Saturday, 16 December 2017

Growing up, I couldn't even dream of becoming Mayor

Growing up, I couldn't even dream of becoming Mayor

THE new Mayor of Henley hopes to inspire the town’s young people.

Kellie Hinton says that with hard work and dedication it’s possible to achieve what you want to — as she has shown.

She has not been to university, has never run a business and has never owned her own home.

But at 31, she is the youngest person to become Mayor, she has led Henley in Bloom to unprecedented success and she is a proud mother.

Miss Hinton, who lives in Queen Street with her partner Ben Hinton, who works in hydroponics, and their six-year-old daughter Hallie, was controversially elected Mayor last week when Henley Residents’ Group wrestled back control of the town council from the Conservatives after two years in opposition.

Her party had won both by-elections in the previous week, leaving the parties tied with eight seats each.

But in a dramatic twist at mayor-making Conservative Lorraine Hillier declared herself an “Independent Conservative” and abstained from the vote so Tory mayor-elect Will Hamilton lost out to Miss Hinton before Councillor Hillier was elected to be her deputy.

While she has a degree of sympathy for her unfortunate opponent, the new Mayor says it is now up to her to unite the council.

She says: “Everyone will have an equal voice — we are a balanced council — and it is up to the councillors to prove that their commitment is to the town and not to themselves.”

Miss Hinton has been a popular
figure since she was elected to the council in 2011 and first became involved with Henley in Bloom before becoming vice-chairman and then chairman.

During this time the town has won five consecutive gold awards in the Thames and Chilterns Bloom regional competition and won the best town category in 2015.

“Winning bloom gold was the pinnacle,” she says. “Other than having my daughter and being made Mayor, it was the proudest moment in my life.”

Despite being Mayor, Miss Hinton plans to continue her Bloom work and wants to put recreation and amenities at the heart of her mayoral year.

She says: “We have put our blood, sweat and tears into making the town look as best we can. Everybody would notice the difference if it were to all disappear.

“I have had loads of comments from people saying how beautiful Henley is and we have the recognition at national and international level. We have the most stunning riverside and beautiful parks and lovely architecture. We have history and heritage and this feeling in Henley which is different from anywhere else.

“To me, the baskets, the floral displays, are important but Henley will always be beautiful. It is not beautiful because we do these things, we just enhance it. Henley is arguably the most beautiful town in the country.”

Born on September 28, 1985 at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, her parents, Dawn Kirby and Patrick Nolan, were managers of the Catherine Wheel in Hart Street,when it was part of the Berni Inn chain.

At the time the family lived in Harpsden Road with her grandparents, Susan and Graham Pye, whose son Chris Pye was a member of HRG and a former mayor.

When Kellie was a toddler the family moved to Crisp Road and she started at Badgemore Pre-School.

After her parents’ relationship broke down, her mother married Mike Gehrmann and the family moved to Vicarage Road.

Kellie took her stepfather’s surname and began at Sacred Heart Pre-School before moving up to Trinity Primary School.

In her final year she performed at the Kenton Theatre during the Henley Youth Festival as part of a Spice Girls tribute act.

She recalls: “I was the only one with olive skin so I was Scary Spice and we sang Wannabe.”

Her primary schools days were some of the best of her life and she did well, particularly in maths and English. Miss Hinton recalls: “I loved going to school, it was my favourite place to be. I loved seeing my friends and I loved learning and did well in my SATs.

“I had a great friendship group and I had amazing teachers and it felt like the best school in the world — and it hasn’t changed.”

She was about 11 when her mother’s marriage ended and they moved into the Three Horsehoes pub in Reading Road. Her mother had previously run the Jolly Waterman in the same street.

Miss Hinton says: “When we moved in it was a tiny watering hole that had six regular customers, it was very dingy. My mum and Brakspear extended it at the back to the footprint it has now.

“She repainted it and made it cosy, a younger place to be. My mum used to say ‘get the karaoke machine’ and I used to sing to the Spice Girls and Take That.”

By this time she had started at Gillotts School, where she was not always a model pupil and admits: “I was a very confident person and there was a time where I didn’t respond to authority.”

One teacher she did respect and enjoy being taught by was Stefan Gawrysiak, now an HRG colleague, a former mayor and a town, district and county councillor.

“Stefan was a very good teacher,” says Miss Hinton. “They didn’t call him ‘The Legend’ for no reason.

“You wanted to go to his lessons as he made them fun and you didn’t know what he was going to do next.

“When we both joined HRG it did take me a little while to not call him ‘Mr Gawrysiak’ — probably about three years.”

She was about 14 when she moved to King James Way and then Lawson Road with her mother and three siblings, Charly, Ashleigh and Blayde. But Miss Hinton was badly affected when her grandmother died suddenly, aged 67.

She recalls: “When my Nan died it was a massive shock and changed the shape of the whole family.

“I struggled and went into a depression. She was like my mum’s partner in raising me, she was my father figure.

