How the boss of JCB and his organic pioneer wife became… Britain’s best connected couple
As the couple emerged from a crystal clear sea on to one of the Caribbean’s most perfect beaches, all eyes were on Rupert Murdoch, or rather his striking companion in a yellow halter-neck bikini who was holding his hand as they ambled through the surf.
But while the world was agog at this out-of-the-blue debut by the media tycoon, 91, and 66-year-old California widow Ann-Lesley Smith, power brokers were shifting their gaze towards the fabulous backdrop to this picture of blossoming romance — the opulent Barbados home of Lord and Lady Bamford.
This is Heron Bay, the stunning beachside Palladian-style mansion owned by the billionaire boss of the JCB digger empire and his wife Carole, pioneering organic entrepreneur and one of the great society hostesses.
As usual at this time of year, the Bamfords retreat — and the soothing climate was clearly working its magic on four-times married Press baron Murdoch, whose vast empire includes The Sun, The Times, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, 91, pictured with his striking companion, Ann-Lesley Smith, 66, who was holding his hand as they ambled through the surf
Murdoch is not the only recent distinguished beneficiary of Lord and Lady Bamford’s legendary hospitality.
Back in Britain Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie and their two children are currently enjoying the use of two Bamford-owned homes: a cottage on their Daylesford estate in Gloucestershire and an elegant townhouse a stone’s throw from Harrods in Knightsbridge.
It has been this way since the beginning of September following Johnson’s resignation as Prime Minister.
For the past four months, he has declared the use of these two properties in the Register of MPs’ Interests at Westminster.
He records the London house as ‘concessionary use of accommodation for me and my family, estimated value £10,000.’ This is per month. The Cotswolds retreat is similarly gazetted at £3,500 a month.
Predictably, the declarations have not stopped Labour MPs criticising them. Mr Johnson has been accused of not reflecting the true market worth or potential rental of the London house in particular. The Bamfords, it has to be said, are completely relaxed about the arrangement and the amounts Boris has submitted to parliamentary scrutiny.
They are only too happy to help out a figure they don’t just admire but consider a friend as he gets himself back on his feet after being forced out of Downing Street.
After all, it was on their country estate that he and Carrie celebrated their wedding last July.
Indeed the financial details of that event are also to be found in the Register of Interests.
It lists the hire of a marquee, portable loos, catering and waiting staff, flowers, an ice-cream van and barbecue specialists Smoke and Braai. This, Boris valued at £23,853.
The donors? Anthony and Carole Bamford. But this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows them — for decades the Bamfords have enjoyed sharing their wealth and their good fortune. Their homes in London, Gloucestershire, the South of France, where they produce their own wine and olive oil, and Barbados have become the salons for elite soirees of the powerful and famous.
Lady Bamford is the embodiment of that old phrase, ‘a woman who knows everyone’. Everyone who matters, that is. Guests around her dinner table might include Goldsmiths, Rothschilds, Delevingnes and showbiz royalty such as Sir Michael and Lady Caine and Dame Joan Collins.
Of course, real royalty are friends too. She is on first name terms with Queen Consort Camilla and King Charles, with whom she has a friendly rivalry over who can claim to have first popularised organic food.
Lord and Lady Bamford have been hosting the couple at their opulent retreat in Barbados
The Prince and Princess of Wales attended the wedding of Kate’s brother James Middleton to Alizee Thevenet held at the Bamfords’ Chateau Leoube near St Tropez in September 2021.
As for Lady Bamford’s husband, who received his peerage in 2013, Lord Bamford has a social standing virtually unrivalled in modern Britain.
Thanks to his vast wealth — he is 42nd in the latest Rich List with a fortune estimated at some £4.3 billion — clout in aristocratic circles and contacts at the highest level in and outside government, he is a figure of enormous influence.
Remarkably for someone who backed Vote Leave in the Brexit debate — he has poured more than £10 million into Tory coffers and was one of the very first supporters of Boris Johnson’s leadership — he has friends across the political divide.
