Interview: At home with Lady Bathurst
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
As High Sheriff of Gloucestershire and custodian of Cirencester Park, Lady Bathurst has been on a remarkable journey in the past year. She tells Katie Jarvis about her Cotswold Life
You wouldn’t have thought there was much that Lady Bathurst could learn about Gloucestershire, the county she has championed since she married Allen, the then Lord Apsley, in 1996. From their home at Cirencester Park, she has fought tirelessly for any number of local, national and international causes – from the plight of dairy farmers, to saving Cirencester landmarks from demolition.
But since her inauguration as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire in April 2016, life has been one amazing learning-curve. “I’ve got to explore parts of the county I barely knew before – strange to say – such as Gloucester and wonderful areas in South Gloucestershire,” she says.
And it’s been a personal journey, too. Her husband, Earl Bathurst, spent four months in Cheltenham Hospital, recovering from a life-threatening illness. “It was a difficult time, but I found huge solace in my duties, and being able to concentrate on others’ needs, rather than my own anguish.”
So far, her year as High Sheriff has provided moments of serious contemplation, compassion and sheer fun – “Such as having a fire engine named after me, ‘The Lady Bathurst’. Isn’t that the coolest thing ever! I’ve been metaphorically putting out fires for most of my life; now I actually am.”
When her year finishes in April, Lady B – as she is affectionately known - fully intends to carry on with some of the projects she’s started – particularly her work in prisons. “Not only do I feel passionate about helping people readjust when they come to the end of their sentences; I also understand that many have been let down too often by those who have passed through their lives and deserted them. I don’t want to add my name to that list, just because my tenure has come to an end.”
Where do you live and why?
Cirencester Park - because I’m married to the ninth Earl Bathurst and have been for 20 years. When Benjamin Bathurst bought the estate in 1695, he pulled down the original mansion but rebuilt it in similar style – so the drawing room and library are along the lines of an Elizabethan long-room. I couldn’t actually tell you how many rooms there are, but my favourite is the library, which is incredibly peaceful and mellow because of all the books around the walls – the oldest of which dates back to the early 17th century. I go there if I want quiet thinking-time… although, even when I’m alone, I sometimes feel as if I have company from past spirits. It’s a lovely feeling, not scary at all; I just wish I could talk to whoever is in there with me.
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We are incredibly lucky to have a small but vital staff helping us: Sue, our housekeeper and Aziz, our butler, as well as Paul and Danny in the garden. Ginny, my irreplaceable PA, is a linchpin!
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
Officially for just over 20 years, though I was pretty much here for a year or so before I got married. I was born in Marlborough; then my family moved to Lyme Regis, when I was extremely small, so my father could be closer to my grandfather, who was becoming frail. My parents always worked incredibly hard and very long hours, so I ended up spending a lot of time, and feeling deep affection for, what we called the Family HQ, a large farmhouse in East Devon, owned by my aunt and uncle. We’d go every Sunday for lunch, and my brother and I would stay there in the holidays. When my aunt sadly died three years ago, she very sweetly left it to me. I couldn’t possibly sell it – it means too much to me - so I’m launching it this year as a gorgeous holiday home.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
As High Sheriff, my perfect weekend would be to spend a shift with Cheltenham police’s ‘Street Safe’ team, which I’ve done on a number of occasions. It’s fascinating – the officers are highly effective at keeping the streets of Cheltenham safe on Friday and Saturday nights, by their close engagement with the public, the pubs, clubs and bouncers, as well as liaising with the street pastors and taxi-rank officials. Walking down Montpellier on foot-patrol in the dead of night has a completely different feel from in the daytime; but, thanks to the police presence, I wouldn’t say it’s at all dangerous. Cheltenham is a beautiful place, day and night.
And then, I’d visit our three, brilliantly-run, county prisons: HMP Ashfield, for sex offenders; HMP Leyhill, the open prison; and HMP Eastwood Park, for women. Working within prisons has totally re-educated me. I fully admit I was ‘old school’ before: There’s a certain population that needs to be kept away from society; they’re in prison and, therefore, not our problem! But I’ve learned so much, and one of those things is a compassion for everyone, whatever their situation. I genuinely believe that no baby is born ‘bad’; they are born into a set of circumstances. I’m not making excuses for any offenders, but I have heard some awful stories and I have been moved by their determination to change. I’ve started a book club at Eastwood Park to encourage the women to read more. Approximately 60 percent of prisoners are illiterate or innumerate.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
If we didn’t have the responsibilities, commitments and ties that we have, I’d love a Georgian townhouse in Cheltenham.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Oxfordshire – for no other reason than it’s not Gloucestershire!
Best pub in the area?
We are so lucky with pubs in the Cotswolds, and one of the best – this is going to sound very biased – is the Bathurst Arms [in North Cerney]. It’s always busy; always a great atmosphere; they do wonderful food, and it’s the epitome of the ‘local’. It’s been part of the estate for ever, along with the Tunnel Inn at Coates and the Bell in Sapperton.
And the best place to eat?
During my year so far, I’ve eaten at a lot of wonderful functions - some days, I’ve had four or five appointments (not all meals!) - which is very enjoyable but not good for the waistline. On a personal level, if I want a quick lunch with a girlfriend, (something I haven’t managed for a year now), it would be Made by Bob in Cirencester. For a leisurely Sunday, the Golden Cross has the best roast you could imagine.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
I’ve been getting to know South Gloucestershire throughout my year; Yate is a particularly lovely town, where they’re incredibly proactive in helping the younger generation. They’re lucky enough to have the Vintage Birdcage Cakery. I’ve yet to find better cakes.