“I was her special girl and she loved me and supported me in everything that I did. She always made time for me and she made me feel like I was the most beautiful, talented and clever girl in the world.”

When she finished secondary school at 16, she considered going to The Henley College to do an international baccalaureate as she had 10 GCSEs.

Instead, she chose to work to earn money and gain her independence.

She worked for Whitbread in Reading in administration for a short time before moving to 500 Cars, a taxi and chauffer company, and learned to be a controller.

Two years later, her uncle offered her a job in Tokyo, working for a wealth management company for ex-pats. At first she was reluctant but agreed at the second time of asking.

“It was too big an opportunity to miss,” says Miss Hinton. “It was networking with ex-pats, setting up appointments and being a personal assistant.

“I was there for six months and earned more money than I had ever had in my life. It was the most phenomenal experience. It taught me a lot about other cultures as well as myself.

“I had to leave in the end because my visa had run out and then I went out to Spain to see my mum, who had moved there when I was 18.”

When she came back to the UK she lived in Shiplake and took up her old job at 500 Cars before helping to set up Adams Cars in Peppard.

She wanted to move back to Henley but there was nowhere she could afford.

Miss Hinton says: “Eventually I applied and got a flat at the YMCA — that would have been 10 years ago in January.

“I wanted to move back here because my friends and family’s friends were still here. I wanted to be here. Everybody knows that even if you leave Henley you have to come back.”

She then found work at the former Juice Bar in Hart Street before
taking a sales role at Auditel in High Wycombe.

Miss Hinton says the YMCA was “the most stable place I had ever lived” thanks to the supportive staff.

“I owe them,” she says. “It wasn’t their day job to be an agony aunt, they didn’t have to help me.”

It was here that she first got a taste of what politics might be like when she was appointed tenant representative and attended board meetings.

She wanted to refurbish the courtyard area when Elizabeth Hodgkin, the then Mayor, suggested that she write to the town’s businesses asking for sponsorship.

She received two cheques immediately — one from Neil Ratcliffe at Higgs Group, publisher of the Henley Standard, and the other from businessman Clive Hemsley, who lives in Hart Street.

When she fell pregnant, she moved out of the YMCA and went to live in West Street. However, she continued with the courtyard project with the help of Henley in Bloom’s Gardening Buddies and also used to go back to the YMCA as a volunteer to help residents fill in complicated forms or claim benefits.

She was walking through town following Hallie’s christening at St Mary’s Church when she bumped into Mrs Hodgkin who asked her to join HRG. Miss Hinton recalls: “Liz stopped me and said that they needed some young people on the council and asked if I wanted to come along to a meeting and I did. I thought ‘I could do this’. I had a real chance to do something for myself, Hallie and the town.”

Being elected to the town council was one of her biggest thrills. She says: “After the election, when we had all got in in south ward, we were all in Zizzi’s on a Friday night. I couldn’t believe it — we were so happy.”

Miss Hinton was named vice-chairman of Henley in Bloom straight away and succeeded Mrs Hodgkin as chairman a year later.

She says: “I was encouraged to join because of the gardening project at the YMCA. At eight months pregnant I was digging holes for plants. I love it as it is therapeutic, although I am still far more likely to kill something than grow it!”

However, she also discovered that politics is not all plain sailing as HRG was ripped apart by in-fighting and five councillors left. Two joined the Conservatives and three, including Mrs Hodgkin, became independents.

“I still don’t know why it happened,” says the current Mayor. “I had taken a selfie of everyone in the Mayor’s parlour just before it happened. It is difficult as we are 10 independent people coming together and we all have different ideas. When they left I was confused, I didn’t understand. We weren’t given their reasons. It was particularly hard for me as Liz left. She had been my mentor.”

The party quickly turned things around. Miss Hinton says: “We were getting new members and we were back around Gill [Dodds]’s kitchen table. It must have been what it was like in 1991 when HRG was formed.”

She describes the last two years as “brilliant” even though HRG spent spent them in opposition.

“We are friends that happen to do politics,” she says. “There has not been one argument, disagreements, yes, but not one angry word. Before the other five left it was a horrible place to be as it was a fractured group.”

Miss Hinton, who now works as head of sales at IBS office Solutions in Henley, wants to promote the youth of the town during her year in office, including raising money for the town’s four primary schools.

“It is not just about the new skate park,” she says. “I want the whole family to be involved. Because of the seriousness of traditional council events you don’t find many children there. I have a six-year-old daughter and I want her to be able to come with me and others.

“I want to take what we have on the council and open it up to everybody so it is accessible. I go into schools and they can feel how heavy the Mayor’s chain is and find out what the Mayor does but now they can know that there is a chance for them too, it is not too far. You don’t have to be of a certain type. I want people to believe in themselves.”

Hallie has told her mother that she would like to be Mayor one day.

Miss Hinton says: “She sees herself as the first daughter of Henley — she has complete bragging rights!

“Making your children or your partner or husband or wife proud should mean more to you than anything. Enjoying life is what it is all about and it means a lot to me to make Henley proud.”

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