What’s it like being York’s First Lady – and the second one, come to that? MAXINE GORDON knocks on the door of the Mansion House to find out

VISITORS to York Mansion House can’t fail to gasp at the splendour inside; the grand staircase, fit for a Hollywood film star; the double-roomed dining hall, perfect for a Royal banquet.

Film stars may be thin on the ground at the most famous address in the city, but Royalty visit regularly enough (the Queen popped in for lunch and afternoon tea during her visit to York last year).

The Mansion House is home to the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress – a role which changes every 12 months.

The current residents are Keith Hyman and his wife Karen, whose mayoral term comes to an end at the end of this month.

The couple resisted moving in at first, choosing to stay at their family home in Huntington instead. Sometimes, after a late function or a particularly busy day of engagements, they would stay over in the mayoral flat at the top of the Mansion House. But living between two homes wasn’t ideal, admits the Lady Mayoress.

“I had to remember things like: ‘do I have milk in the fridge’; I had a wash basket in each house and I was always carrying cases and bags everywhere.”

In the end, they moved in, along with their Tibetan terrier, Poppy.

“It was difficult at first. I was used to a house and a garden. But the dog loves it here – we go for walks along the riverside now!”

It’s handy too, living in the heart of the city – a city which they have pretty much given their lives over to for the past year.

Since last May, the Lord Mayor has attended at least 700 functions, the Lady Mayoress not far behind. In the run up to Christmas, the Civic Party, which includes the Sheriff of York and the Sheriff’s Lady, Paul and Jenny Firth, went to 23 carol concerts. On Christmas Day, they sang at the Salvation Army.

Their roles have thrown the Hymans and the Firths together – and they have become firm friends.

“We’re even getting to look like each other,” laughs Karen. “My hair has got more and more like Jenny’s as the year has gone on.”

Jenny adds: “If we don’t see each other for two or three days, we miss each other.”

Fashion has been at the forefront of their minds for the past year for each has had a diary packed with engagements – sometimes up to four a day. So they were both happy to take part in a fashion photoshoot, modelling the latest looks from Browns department store, York.

Happily, they have relished their roles – particularly because they both love dressing up and wearing hats. For them, the past 12 months have been one long fashion show – and their husbands admit to feeling a big dent in their wallets. Expenses only go so far.

“We always wear hats; we love hats,” says Karen. “But also they help people recognise the civic party.”

Other considerations include choosing outfits that complement each other and colours that work with their civic chains.

“I’ve hardly worn anything patterned this year; it just doesn’t work with the chain,” says Karen.

With the vagaries of the British weather, it means they have been left cold and wet on several occasions.

A memorable one was on a field trip to Fulford to look for the Tansy beetle.

“It’s the jewel of York,” explains Karen. “It’s iridescent and only found within a 20-mile stretch of the River Ouse in the York area. We went to plant a Tansy plant and it was lashing with rain. We had on summer dresses and hats.”

The ladies didn’t have time to dry out before their next engagement; lunch with Lord Crathorne, the Lord-Lieutenant of North Yorkshire, at his home near Yarm.

The roles, which date back centuries, are not just ceremonial, but have a charitable purpose too.

During the year, the Civic Party raises money for the Lord Mayor’s chosen charities (SAFFA and the Special Olympics) as well as lending support to charitable organisations and events across the city. Taking up the positions involves a big commitment; both women have given up their main jobs (they both work in education) for the year, and borne the bulk of the cost of their new wardrobe.

Ask what they are looking forward to most when their term finishes and quick as a flash Karen says: “A holiday. In the past 12 months, I’ve been to a health spa for two nights and Keith and I had less than 48 hours in the Lake District.”

And it will be nice to get back to eating normally. Contrary to what you might expect, it’s not all lavish lunches and posh dinners. “Keith and I have both lost weight this year,” says Karen.

“Often you get served tea and biscuits or drinks and canapés and can end up not eating a proper meal for several days on the trot.

“I often have a cup of Horlicks and a slice of toast and honey before I go to bed!”

• See the Mansion House for yourself; it is open for tours on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 11am, 12.30pm and 2pm from March until Christmas. It is also available for hire for functions. Find out more at: Mansionhouseyork.com

•Thanks to Browns for all clothes and accessories and styling by Robyn Shackleton.