People » Lady Bountiful
From her palatial Gloucestershire estate, Lady Bamford, wife of one of England’s richest industrialists, is building the world’s poshest organic empire.
There are perfectionists, and then—almost in a category of her own—there is Lady Carole Bamford.
Such becomes apparent shortly past dawn on a dewy June morning at Daylesford, her magnificent 1,700-acre estate in Gloucestershire. In anticipation of a photo shoot, a squadron of about a dozen workers has been deployed to the rose garden.
Scrambling feverishly, they seem to be manicuring each stem and scooping up every dropped Adélaïde d’Orléans petal.
Beyond the rose garden’s trellised arbor, a succession of other, equally glorious gardens are visible. But when a wish to photograph these other precincts is expressed to Bamford’s two pretty assistants, terror flashes across their faces. “Other areas of the garden might not be up to the level of perfection Lady Bamford requires,” replies one, looking stricken. Pressed on the point, however, she reluctantly picks up her mobile phone and whispers something to someone, who will in turn presumably relay the matter to Bamford herself. “It is being discussed,” she intones, rather gravely.
This Lady Bamford, one quickly surmises, must be some number.
Née Carole Gray Whitt, she has been married for 33 years to billionaire industrialist Sir Anthony Bamford, owner of JCB, a leading manufacturer of construction cranes and other heavy equipment, founded by his father in 1945. The Bamfords are one of England’s most politically and socially influential couples, thanks at least in part to extravagant entertaining at their numerous properties. In addition to the Gloucestershire stronghold, there’s a London mansion; a 4,200-acre estate in Staffordshire, known as Wootton; Heron Bay, the fabled Barbados home once owned by Ronald and Marietta Tree; and Château de Léoube, in Provence. At sea and in the air they are no less pampered: There’s the Virginian, their 240-foot yacht previously owned by John Kluge; the private jet; and one of the biggest private helicopters in England, a Sikorsky S-76 (Anthony uses it to commute daily to his factory in Staffordshire).
For many a wealthy wife, organizing domestic life on this scale would have been quite enough. But five years ago Bamford found a vocation. She decided it might be nice to open a small shop on the Daylesford property to sell the produce, meat and cheese from their two country estates, which she began converting to ecologically friendly farms two decades before. Daylesford Organic, as the enterprise is known, has since grown into a much visited lifestyle supersite, offering a full gourmet shop and café, other shops selling home furnishings, garden tools and accessories, and a holistic spa complete with visiting Thai monk. Another barn is dedicated to her women’s and men’s fashion lines (Bamford and Bamford & Sons), featuring ultraluxe organic cashmeres.
So imagine a sort of superposh, organic, British Martha Stewart. At 10 a.m. she materializes in the rose garden, right on schedule. (The previous day, her staff had rather proactively e-mailed this reporter a timeline for the entire day, scheduled down to the quarter hour.) Trailed by Fudge and Bellini, her two shih tzus—as well as her hairdresser and makeup artist—she floats in a cloud of white summer-weight cashmere, topped by an enormous white hat and dangling diamond earrings. At 61, she retains a slim figure, with long blond hair and alluring blue eyes. Polite but a bit reserved, she sits for her portrait, mostly concerned with wrangling Fudge and Bellini into cooperating. But when she is asked directly about the possibility of photographing more of her famous gardens, she seems startled. “We can’t show everything!” she says in her rather high-pitched, clipped voice. A bit of a standoff follows. Her initial concession: “You can take a picture of this artichoke,” she says, perfectly serious.
But the genuine enthusiasm she displays a few minutes later, when we arrive at Daylesford Organic, a collection of old barns centered on a graveled square, redeems her. “I’ve so much to show you!” says Bamford, as she leads the way into the farm shop. Fruits and vegetables, just plucked from the rich soil, are not so much displayed as curated, each bunch of carrots practically glistening. In the meat section she points out England’s only organically raised venison, bred here on the estate. Then there’s beef from her Aberdeen-Angus herd. From field to shelf, these animals didn’t go far, as the Bamfords have their own abattoir. “The animals are on the field grazing, and then they go down a path,” says Bamford cheerily. “They don’t even know that it’s happening!” Because there is less trauma, she explains, their flesh is more tender. “I’m very passionate about showing compassion to animals,” Bamford continues. “The cows have a proper life—between 15 and 24 months.” Likewise, her Sasso chickens, a French breed, get to romp around outside for 11 to 12 weeks, versus the six-week life, mostly spent indoors, that supermarket birds get. While the Sassos are her “table” birds, her rare-breed Cotswold Legbar hens provide delicate turquoise-colored eggs.