When Prime Minister Tony Blair was a holiday guest along with his wife Cherie at Heron Bay in 2004 the then Sir Anthony and Carole were thanked for their largesse with dinner at Chequers.
Margaret Thatcher regarded Ampleforth-educated Bamford, who has been chairman of the construction equipment manufacturer since succeeding his father Joseph Cyril Bamford (whose initials JCB provided the company name) in 1975, as one of her favourite businessmen.
Perhaps the Bamfords’ social success owes much to the way that, as their lifestyle was transformed largely on the back of a huge and successful expansion of JCB around the world, they did not forget the people they knew on the way up.
‘They are the very opposite of social climbers,’ says one admiring friend. ‘In fact for all the glittering, showy people who come to Carole’s parties, an awful lot are very ordinary folk and, frankly, I’ve often wondered what on Earth they were doing there.
‘Lady B is good at getting the right mix, a bit of showbiz, a bit of politics and some from the shooting and horse racing fraternity.’ For their joint 70th birthdays in 2016 — Lord Bamford, now 77, is a year his wife’s senior — Anthony hired two 737 airliners to fly 180 friends to India where guests were transported by elephant and celebrated with Raj-themed parties.
And for their 45th wedding anniversary, the couple returned to French Polynesia where they spent their honeymoon.
Yet for all this obvious extravagance, the Bamfords have not been tarred with the ‘blingy’ brush of conspicuous consumption that was applied to the aggressively rich retailer Philip Green of Topshop fame whose flamboyant celebrations showed his wealth.
Is this through luck, judgment or good taste? Well, take your pick but one thing is certain — they don’t boast about their effortless connections. Carole’s Christmas champagne and caviar party at their Belgravia home is a fabled affair but it’s always very private.
‘Just when I thought the caviar had run out, another tin, the size of the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, appeared and on it went,’ says one guest who was at the bash on December 8.
Another recalls: ‘They are not controlling or restrictive and they are very tolerant of people behaving badly. They let people smoke too, it’s very liberating.’
Boris was one of the key guests at last month’s Christmas bash and his presence, along with the Bamfords’ continued support in terms of accommodation, baffles some.
They wonder what is in it for Lord and Lady Bamford. ‘It’s not as though Anthony can get his title upgraded — he isn’t going to be a duke,’ a political observer notes sourly.
In fact their support for both Boris and Carrie is not based on whether the Houdini of Tory politics has another shot at power at all, but rather on what he represents. ‘It’s a genuine ideological match, as far as I can see,’ says a friend of Lord Bamford. ‘Boris got Brexit done and that really counts in Anthony’s eyes.’
It was on Bamford’s company shop floor that Boris took the wheel of a JCB emblazoned with Get Brexit Done and drove into a Styrofoam wall to symbolise breaking the deadlock in Parliament.
There is another aspect to the friendship, however, says the figure. ‘In supporting Boris, Bamford is also indicating his contempt for the backstabbers who railroaded him out of No 10.’ (Boris, incidentally, will be packing up soon and leaving the Bamford hospitality. After umpteen viewings, he and Carrie have found a property of their own in the Cotswolds.)
Of course, what also baffles those who cast envious glances, not just at the Bamfords’ stupendous prosperity but also their ability to have so many well-connected friends on speed dial, is why they still bother when they could just put their feet up.
Carole could stop tomorrow, but she won’t. ‘She’s incredibly enthusiastic about everything, that’s what makes her tick,’ says one friend. ‘One minute it’s helping street children in Delhi, the next it’s the Felix Project, which collects surplus fresh food for charities and which her organic food shops support.’
The Bamfords’ homes in London, Gloucestershire, the South of France, where they produce their own wine and olive oil, and Barbados have become the salons for elite soirees of the powerful and famous
Arguably, Lady Bamford has done more than anyone to make organic food and clothing fashionable since the then Prince Charles came up with Duchy Originals in 1990. Since 2002 she has run Daylesford Organic from a 1,500- acre estate near Chipping Norton, which in 2020 reported profits of more than £11 million.