What would you do for a special occasion?
My declaration [the annual High Sheriff inauguration] at Gloucester Cathedral was a fantastically special occasion, with around 900 people attending. It was rather like getting married – but to the county for a year. I just hope there won’t be a divorce or separation at the end of it!
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
Whatever you want to do, you can do it here – bar windsurfing… Actually, you could probably even do that on the Severn Bore.
... and the worst?
Which shop could you not live without?
Pakeman Catto & Carter in Cirencester. It’s an unending supply of gifts for my husband – boxer shorts, shirts, and gorgeous sweaters.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
Gloucestershire Constabulary. I get incredibly frustrated when I see people failing to appreciate all they do, every day, for us. I have spent a great deal of time with our police over the past year, and I have nothing but admiration. They work as a team: from senior officer to constable; from the PCSO [community support officer] to the special constable. They constantly put themselves in danger to keep us safe – along with the police dogs and their handlers.
What’s a person from the Cotswolds called?
A Cotswoldian, isn’t it?
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
I love cooking, when I have time. I’d start with a gently-baked North Cerney goat cheese, with some homemade crisp-bread and maybe a redcurrant jus. For main course, Cotswold roast lamb – why would anyone have lamb from anywhere else? And, for pudding, I’d be tempted to buy sticky toffee from the Cotswold Pudding Company and pass it off as my own!
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
This one’s easy – the view across to Gloucester and beyond, from Leckhampton Hill. While my husband was in hospital in Cheltenham, I went down it every day and saw it in all its glory, including stunning sunsets. It was always a huge comfort. Sometimes – especially when my husband was in a coma – I’d look at people on the street, laughing, smiling and holding hands, and I’d want to scream, ‘How dare you be so happy when my husband is fighting for his life?’ And then I gave myself a good talking to and thought: That person might just have got engaged or found out they were pregnant or had a promotion at work. We’re all in our own bubbles of existence, and our own troubles are the most important thing in the world. But I’ve learned that you should always poke your head out and have compassion and understanding for what’s going on around you.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Is Moreton-in-Marsh a village or a town? I did a lot of my Christmas shopping there and loved it.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
I hope I’m allowed to say Gloucester Cathedral as an honorary Cotswold building. I think it’s the most beautiful cathedral in the world. I’ve been there many times over the past year and it has become very important to me because – and this has been another learning curve – I’ve found a new belief in spirituality.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Go to the beach.
Starter homes or executive properties?
A mix. Because, above all else, we need communities, not segregation. I wish we could work towards a kindlier and more neighbourly feel within our towns. I suspect part of the problem lies within our age of technology. People sit in their homes and stab away at their keyboards, usually in fury, and then press ‘send’. Because it’s not face-to-face, things are written that would never be said directly. It happens to us [my husband and me] all the time. Sadly, there are people who don’t allow us the luxury of possessing feelings: they view us as indifferent wooden effigies. I’ve had to stop reading online newspaper articles because I can’t resist looking at the comments, which are often deeply unkind. I don’t know the people who write them, because they invariably hide behind pseudonyms, and they clearly don’t know us. I used to get terribly upset, especially when remarks were aimed at my husband, who is the kindest, gentlest, loveliest man I’ve ever met.
Perhaps changing the law to ensure that everyone has to publish under their own name might help prevent the poison.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
As High Sheriff, I’ve been the length and breadth of Gloucestershire and beyond – as far as the Avon & Somerset Police HQ at Portishead; up to Moreton-in-Marsh; down to Bath to join my fellow High Sheriff in Somerset; west to Gloucester; east to Witney; and practically everywhere in between!
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Get to know your neighbours; get involved in your community.
And which book should they read?
In my book club at Eastwood Park, we’ve read The Other Boleyn Girl and I Don’t Know How She Does It: two completely different books, but they enjoyed them both. I was so proud – a couple of the girls were very unsure but we had them reading out loud very confidently. We all went, ‘Yay!’ when they’d finished, and it was wonderful to see the smiles on their faces.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
Unsurprisingly, it’s in our park: a 10-mile bike ride – and, as we don’t allow bikes on the estate, I flagrantly flout the rules. Whenever I get my bike out, the dogs go absolutely ballistic because they know they’re going to be in for a really long run. From the house, we go all the way up Broad Avenue to the top of Ten Rides, and then back the other way, seeing lots of wildlife. In springtime, it’s incredibly special: I love to hear the cuckoo.
We’re genuinely delighted to share our beautiful park, which is open between 8am and 5pm, and completely free. Once, when I was on my usual ride, a couple stopped me to say, ‘Excuse me. Do you know there are no bikes allowed?’ It was the most adorable moment. I explained who I was and they were mortified, but I said, ‘It’s wonderful that you care so much about the place!’
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To agriculture. We underestimate hugely what the farming community has done for the Cotswolds. During the Foot and Mouth crisis, I raised more than £500,000 for The Addington Fund; the support we received was humbling.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
I’d love to share a cider with Sir Benjamin Bathurst, and his son, the first Earl. The park is extraordinary, in its landscape and the setting-out of the intertwining rides; I’d be fascinated to learn how they achieved that so accurately more than 300 years ago.