THE most frequent question Richard Venables is asked when he meets people dressed in his finery, including the obligatory sword and tights, is: ‘What is a High Sheriff?’

In fact, the High Sheriff is the oldest secular office in the country outside the monarchy.

Once it carried huge responsibility, involving looking after law and order, raising taxes and a militia.

Now it is mainly ceremonial, involving a mix of charitable and community functions, although the High Sheriff is charged with representing the agencies of law and order, looking after High Court judges when they sit in Oxford, as well as meeting royalty, including Prince William, which Mr Venables described as ‘a great privilege’.

The role is voluntary, unfunded and non-political.

Candidates for High Sheriff need to be someone who has had a considerable impact on their community and it does not take long to see why Mr Venables, 51, was offered the voluntary role.

The father-of-two, who lives near Bicester with wife Kate, comes from a long-established county family with business roots in Oxford stretching back to 1815 when gunsmiths JR Venables & Son was based at 99 St Aldate’s.

His grandfather Denis Venables, a tailor, bought famous menswear and academic outfitters Shepherd & Woodward in 1945 and it remains in the family, together with those other similar clothing institutions Walters and Castells (The Varsity Shop).

Mr Venables attended Woodstock Primary School, New College School and St Edward’s School in Oxford, before moving to Exeter University where he studied geography.

After graduating he worked in London briefly where he became a Chartered Surveyor in 1991 and returned to work in Oxford in 1993.

He worked with James Offen and Partners before moving to Savills in 1998.

Then, in 2002, he set up Kidlington-based VSL & Partners with four others. It has become a leading commercial property company in the county.

Consultants VSL is the top property agency in Oxford and the surrounding area, according to data compiled by CoStar earlier this year.

Statistics from CoStar showed that VSL completed 17 office deals (sales and lettings) in 2017.

In square footage, VSL completed 54,272 sq ft of office deals while in industrial sales and lettings VSL once again came out on top.

It completed eight deals with a total sq ft of 32,942.

Mr Venables has held positions on the boards of Experience Oxfordshire, the tourism and cultural destination management organisation, the Local Enterprise Partnership, the Oxford Strategic Partnership, Oxford Youth Partnership Board and is chairman of Reciprocate, the Oxford Community Foundation’s responsible business network.

The High Sheriff is also involved in sport and is a player and former coach for the Oxford Hawks hockey club and a board member of Active Oxfordshire.

He has also been a member of the parish council in his home village of Islip and chairman of the Village Hall Committee.

To become a High Sheriff, you have to be nominated and this happens four years in advance, which gives plenty of time of time to consider your approach.

Mr Venables explained: “I chose the youth of Oxfordshire with special emphasis on sport development in the most deprived areas as well as raising awareness of mental health issues in secondary schools and colleges.”

One of the keys to this has been fundraising and he has been able to draw on the business community for help.

A Corporate Challenge was launched last April and was kicked off by a ‘flash mob’ Plankathon volunteers at Oxford’s Westgate Centre.

That was followed by entering a 75-strong team into the annual Town and Gown race – the largest in the event – a hockey festival and an Olympics-themed activity at Abingdon School.

Another fundraising project jointly with D’Overbroeck’s came with the charity SANE and its Black Dog campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues in schools.

The theme continues with a new safeguarding campaign for schools involving Thames Valley Police, Cherwell School and the charity SAFE! which supports children affected by crime.

The project will include two videos being made focusing on child drug exploitation in Oxfordshire which will be used to raise awareness in schools.

As for fundraising, Mr Venables has so far raised about £150,000 through the Corporate Challenge, a figure that will hopefully be nearer the £200,000 mark by the time he steps down from the role in April. He is ensuring all money raised is match-funded.

Part of the money is being invested into the Oxford Access Sport programme dedicated to encouraging youngsters aged between 14 and 18 to get involved with sport. Through it, sports clubs are now being helped to boost their membership and become more sustainable.

He said: “There is no target – I just wanted to deliver as much as I can for these causes. The High Sheriff role does not require you to raise money, but it is a golden opportunity to make a difference.”

As well as the Corporate Challenge, Mr Venables has tried to use his profile to help personal causes such as raising money for Huntingdon’s disease – he has a university friend who suffers from the condition. Last April he raised £6,500 by running the London Marathon.

Other events have included the 100 km Race to the Stones, the Town and Gown run, Oxford Half Marathon and parkrun events, about which he is passionate.

Mr Venables is working with the city council and other organisations to develop a new parkrun next year.

A new route has not yet been finalised

Away from running, The High Sheriff’s Garden Party and Gala Ball events raised more than £13,000 for Thomley, a centre caring for disabled and autistic children and adults in Buckinghamshire.

And soon he will be overseeing the High Sheriff Awards, in recognition of individuals in Oxfordshire who have made outstanding contributions to the communities in which they live and work. The deadline for nominations is January 10, 2019.

Today the extensive powers which the High Sheriff once enjoyed have long gone.

But the office continues to fulfil a number of vital roles.

Duties include participating in civic and community events and functions.

The High Sheriff also offers encouragement to those who are engaged in supporting the voluntary sector and those most in need, and pursuing themes and initiatives which bring communities together and benefit the social fabric of the county.

Once his term ends in April, Mr Venables has no plans to stop the work he has started so successfully.

He said: “I would like to continue supporting youth charities in Oxfordshire and encourage other businesses to get involved, to help young people reach their potential and become responsible citizens of the future.”

He added: “The High Sheriff role really does allow you to mould your own vision.

“It has been an honour and a privilege to be involved in part of a great tradition.

“And it is not often that you get to walk through Oxford wearing a sword and tights – everyone likes to see a man in tights!”