Bamford is equally proud of the farm’s dairy. Daylesford Organic milk is produced by a herd of Friesian cows and, like many of her products, comes in environmentally sound containers. In this case, it’s a unique chalk-based type just developed by Hans Rausing, the Swedish packaging billionaire. (The carton is light-degradable and disintegrates in eight weeks.) Meanwhile, her award-winning cheddars, made in the adjacent creamery, are finished by hand with organic muslin. “We’re the only people who do that,” Bamford notes.
Taking a break from the tour, we sit down to lunch at the Daylesford Organic café. As we scan the list of daily specials, which include venison carpaccio and raw cashew-nut soup, a waiter brings us a selection of breads to start. Bamford notes that the flour used has been milled from her own wheat. The seemingly few items subsequently served that were not produced on site come from other Bamford properties, such as the rosé wine and olive oil, which are produced at the couple’s château.
One could easily lampoon Bamford’s efforts at Daylesford Organic as a sort of Marie Antoinette folly. But she comes across as knowledgeable, serious and passionate about organics. “Local, seasonal and sustainable,” she remarks, like a mantra. “These are three words that really matter.” Looking after the soil, says Bamford, is everything: “The soil is the plant; the plant becomes the man.”
Although “green” has lately become all the rage, Bamford’s eco-consciousness dates back more than 25 years. Bamford says her green conversion took place while attending an agricultural fair with her husband, where she wandered into a tent on the fringe of the show that demonstrated the then nearly unheard-of practice of organic farming. “I was in there for two hours,” she recalls. “It was like someone had opened a window for me—it was a revelation. I thought about my children, and I said, ‘This is quite the way to go.’”
She plunged further into the organic movement in the early Nineties, when an illness decimated her immune system. Everyday household-cleaning products were laden with nasty chemicals, she learned, and she decided to make her houses green too.
One thing just led to another, Bamford explains. After she opened the gourmet shop, for example, people wanted to buy the lovely wild violets she put on the tables. So she opened a garden shop. Then people began asking about the recycled-wood chairs and the ceramics and glassware items in the café. A home collection was born. She now sells her own environmentally friendly paints and household cleaners, dog shampoo and dog biscuits, among numerous other products. The clothing line grew out of her frustration at not being able to find yoga clothes she liked. (The cotton is grown on fully organic, fair-trade farms she supports in India.) More recently, she introduced the world’s only organic tweed (fleece from her rare-breed Cotswold sheep is cleaned and bleached without chemicals and then hand-spun by weavers she employs in Scotland). And then there is the recently opened Hay Barn, a wellness day spa offering yoga classes, chanting and every type of holistic treatment, from ear candling to ayurvedic massage.
Much like her friend and Gloucestershire neighbor Prince Charles, Bamford had to endure years of snickering about her green obsession. (The Prince of Wales turned his estate Highgrove green in the mid-Eighties.) “People used to think he was a bit dotty. But he’s an absolute visionary,” she says. Now, of course, everybody’s “jumping on the bandwagon,” as she puts it.
As the movement continues to gain ground, Bamford seems to be making her own particular contribution. Simply put, she’s out to make organic chic. “Organic and eco used to be Jesus sandals and hair shirts—a bit grubby,” she says, crinkling her nose. “What I am trying to do, hopefully, is take it to another level.”
If Bamford has a model, perhaps it’s Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who opened her first shop at Chatsworth, her palatial estate, in 1977, and made rural food and crafts fashionable. “She’s an inspiration and a beacon of light,” says Bamford.
Reached by phone, Debo, as she is known, returns the compliment: “She never does anything by halves. If it’s her product, you know it’s going to be good. And her cheddars are the best I’ve ever had!”
Unlike the aristocratic Debo—one of the five fabled Mitford sisters—Bamford has distinctly middle-class origins. She was born in Nottingham to the owner of a house-building firm and, what’s more, had an early stint as a flight attendant. Mention Bamford’s name in snobby circles and you might well get a knowing look and then a whispered “Doors to manual.” This snide sobriquet is hardly uncommon; it has also been lobbed on the mother of Kate Middleton. In Bamford’s case, the expression seems directed with more zing, probably because she has become so rich and so grand—rather unforgivable offenses in ossified upper-class England.
