Interview: Lady Apsley, countryside campaigner

It’s no secret where Lady Apsley, future Countess of Bathurst and passionate spokeswoman on all things rural, is placing her cross on the ballot paper on May 6. ‘Please God, next week, we’ll be looking at a brighter future under Mr Cameron. I’ve just sent him a good-luck email.’ It’s clear that once you have the support of ‘Lady A’, she’ll imbue your cause with considerable reserves of energy and kindness she once threatened to chain herself to the old cattle-market office in Cirencester to prevent it being demolished, rescued a homeless man, and publicly sprang to the defence of Prince Charles in the ‘Sootygate’ row-but if she disapproves, look out.

Grey squirrels (she takes pot shots at them from her bedroom window), Margaret Beckett, political correctness and walkers in Cirencester Park who don’t say hello are all on the hit list, and she admits: ‘No one has ever accused me of being left of Ghengis Khan.’

She’d also like to give five minutes’ worth of advice to David Cameron. ‘First, I’d get rid of all this paperwork and let farmers get on with farming the land. I’d force supermarkets to have a baseline price on what they pay farmers. And make it competitive for them to get the best farmers supplying them.’ That’s not all. ‘Obviously, we’d repeal the Hunting Act. And sort out petrol prices. Jobseekers should do community service to put something back. And, another thing: why are people so aggressive and rude? We should have a minister for good manners. Writing a thank-you letter should be law. And we should ban ghastly lawyers who make injury claims. There, sorted!’

The former Sara Chapman sprung to prominence when, in 1996 aged 30, she married Lord Apsley, heir to the 17th-century Bathurst estate in Gloucestershire, since when she has brought shrewd business acumen, enthusiasm and glamour to many charitable projects. A former beauty queen, she also set up a school for butlers, ran a clothing agency, advised on the Ladette to Lady series, and is a vice-president of the British Legion.

Unabashed at going base over apex during an interview, she terrified the photographer by grabbing a nearby bull’s horns to haul herself upright. What should have been her finest hour-garnering half a million signatures for a public enquiry into the Government’s handling of foot-and-mouth-was annihilated by the even cannier Alistair Campbell, and he’s not forgiven.

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The press gathered to witness the dramatic delivery of the petition by an East End hearse which had ‘Death of the Truth’ embossed on its coffin, when, that very afternoon, the hunting debate was re-opened and the media instantly diverted. ‘I felt so strongly about how the country had been royally pulled apart by an ignorant government, so the carpet couldn’t have been more pulled out from under my feet. But I took it as a compliment that I’d got them worried.’

Fortunately for farmers, the well-connected and striking Lady Apsley’s attention is still on their profession, through her role as a spokeswoman for the Womens Food and Farming Union (WFU), formed in 1979 to protect the British apple market from foreign imports. ‘I’d like to think we’re not so much a bunch of thin-lipped schoolmarms barging around in sensible shoes, but more a group of women trying to say to other women, actually, there is another way to protect this country, and that’s to make informed choices about our shopping.

We’re not patronising; we’re saying: “We do understand the pressures-we’re all under the cosh now-but with a bit of effort, we can make big changes.” I’d love to challenge every [female] shopper to avoid buying any fresh food in a supermarket for a month. And to buy seasonally-sprouts used to be an event, but what are the Green credentials of buying them from Israel?.’

Lady Apsley’s current project is archiving the Bathurst family artefacts-Pevsner was apparently rude about the tall house, shielded from Cirencester by an imposing boundary wall and the tallest (40ft) yew hedge in the land-and gleefully reads aloud from the 6th Earl’s diaries: ‘”Sunday [bored voice]: church. Monday: hunting”-tra-la! It was so civilised in those days-people talked to each other.’ It seems the art hasn’t completely died, however, thanks to this entertaining and articulate lady, who isn’t afraid to upset the applecart.

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