JANE FRYER: The delightfully dotty countess who caught a burglar red-handed – then gave him a job as her gardener when he came out of prison! Now she’s cycling the length of Britain for charity
Early last week, as the sky darkened and the rain spattered down, I watched Lady Sara Bathurst struggling on Cirencester Park’s long sweeping driveway.
‘Aggh! I hate this gravel. Hate it. Hate it!’ cries the 58-year-old countess, pedalling furiously on her brand new £10,000 Porsche eBike before skittering to a halt in front of her Grade II-listed pile and muttering a few rather unladylike comments under her breath to the trio of spaniels showing their support.
It was perhaps not the most auspicious warm-up to her three-week, 1,022-mile charity cycle challenge from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
When we met, just two days before the off, she’d still not bothered checking the weather forecast.
‘What’s the point? If it rains, it rains. I might even melt a bit, which wouldn’t be a bad thing!’
And when someone suggests there could be snow in the north of Scotland, she’s appalled. ‘No. No way. Not happening!’
Lady Bathurst, 58, is pictured on her new electric bike ahead of a 1,000 mile charity ride
Lady Bathurst pictured with her ‘very, very great friend’ and charity patron, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York
Lady Bathurst pictured at Cirencester Park on her brand new £10,000 Porsche e-bike
But, a week on, I wonder if she’s feeling quite so buoyant. Because things didn’t start well — with a nasty crash on day one, in Cornwall.
‘I took a massive tumble… straight over the handlebars!’ she messaged me from the road. ‘My great friend Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen thought I was dead — but only a cut lip to show for it. Phewoo!’
Then the sun went in.
‘On Sunday, the weather was vile,’ she said. ‘Then [on Tuesday], coming up to Gloucestershire, we did 80 miles in the rain, wind and thunder — we were on our knees. I burst into tears at the end because I was so exhausted.’
And yesterday, she was battling high winds on the Worcester to Market Drayton leg. Which might have taken the sheen off it for some of us, but Lady B — as she’s known — has not been described as ‘a tornado of a woman’ for nothing.
Everything about her is ‘turbo’ energy. She leaps up and down from her chair constantly, great auburn mane flowing and kohled eyes flashing. She’s on and off the phone every five minutes, never stops talking — to me, her assistant, her husband Lord (Allen) Bathurst, the Ninth Earl, who is quietly polishing his brogues as the storm rages around him — and she hurtles from one thought to the next as we flail in her wake.
So, together, we veer between her stint as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire (‘such fun!’), to her good author pal Jilly Cooper (‘darling, lovely Jilly’), to the terrified young burglar who she caught behind her hall curtains in 2019, and frogmarched to the kitchen table where we’re sitting now.
‘I was so cross I didn’t know whether to kill him or make him a sandwich,’ she says.
Lady Bathurst is raising money for the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals (NFRSA)
The Former High Sheriff was preparing for a three-week, 1,022-mile charity cycle challenge from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
The countess resides in a mansion in Gloucestershire with husband Lord Allen Bathurst
But, mostly, we chat about her very ambitious charity bike ride — in aide of the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals (NFRSA).
Every day, thousands of service dogs and horses risk their lives to protect ours. The obvious ones — police horses, rescue dogs, sniffer dogs detecting everything from drugs to money, dead bodies to someone hiding — and so many others.
But who knew that, upon retirement, all funding for service animals — every single animal — stops. Nothing is paid for — food, jabs, vets’ bills, insurance. Which means that after all they’ve contributed, the animals (and their handlers) can be left with very uncertain futures.
Not any more. Because the NFRSA, along with some existing police dog charities, will now step in to pay all these bills. It is a brilliant idea, all Lady B’s creation and has been a lot of hard work.
She launched it earlier this year with a party at Claridge’s — where else? — with the support of her ‘very, very great friend’ and charity patron, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York.
‘Oh, she is so wonderful! The best. I love her to bits and I cannot tell you how amazing she is,’ says Lady B. ‘It pains me when people are so unkind because she doesn’t deserve it. She’s one of the very nicest people I know — and, do you know, she calls me ‘The Boss’!’
I’m not surprised. The original plan was that Lady B, who has never been much of a cyclist, would pedal up the country — accompanied by a smattering of friends, family and members of the Forces she is supporting — while Fergie would either bike with her, or drive the support Winnebago.
But then the Duchess of York was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to step back.
‘She’s been so brave, and has such a good soul and is so supportive.’
Last Thursday, the Duchess released a video on Instagram, a little breathless, saying how proud she was to be a patron of the charity, how sorry she was not to be biking, urging everyone to support her best friend and confirming that she’d be popping up on a horse later in the trip. She’s even just posed as ‘December’ for the charity’s 2024 calendar.
