael Caines’s Freedom of Exeter City ceremony when he is expected to drive sheep through the streets and participating in the Plymouth beacon lighting event to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.  The office of High Sheriff is an entirely voluntary, unfunded and non-political post and Angela has to manage her own administration, event schedule and transportation (including jumping out of her car a few yards from her destination to attach the High Sheriff’s flag to the bonnet). She is delighted with it all though, saying, “It’s an incredible honour to perform this role.”

In June, Angela will host an invitation-only fundraising garden party at Compton Castle and is currently trying to figure out how to fit the 700 people on her contact list to the 350 that space will allow. The plans sound exciting. There will be a marquee in the garden, a jazz band from Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, the Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service Pipes and Drums Band and National Trust volunteers in medieval costume selling raffle tickets.

Having realised how ‘game on’ Angela is about everything she does, I’m not surprised to hear that she is planning to raise further funds for the High Sheriff’s charities by abseiling down the front of Compton Castle.  I hope that she first removes the feathery ceremonial hat and replaces it with a helmet! She believes she is only the 10th female High Sheriff Devon has ever had and I’m pretty sure her year of office will be highly successful and full of creative ideas.


Did you know…

Compton Castle is a medieval fortress in the village of Compton

It has curtain walls, towers and a portcullis

Sir Humphrey Gilbert was half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh

You can visit the stunning Great Hall, solar, medieval kitchen & chapel

There is also a rose garden, an orchard and a knot garden


A distant view of the north front of Compton Castle, Devon.

A distant view of the north front of Compton Castle, Devon.