Not bad for a girl born Carole Gray Whitt in Nottingham in 1946, the daughter of a builder.
She says her mother taught her about cooking but has described growing up in a house that was also full of men — father, brother, uncle and grandfather.
The secret of her social success? Acquaintances say she has a gift for making instant friends.
And it was one particular friendship that led to marriage. Grammar school-educated Carole was working as a flight attendant with BOAC when she met the young Anthony Bamford — born, he has said, not with a silver spoon in his mouth but a yellow one, the JCB colours.
He had recently been widowed after his first wife was killed in a car crash. His second marriage has produced three children and a dynasty.
As Anthony turned an ailing family excavator business into a world-wide brand, his wife established herself as the ultimate socialite and party-giver of extraordinary energy, before finding her vocation in the organic food revolution.
It all began in the early days of the marriage when she was a young mum at home in Staffordshire near the JCB headquarters and noticed her roses were wilting. It turned out to be caused by pesticides sprayed on a neighbouring farm.
Determined to go organic, despite being called ‘barmy’ by her husband, she persisted and when Daylesford was purchased in 1988 for £12 million from art collector Baron Heini Thyssen, it became one of the most innovative farms in the country, a leader in everything from its rare-breed cattle programme to forestry and wetlands management.
The push towards greater sustainability saw her turn her attention to fashion — ‘the biggest polluter of the soil ever,’ she says.
Bamford clothing stores in Mayfair, Bicester, Seoul and Tokyo followed. Along with the cookery school and wellness spa there are gastro pubs, farm shops and cafes. Last year, her Daylesford empire employed 795 staff across the business with a turnover of £49.5 million.
When JCB expanded into India, so too did Lady Bamford, building schools and communities around its plants in Delhi and other centres while also developing at Jaipur a centre to preserve endangered traditional crafts such as hand-spinning and handloom weaving.
The businesses went hand in hand with her highly social approach to life.
Their Barbados home, which they bought in 1980 from former Tory MP Ronnie Tree — father of famous 60’s model Penelope — became a hub for the wealthy on winter breaks in the Caribbean sunshine.
Then there was the 240ft yacht, The Virginian, they purchased from media magnate John Kluge, once married to Baghdad-born belly-dancer Patricia Rose.
Chateau Leoube, a sprawling 560-acre estate in southern France where the winemaking follows a strict organic process and relies on the lunar cycle to ensure planting and harvesting are in line with the moon was added 25 years ago.
When she is there shopping for latest trends in nearby St Tropez or hosting well-heeled friends such as the Hon Harry Herbert of the horse racing family and Lisa Hogan, model partner of broadcaster and Cotswolds neighbour Jeremy Clarkson, Lady Bamford likes to whizz around in an electric blue Mini Moke.
But Daylesford remains the mothership of the Bamfords’ life, a nirvana for celebrity-watchers. The Earl of Snowdon, whose late mother Princess Margaret was a regular guest, has a weekend home on the estate.
The trappings of wealth also include Carole’s string of racehorses — Sariska won both the Epsom Oaks and the Irish Oaks, while Star of Seville took the honours in the French Oaks — and their box at Cheltenham is right next to the Royal Box.
There is also a corporate Gulfstream jet and a Sikorsky helicopter as well as Lord Bamford’s priceless collection of Ferraris, reputed to include two rare 250 GTOs.
Quite what the future holds for these two great empires — the diggers and Lady Bamford’s — is not clear. The couple’s three children are fiercely independent. Jo, 45, is developing hydrogen transport with his acquisition of Ulster-based Wrightbus, younger brother George, 42, customises high-end wristwatches and Alice, 46, has a farm and surf shop in California.
As Carole’s former PR adviser Simon Brewer notes: ‘At a stage in life when most people would take it a bit easier, Lady Bamford never stops working. She is always leading from the front.’
Certainly Britain’s social calendar would be a lot less colourful without the Bamfords at its helm.