Cynics charge that the Bamfords, who have three children, have reached society’s top rung thanks to unseemly generosity. Certainly, they distribute their favors to all sides. Heron Bay, for example, was put at the disposal of Tony and Cherie Blair, with whom they have by all accounts become close. But Anthony—who was knighted in 1990 under the Conservatives—keeps in good standing with David Cameron and the Tories too (in 2005 he reportedly gave them one million pounds). And they are also good neighbors to Prince Charles, to whom, it has been published, they lend the services of their helicopter.
Their extravagant parties have become nearly legendary. For an India-theme party, Bamford had elephants carry guests up the drive. For her son George’s 21st birthday, 550 guests enjoyed a James Bond–theme extravaganza. Almost any sit-down they throw can be a full-blown affair, with liveried footmen and flowing Krug.
“She is meticulous,” says veteran guest Jacob Rothschild. “A brilliant perfectionist at every step.”
Of course, not everybody is clamoring to get in. One old-guard gentleman recounts a dinner where gifts of cashmere shawls were waiting on the chairs—a gesture “so nouveau,” he snipes. “Everything she does is exquisite,” he acknowledges. “But it’s too perfect. Just not our cup of tea. We won’t go.”
Others accuse Bamford of eco-hypocrisy, pointing to all her fuel consumption, whether in the S-76 (which is standing by today to ferry her to the opening day of Ascot) or the 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, in which she shuttles around London. Her charming retort: “I can’t be green all the time.”
Underlying all this sniping may be a general feeling that Bamford is guilty of England’s cardinal sin—ambition. Attempting to bring up the subject delicately, I observe that in England, ambition is…. Bamford finishes my sentence. “Frowned upon,” she says, rather glumly. “England does have a culture of sort of seeing hard work as a dirty word. Which is rather sad.”
Bamford has also had to endure criticism from the middle class. Some Gloucestershire residents have called her enterprise elitist and inappropriate for the countryside (“Harrods of the Cotswolds,” they snicker), and had pressured the local planning board to retroactively deny her permission to expand the business, where the parking lot is often crammed with Bentleys and Jaguars, many belonging to rich weekenders such as Liz Hurley and Kate Moss who flock there for lunch and shopping. But today two modest-looking little old ladies approach Lady Bamford and thank her profusely, saying they’ve been coming every week for four years.
Meanwhile, her products are increasingly available in London, where she currently has seven retail outposts, and elsewhere. The Daylesford organic café–food market on Pimlico Road, built of white Carrera marble and limed oak, has become one of London’s most fashionable grazing spots. A beauty line, Bamford Body, debuts in December, and in New York, where Bergdorf Goodman currently carries the clothing, she reportedly has her eye out for a location.
“I didn’t realize I was building a brand,” says Bamford. “It just grew.” But her enterprise is something different, she believes. “Big brand names are rather yesterday,” she says. “I think of mine as invisible luxury. I think people today want to know that what they buy has integrity and responsibility.” While no one disputes the quality of her products, even her wealthiest customers have confessed to sticker shock at her prices. Despite her steep rates, however, it is not known if the businesses turn a profit. She declines to discuss the issue.
After we have chatted for a while, Bamford invites me for tea at home. A chauffeured Range Rover takes us on a winding drive through majestic parkland. At a turn, the house comes into view. Topped by a large dome, it is a palatially scaled Regency-style building constructed of golden Cotswold stone. Begun in 1788 by Warren Hastings, the first governor general of Bengal, it has been owned in the last century by Viscount Rothermere, the press magnate, and Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the German industrialist and art collector. The Bamfords, who bought the estate in 1988 for a reported $22 million, retained the design firm of Colefax and Fowler to return the house to its original style and have furnished it with important 18th-century English furniture and pictures, many of which were original to the house.
In the driveway, her younger son, George, 27, is tinkering with one of the family’s prized vintage cars, an Aston Martin. A photographer, he shoots all the Bamford & Sons campaigns and also runs the business’s watch and gadgets department. “I am so proud of my mother,” he says, giving her a warm kiss, “and so impressed with everything she does.” Bamford is likewise said to get on well with her two other children, Jo, 30, who works with his father and recently married Alex Browne, a knitwear designer, and Alice, 31, a film producer (she coproduced Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited).
Settling into a chair in her paneled library, as a butler serves tea, Bamford finally seems to relax a notch. She is, she admits, a bit of a control freak. “Absolutely! No one is as crazy as I am. I drive everyone around me mad,” she says with a laugh. “I am very proud of that.”