‘What a good sport — on the world’s hottest day, beside a roaring log fire and after all she’s been through,’ says Lady B.
And not just Fergie, but a retired Border Force spaniel called Jessie and the late Queen’s two corgis, Muick and Sandy.
‘We thought they sort of counted as service animals,’ says Lady B.
Quite right, too. And after she takes a breath and a couple more calls, we move back to the NFRSA.
She first came up with the idea in 2016, during her High Sheriff years but, as she puts it, ‘I had a little bit too much on at the time.’
Just a bit! Her husband, a pal of the King and mad keen huntsman, nearly died from septicaemia caused by a deer fly bite.
‘He was in a coma for ten days, it was horrible,’ says Lady B, in the quietest voice I’ve heard all day.
‘He’s so kind and generous and patient and giving and loving,’ she says. ‘He’s used to a tornado — he’s been married to one for 27 years!’
After that, came an unpleasant wrangle over Lord Bathurst’s late stepmother’s share of the 15,000-acre estate, which rumbled on and on, and caused a lot of upset.
But, eventually, a friend of Lady B’s said: ‘Come on, what about that charity — it’s been ages.’
‘So I did it,’ she says. ‘And it makes me so happy helping these amazing animals.’
The Countess ‘never stops talking — to me, her assistant, her husband Lord Bathurst (pictured right in April 2016), the Ninth Earl, who is quietly polishing his brogues as the storm rages around him — and she hurtles from one thought to the next as we flail in her wake’.
Who knew that a fire dog can identify the source of a blaze in about two minutes flat? Or that a prison dog can detect envelopes sprayed with [the drug] Spice and track down mobile phones the size of cigarette lighters in seconds? Or that horses are used to help find missing people in rural areas and specialist ‘Tornado Dogs’ restore peace in prison riots?
Five services — police, fire and rescue, prison, border force and the National Crime Agency — use service animals.
All are highly trained, hugely intelligent and deeply loved by their handlers. They work together, live together, often sleep together and are part of the family.
‘They could be finding drugs or leaping over a wall to stop a criminal in the afternoon and, by 7.30 in the evening, be flat out on the sofa watching EastEnders with the kids.’
So she twisted a few well-appointed arms and, along with Fergie, persuaded her countless ‘very close’ friends to help out. Laurence and Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen, ex-cricketer David Gower, commentator John Inverdale, actor Ben Miller, motorsport presenter Tom Gaymor, Joe Simpson, the rugby player, actress Minnie Driver and TV Dragon Deborah Meaden.
Most are coming along to cycle with her. ‘It’ll be a three-week chatathon! With cake — it is not a race,’ she says.
For her own part, it turns out Lady B has quietly put in a lot more training than she first let on. Five months of it.
Cycling for up to 80 miles a day on the electric bike that Porsche kindly donated (‘whatever people say, you still have to pedal!’), eating more healthily and doing dreaded strength training — ‘God, I hate squats’ — in the gym.
You don’t need to spend long with Lady B to see that, when she does something, she does it properly. And usually on about four hours’ sleep.
‘Sleep is overrated. I’m always busy and I have never thought that anything might be too much for me. Never!’
Not even hoicking a burglar out from behind the curtains?
‘Of course not! I just grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and told him: ‘You have no idea how much trouble you’re in!’
But then when she looked more closely, she saw how ‘miserable, beaten, wet and cold’ he looked and, instead of killing him, made him that sandwich. Inevitably with a conviction for aggravated burglary, he went to prison. But Lady B didn’t forget him.
‘I kept an eye and he wrote me a sweet letter from prison saying he was sorry and he hadn’t meant to frighten me and, well, now he’s working here…’
Anyway, back to the bike-ride — with which she’s hoping to raise £50,000 so she can roll out an annual inoculation programme for all the retired service animals and raise the profile of the charity further.
And with that, we take our bikes for one last spin around the landscaped gardens.
‘Watch out for potholes’, she cries, before greeting a handsome gardener tackling a stretch of overgrown meadow.
‘That’s my burglar! Doesn’t he look great? Just look at the colour in his cheeks!’
With that, she steps up the power and leaves me in the dust. What a woman. But, even so, a week on, covered in bumps and bruises, with a split lip and a sore bottom, could even Lady B be wondering if she’d bitten off more than she could chew?
‘No bloody way! Not in a million years!’
To support Lady B’s bike ride for the NFRSA, please visit gofundme.com/f/lands-end-to-john-ogroats-biking-for-the-nfrsa
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