Sibyl King

‘I have loved Dorset from the first moment that I arrived. I was 25 and had never been abroad before. Each new sight and sound was a puzzle, nothing worked like I thought it would from the public telephones which just seemed to eat coins, to the place names like Scratchy Bottom and Dancing Ledge.
So how did a girl from Pittsburgh end up in lovely Dorset and on the cover of this quintessentially English magazine? I often wonder that myself.
I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an industrial town that centres around three rivers. It’s a typical American city with universities, shopping malls and parks. As a child I remember the smoke stacks billowing smoke from steel mills (but I must say that Pittsburgh has cleaned itself up and it’s now considered one of “the most liveable cities in America”).
My father was a successful business man and my mother was a university professor. How do you follow that? My answer is that you don’t, you chart your own course. I realize now that one of my reasons for moving abroad was to be my own person, create my own world and make my own choices. I suppose the irony is that my parent’s values and support was crucial to my independence but my father gave wisdom without expectation or control; what a totally wonderful gift that was.
I initially came to England for a work placement as part of my Master’s degree. At the time, I was living in Washington DC, a big and fast city that was boiling hot in the summers with a transient population that revolved around the political election cycles. I felt a bit unsettled there and was looking for “my” thing so when I was told by my university to get a placement I decided to venture abroad.
When I arrived I was met by Ian, my host employer who I’d been writing to in order to organise a placement. Ian wanted to introduce me to Dorset and our first stop was Corfe Castle. It’s hard to describe the feeling when an American drives around those winding roads to arrive at this idyllic square which looks like something out of a Disney movie set but is in fact a genuine historic setting. How did they make it so beautiful? That was my first impression of Dorset—authentic, genuine and real. So many things here immediately suited and intrigued me. I liked the natural beauty of the coast and the formality of the people, with their quirky dry wit, loyalty and perfectly timed tea breaks.
My placement was for the NHS in health promotion, and after a year of learning and adapting I knew that this was the place for me so before I finished my student internship, I applied for a job in Dorchester at the health promotion unit. It was a new position based on a government report in the 1980s concluding that preventive strategies were an effective way to decrease mortality and morbidity. Health promotion became a new discipline and my experience and degree gave me the grounding I needed to start this position.
I was offered the job based on an assumption that it would be fairly straight forward to sort out the work permit, but it wasn’t. None of us knew that I needed the approval from the Home Office and so after 3 failed attempts, I went back to the States, defeated. I will never forget the letter that I received when I got home. It said “Perseverance has won the day, we have a permit, when can you start”? I was totally overjoyed and a year after getting the offer, I returned to the UK.
Based in GP surgeries, I worked with nurses to devise and implement health screening sessions. The idea was that through this method, we could connect with patients and offer them new types of strategies to improve their own health and wellbeing. The procedures helped patients make lasting changes to their lifestyle. After feedback from the four surgeries who agreed to trial the project, I was able to offer the programme to all of the GP surgeries in Dorset. I learned about the immense impact that small changes can make on people’s lives.
As a newcomer, I have to say that it seemed incredible to me that the doctors I worked with in Cerne Abbas, who were part of the pilot group, knew so much about their patients’ lives and were happy to make house calls with good cheer and medicines they carried in a bucket. Also, the fact that medical care was free seemed amazing to me and still is. All these years later, access to health care is still such a problematic issue in the States.
A few years later, after I left the health service, I chaired the Kube Gallery at the Bournemouth and Poole College, a glass cube building designed by the renowned architect Richard Horden. We believed there was a huge benefit to the college and the community in opening the same extraordinary gallery space for all to use and enjoy. This “big small building” as it was referred to, hosted classes as well as local, national and international art exhibitions for students and residents in the heart of Poole.
After my divorce, I walked in stages, on my own, from Poole to Padstow, over 400 miles! For me walking on this glorious coast is the most healing and soul-quenching activity there is.
Later on, after raising three wonderful English children, we started the Fine Family Foundation, a charitable trust that creates and supports local projects. The Foundation ethos is based on the lessons that I learned in the health service, that small useful things impact people’s lives and often have a ripple effect on others.
The Foundation provided an entry to work with so many organizations, as well as a platform to use my passion and work with others to add to the quality of people’s lives and help create beautiful things in Dorset.
My first venture was working with the Dorset Wildlife Trust on a new visitors center at Kimmeridge and since then I have relished the pure joy of our beautiful Jurassic coast. I have been down many lanes to get to sites that I never knew existed and worked with people who live and breathe their subject.
In 2012 I had the privilege of receiving an Honourary Doctorate from Bournemouth University for my contribution to the area. I’m inspired by nature and listening to people’s stories so I often seek out projects that help people through the healing power of nature. This can be by stirring up interest, creating something new or planting an idea in the right pot. Two current projects are the new visitors centre on Brownsea Island, a magnificent building based on a treehouse design, and a number of beautiful wooden benches designed by Alice Bogg at Durlston Country Park, which blend so well with the surrounding that they look like they grew there.
We have now supported about 10 visitor centers along the coast, including Durlston, Charmouth, Beer and Sidmouth, giving me close up involvement with the coastal community. There is something about it, which inspired Mary Anning and thousands of others to understand our miniscule and important place in history. Other projects that I’m proud to be involved with are the commissioning of public sculptures at the universities. Another is helping to create an innovate window in the form of a live camera of local nature reserves in the isolation rooms at Dorchester Hospital—we spent hours trying to decide what to do if the camera picked up something embarrassing, but luckily that hasn’t happened! We also brought the inventor of the Gigapan camera to Dorset to train artists and scientists around the county on how to use the camera to tell their story. Recently, we started Park Yoga, a free and inclusive Sunday morning activity, which has grown throughout the country into a fabulous community with so many unexpected benefits for people’s physical and mental wellbeing. In 2022 I have the honour of being nominee High Sheriff of Dorset. Each new project is like a mini adventure which leads to feeling impact, pride, accomplishment, satisfaction, and friendship.
I still can’t believe that I actually live here. Although it may seem accidental, I know it’s not. We are drawn to people and places that suit us. I came to the UK on a whim, looking for my unique path and I feel very fortunate that I have found it here.’